Sara here, with some Big Moo musings for the girls. Dairy is one of those food debates that can go on ad infinitum, with plenty of good points on either side (much like vegetarianism). Raw vs. organic vs. regular vs. low-fat vs. full-fat…you get the idea.
Dairy is just not, um, a black and white issue. I have my theories. I can’t promise that my views aren’t slightly biased due to the existence of things like Humboldt Fog goat cheese (Ben Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I think you could easily switch “beer” for “cheese”.) But having experimented with different forms of veganism, vegetarianism and carniveatin’ over the years, and being interested in issues like osteoporosis, cellulite and fertility (what woman isn’t?), here are a few thoughts, subject to change and open to your criticism. Mark’s big on questioning what we think we know – so let’s have at it!
1. In a perfect world, we’d eat raw dairy.
We know raw dairy is theoretically healthier. For one thing, cows themselves can’t survive on pasteurized milk. In many parts of the world, people consume raw dairy (until recently it was next to impossible to get it here unless you happened to live on or near a farm). Many edgier health experts say raw dairy is the only kind we should eat, because it’s truly the way nature made it – full of living and beneficial bacteria and enzymes. Of course, there’s the concern about food borne illness; then again, our mechanized manufacturing standards are arguably a lot cleaner and safer than a century ago, when you had to worry about TB in your butter. (Here’s where the FDA says “Hell no it’s not safer! Pasteurize!”)
2. Go organic or, like, die.
Should we even bother eating dairy if it’s not raw, then? After all, about 3/5 of the world doesn’t even consume dairy and some cultures even consider dairy to be downright gross. We’ve all heard the phrase “cow’s milk is for baby cows.” And it’s true. We’re the only mammals that continue consuming milk after we’re weaned – the milk of another species, no less. It gets further complicated by genetics: evidently some Europeans adapted to dairy consumption around 7,000 years ago, but many people just can’t digest dairy.
So what does going organic do? Well, organic milk and cheese don’t come with antibiotics, chemicals, and added hormones. It’s also supposed to be more environmentally friendly, and I guess the cows are allegedly happier. Then again, I don’t know if any dairy cow is thrilled with being artificially inseminated in perpetuity just so I can have cheddar on my broccoli.
It gets further complicated: cows these days are fed mostly grain, a food that makes them nice and fat but isn’t so good for them – or us. Cows are meant to eat grasses, and not only does this make the cows feel better, it makes their milk taste better.
If you’re perfect, you’ll eat only grass-fed dairy. Make that grass-fed organic dairy. Make that grass-fed, organic, raw dairy. Actually, forget it – cow’s milk is for baby cows.
3. But the hormones!
Dairy does contain hormones which may or may not affect fertility. You might have seen the news circulating yesterday  that women who ate ice cream and cream as opposed to lower-fat dairy were more fertile.
The reaction was no surprise: vegans and the not-milk crowd cited the hormones in milk as the cause. Health experts cautioned that no woman should rely on a pint of B&J’s as a fertility plan.
Until seeing some recent research, I’d been rather inclined to trust the hormone argument, but I’m not so sure. For one thing, hormones can be tough to measure accurately. For another, blaming certain health issues on hormones in milk is somewhat akin to debates about the mercury levels in some fish. Does dairy cause girls to develop early? Does mahi mahi cause autism? I just don’t think we can be that simplistic. (But that doesn’t mean such things aren’t very real factors in serious health issues.)
My personal theory about dairy, fat and fertility has to do with what I’ve learned about evolutionary biology (and Mark can tell you more about this than just about anyone).
Around the MDA, we’re just not afraid of fat. Fat serves an incredibly important function in our cells – even saturated fat isn’t the bad guy it’s made out to be. Though the FDA still recommends a low-fat dairy, high-grain diet, Mark believes this is nothing short of disastrous. For a refreshingly different – and incredibly logical – point of view, you should check out THINCS  or simply run a Google search for the ever-brilliant rebel scientist Dr. Mary Enig  (props, Mary).
Hormones in milk might affect female fertility and development; but given that this is incredibly difficult to determine, I think we should consider an idea that, to me, seems pretty darn obvious:
Fat is, nutritionally-speaking, very dense. Our bodies are designed for fat metabolism – far more than glucose. Fat is great for your brain, your skin, your level of nutrient absorption, and so on.
Doesn’t it make sense that a woman consuming adequate fat would send a signal to her body that it’s safe to reproduce? Women need between 10 and 15% more body fat than men. Fat distributed around the hips and buns is there for a reason – it’s rich in a balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats. When a woman has a baby, the body relies on some of these fat stores. Ladies, you need a little junk in the trunk.
While I wouldn’t advocate eating ice cream for good reproductive health, I get really concerned when I see women avoiding full-fat dairy like it’s death in a glass. Fat is not only not a bad thing, it’s necessary – especially for women. Moreover, most low-fat dairy products simply replace the fat with sugar. I think you can make a pretty good case that low-fat dairy, being higher in sugar, is actually worse for packing on the fat than regular old fattening butter, milk and cream. Sugar does funny things to cells, especially fat cells. It makes them bigger, it attacks them, it wears them out. Natural fat (both Omega-6 and Omega-3), on the other hand, doesn’t do any of these things. So long as you don’t exceed your total calorie requirements, and the fat you consume isn’t refined or trans fat, you’re not doing yourself any favors by choosing low-fat dairy.
Then again, you may not be doing yourself any favors choosing dairy, period.