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Is milk really good for you?

An increasing amount of research challenges the out-dated notion that cow’s milk

is the best source of calcium and in fact shows that our consumption of dairy products

is doing us much more harm than good.

What is calcium?Edit

Calcium is a soft grey metallic element. It is the fifth most abundant element on the earth’s crust and occurs in compounds such as limestone, chalk and marble.

Why do we need calcium?Edit

This important mineral plays a central role in maintaining bone health and strength; around 99 per cent of our calcium is deposited in the bones and teeth, the other one per cent is involved in the regulation of muscle contraction, heart beat, blood clotting and functioning of the nervous system.

How much do we need?Edit

The UK government currently suggest that the reference nutrient intake (RNI) value for calcium in adults aged between 19 and 50 years of age is 700 milligrams per day. back to the top

What foods contain calcium?Edit

While milk and dairy products do contain calcium, plant-based sources provide a much healthier source. Good plant-based sources include green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, spring greens, cabbage, parsley and watercress. Also rich in calcium are dried fruits such as figs and apricots, nuts, particularly almonds and brazil nuts and seeds including sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste). Pulses including peas, beans, lentils and calcium-set tofu (soya bean curd) provide a good source of calcium as does molasses. back to the top

How much calcium is in these foods?Edit

The following table shows how much calcium is present in a range of calcium-rich foods.

Food (and serving size)

Calcium (milligrams)

Cauldron Foods Organic Plain Tofu (one pack - 250g)


Sesame seeds (25g - a small handful)


Sunflower seeds (25g - a small handful)


Broccoli (80g portion boiled in unsalted water)


Curly kale (80g portion boiled in unsalted water)


Watercress (80g portion raw)


Almonds (30g - a small handful)


Brazil nuts (30g - a small handful)


Alpro Soya Milk (200ml glass)


Dried Figs (100g - four to six pieces of fruit)


Tahini (10g - two teaspoonfuls generously spread on one piece of toast or stirred into a bowl of soup)


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Milk is a natural food… isn’t it?Edit

All mammals drink the milk of their mothers until they are weaned. Unlike all other mammals though, humans continue to drink milk after weaning and into adulthood, and not just that, we drink the milk of another species! To state the obvious (but often overlooked fact) cow’s milk has evolved to help turn a small calf into a cow in less than a year. That’s why cow’s milk contains around four times as much calcium as human milk. Calves need a huge amount of calcium to promote the massive level of skeletal growth required over the first year of life. A human infant does not require such high levels of calcium; indeed the high mineral content of cow’s milk puts a strain on the human infant kidney which is why most governments strongly recommend that children do not drink normal ‘off the shelf’ milk in the first year. back to the top

Don’t children need milk for calcium?Edit

No, what they do need is exercise and a healthy plant-based diet. A recent review on dairy products and bone health (Lanou et al., Pediatrics 2005) shows that there is very little evidence to support increasing the consumption of dairy products in children and young adults in order to promote bone health. This review examined the effects of dairy products and calcium on bone strength in children and young adults and found that physical exercise is the most critical factor for maintaining healthy bones, followed by improving the diet and lifestyle; this means eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and for young adults cutting down on caffeine and avoiding alcohol and smoking.

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Doesn’t most of our calcium come from milk?

No, less than half (43 per cent) of the calcium in the average UK diet comes from milk and milk products. This was reported in 2004 in the Food Standards Agency’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey. So despite the misconceived notion that milk is the best (or only) source of calcium the facts show that a large share of the calcium in our diets is derived from sources other than dairy foods. This is not surprising as most people in the world (around 70 per cent) obtain their calcium from plant-based sources rather than dairy products. back to the top

What is lactose intolerance?Edit

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar in milk. In order for the sugar in lactose to be digested it must be broken down in the gut by the enzyme lactase into its two component sugars (glucose and galactose). Most infants produce lactase for a while but lose the ability to digest lactose after weaning (commonly after the age of two). Losing this ability is a clear indication that after weaning, milk is not a natural food for us. Lactose intolerance occurs in around 90-100 per cent of Asians, 65-70 per cent of Africans, and 10 per cent of Caucasians. Symptoms include nausea, cramps, bloating, wind, and diarrhoea. If you suffer from lactose intolerance you should avoid all dairy products.

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What causes milk allergies?Edit

Milk allergies occur when the body’s immune system perceives one of the proteins (casein or whey) in milk as a foreign invader and launches an attack. Symptoms are usually more extreme than in lactose intolerance and include excessive mucus production resulting in a runny nose and blocked ears. More serious symptoms include eczema, colic, diarrhoea, asthma and vomiting. The milk protein casein is difficult to avoid as it is commonly used in the production of bread, processed cereals, instant soups, margarine, salad dressings, sweets and cake mix. back to the top

What is the link between cow’s milk and diabetes?Edit

Early exposure to cow’s milk formula has been linked to an immune response that can lead to type I diabetes in some children. The immune response involves the body’s immune system reacting to a trigger (which may be cow insulin or a protein called casein from cow’s milk). Structural similarities between the triggering molecule and the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells confuse the human immune system and it attacks the cells in the pancreas. This limits the ability to produce insulin and may lead to diabetes. The avoidance of cow’s milk during the first few months of life may reduce the risk of type I diabetes in some children. back to the top

How easily is calcium absorbed?Edit

The calcium in dairy products is not absorbed into the body as easily as that in many dark green leafy vegetables. For example, calcium is much more easily absorbed from kale than cow’s milk. However, while spinach contains a lot of calcium, it is bound to a substance called oxalate which inhibits calcium absorption, so it is important to obtain calcium from low-oxalate green vegetables (eg broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, watercress). Grains, nuts and seeds contain a substance called phytic acid which until recently was also considered to hinder calcium absorption; however phytic acid is now believed to have only a minor influence. Caffeine and smoking has been shown to reduce calcium absorption. back to the top

Which other nutrients help calcium absorption?Edit

Several other nutrients help calcium absorption. Vitamin D is very important for calcium absorption, it is either obtained from the diet or it is made in the skin following exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency may occur if exposure to the sun is limited and without sufficient vitamin D, calcium deficiency is likely to occur even if the diet provides enough calcium. The consequences may be serious, resulting in rickets or osteomalacia (softening of the bones). Over the last few years there have been cases of vitamin D deficiency in some large UK cities. Vegans obtain vitamin D from sunlight and fortified foods such as soya milks, cereals and margarines. It is important to get the balance right between being cautious about exposure to the sun and aware of the need for some exposure. It is now advised by the UK government that we apply sun block after 10 to 15 minutes exposure to the sun, this is so that we can synthesis vitamin D in the skin.Furthermore, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin K, are all required for good bone health. A healthy diet that includes at least five servings a day of fruit and vegetables should optimise the intake of these and other micronutrients required. back to the top

What if we don’t eat enough calcium?Edit

When the diet does not provide enough, calcium is reabsorbed from the bones to restore blood levels and maintain calcium-dependent functions. If enough calcium is then supplied in the diet, bone levels are restored, but if the diet fails to supply sufficient calcium, bone loss persists. back to the top

Doesn’t cow’s milk protect against osteoporosis?Edit

No, osteoporosis occurs most commonly in countries where they drink the most milk! American women are among the biggest consumers of calcium in the world yet they suffer one of the highest levels of osteoporosis, while African Bantu women eat almost no dairy products at all and have a relatively low calcium intake from vegetable sources yet osteoporosis is virtually unknown among Bantu women. Increasing milk consumption does not protect against bone fracture, in it may be that an increased calcium intake from dairy foods increases the risk of fracture. back to the top

What increases our risk of osteoporosis?Edit

Calcium loss from the bones is promoted by high intakes of animal protein. By the age of 80, vegetarians tend to have lost less bone mineral compared to omnivores. Research suggests that the more animal protein you eat, the higher your risk of hip fracture becomes. Cross-cultural studies show strong links between a high animal protein diet, bone degeneration and the occurrence of hip fractures. In a rural community in China where most of the protein in the diet came from plant foods rather than animal foods, the fracture rate was one-fifth of that in the US.

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How does animal protein promote calcium loss?Edit

As food is digested, acids are released into the blood and the body attempts to neutralise the acid by drawing calcium from the bones. This calcium is then excreted in the urine (the calciuric response). Animal protein has a particularly bad effect because of the greater amount of sulphur-containing amino acids it contains compared to plant protein. As the sulphur content of the diet increases so does the level of calcium in the urine. If the diet cannot keep up with the loss of calcium from the bones then ultimately the bones will become weaker. The traditional Inuit (or Eskimo) diet is made up almost entirely of animal protein. Inuits potentially have one of the highest calcium intakes in the world; up to 2,500 mg a day depending on whether they eat whole fish, including the bones, or not. They also have a high rate of osteoporosis, even higher than white Americans! back to the top

What other factors are important for bone health?Edit

Physical activity is a key factor in reducing osteoporosis risk. To promote bone health and reduce the risk of osteoporosis it is important to get enough vitamin D, reduce caffeine and alcohol intake and not smoke. Many studies suggest exercise is the most important factor. The best type of activity for bone health is weight bearing exercise; this includes walking, stair climbing and dancing. back to the top

Can a vegan diet supply sufficient calcium?Edit

Yes it certainly can. There are no scientific reports of calcium deficiency in adult vegans. Looking solely at calcium intake and not at calcium losses tells only half the story, while a vegan’s intake might be less than a meat eater’s, their losses are likely to be much lower. The evidence is that a plant-based diet free of animal products - a vegan diet - doesn’t produce these losses. A vegan diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains can provide the basis for a long and healthy life, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and many other diseases. In contrast, diets loaded with dairy products are associated with increased risk of osteoporosis, certain cancers, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. back to the top


  • Children and young adults do not need dairy foods for good bone health; they do need exercise and a healthy plant-based diet to ensure strong bones.
  • Diets loaded with dairy products are associated with an increased risk of many diseases including osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
  • From a health perspective, dairy foods should be avoided in the diet.
  • Cow’s milk is not a natural food for humans to consume.
  • Most people in the world are lactose intolerant.
  • Many children are affected by cow’s milk allergies.
  • Looking solely at calcium intake and not at calcium losses tells only half the story, while a vegan’s intake might be less than a meat eater’s, their losses are likely to be much lower. A plant-based diet free of animal products - a vegan diet – does not produce these losses.
  • There are no scientific reports of calcium deficiency in adult vegans.
  • Vitamin D, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin K are all required for good bone health.
  • Plant-based sources of calcium are many and varied and offer many other health benefits as well as providing a natural and safe source of calcium.

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