How we got duped into believing milk is necessary for healthy bones

World War II helped turn milk into a staple of the American diet.
George Marks/Hulton Archive

Several years ago, Alissa Hamilton investigated America's love affair with orange juice in her book Squeezed. She uncovered all sorts of misconceptions about the breakfast staple's virtuousness (most of the health claims about orange juice and vitamin C are inflated) and its origins (most OJ actually comes from Brazil, not Florida).

Now Hamilton has trained her sight on another much-loved beverage: milk. In Got Milked? she argues that milk is not the healthy bone-builder governments and the dairy industry have led us to believe. I spoke with her about our big milk misconceptions, how milk became such a pervasive commodity, and whether there are better places to get calcium.


Julia Belluz: First you waged war on the orange juice industry in Squeezed. Now you're suggesting we're getting bilked by the milk industry. Why did you look at milk?

Alissa Hamilton: The book started to take shape when my best friend growing up was visiting in the summer with her mom and two-and-a-half-year-old son. Neither of us grew up in households where milk was essential with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We didn’t have parents who pushed milk on us.

So I was really surprised when she said, "I haven’t given Oscar milk yet, and he’s two and a half now. What do I do?" She had this uncharacteristic desperation in her voice. When I looked at her funny and reminded her that we didn’t have glasses of milk growing up, she seemed kind of confused. On an academic level, she knows nobody needs milk to be healthy and grow tall and strong. But she seemed to have bought into this idea that if you don’t drink milk, you’re missing something.

JB: What common themes did you find underlie our misconceptions about these beverages?

AH: Marketing. Both [orange juice and milk] have been marketed as these healthy products that people don’t even really question. With orange juice, it’s [marketed as] an essential part of a balanced breakfast. With milk, it’s an essential part of a balanced diet. We've bought into all of that marketing.

(Tim Boyle/Getty)

JB: How did milk win its staple status in our food universe?

AH: We've had school milk programs and milk in schools since the beginning of the century. During World War II, we needed to boost milk production in order to make processed dairy products to send to soldiers overseas. But farmers weren’t producing enough to meet this demand because they weren’t getting paid enough. So the government decided, "Great, we’ll create demand for milk by giving milk to our kids, and that way we’ll have a demand for the fluid milk and we can make the processed products we need for soldiers."

So war was part of it. Convenience is also part of it. As people moved to the city and women started working away from home, cow’s milk became seen as a convenient way to give babies nutrition if women weren’t able to be home breastfeeding all the time. And as the dairy industry grows, farmers have an incentive to try to boost demand with government subsidies of dairy.

I can’t say which one of these many different forces did it, but it’s just a combination that has led to this health halo around milk. I think what’s more troubling is how deeply ingrained the idea has become and how inaccurate many of our assumptions about milk are.

JB: What are our most inaccurate assumptions about milk?

AH: Milk is the only food that makes up an entire food group. If you look at it logically, it doesn’t deserve that special status any more than pumpkin seeds deserve that just because they’re high in magnesium — which is an essential nutrient Americans are low in.

Even the dairy industry recognizes that milk is not essential to health. They can’t counter that fact. Their comeback is that milk and milk products are the most convenient form of calcium. But that argument doesn’t hold anymore.

That’s part of what I want to reinforce with the book and recipes in the book, to show how easy it is to get all the nutrients we need without milk or milk products. The National Dairy Council recognizes that foods like kale, bok choy, and broccoli all have higher rates of calcium absorption than milk. Who knew that two tablespoons of dried, ground basil have almost the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk?* We don’t know that because we have this dairy food group, which has created a crutch for people who don’t think about getting calcium in places other than milk.

JB: Is this love of milk a uniquely North American phenomenon?

AH: Not anymore. That’s another key part of the story. The majority of humans in general, and even Americans (60 percent or more), are lactose-intolerant. Yet in India they are talking about a "white revolution," about getting milk into all the schools. In Thailand they’ve cited the fact that the average height has risen in China [because of drinking milk], so they want to start in Thailand, as well, to raise the height of their citizens.

JB: Why are we so gullible about unfounded health claims?

AH: It’s not all that surprising, because that’s all we’ve heard. We’ve only heard from the dairy industry and government agencies that are built to support agricultural commodities like dairy. So you have the USDA creating the dietary guidelines — but it’s also there to support agriculture. There’s a conflict there.

We accept health messages from the dairy industry. But they’re a food business like any other, like Coca-Cola. In general, we don’t think Coke is out to better the world. We know they’re a company and the bottom line is what they’re after. But we don’t think about that when we read dairy industry advertising.

*Update: To clarify, two tablespoons of dried ground basil have almost the same amount of calcium as one cup of 1% milk (220 milligrams compared to 240 milligrams). The original transcript did not specify whether the leaves were ground or not.

WATCH: Another instance of marketing influencing popular belief

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