Low Fat Milk vs. Whole Milk
When perusing articles about food deserts one may come across the commonly associated definition that a food desert is an area where there is a lack of access to grocery stores with healthy food options, such as fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk. My question is, why is overly processed low-fat milk emphasized, versus whole milk? I have seen this several times and it always strikes me as strange. What lies behind this common contradiction of a whole-foods, healthy diet including low-fat processed milk? Could it simply be a stigma associated with the word “fat” from our past diet culture that overshadows the fact that whole milk holds a higher nutritional value than over-processed low or non-fat milk?
Similar “dietary guidelines” are presented in the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service – Rules and Regulations – for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, which states: “This final rule updates the meal patterns and nutrition standards […] to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals” (1). These guidelines go on to discuss which milk options can contain added flavor, as in artificial flavors and sugar! I am under the school of thought that added sugar is bad, and “fat” is a loaded term that doesn’t necessarily mean unhealthy.
Besides artificial flavors and sugar, low-fat and skim milk also contains added vitamins. The milk is spun in a centrifugal separator to remove fat, but the procedure also removes the natural fat-soluble vitamins, A and D, which are naturally occurring in dairy (2). Vitamins A and D, along with milk solids, are then added back to the milk to provide the proper nutrients and consistency (2). However, with the absence of fat, these added vitamins are not soluble in the body, or digestible.
Michael Pollan presents this hypocrisy from In The Defense of Food: “To make dairy products low fat, it’s not enough to remove the fat. You then have to go to great lengths to preserve the body or creamy texture by working in all kinds of food additives. In the case of low-fat or skim milk, that usually means adding powdered milk. But powdered milk contains oxidized cholesterol, which scientists believe is much worse for your arteries than ordinary cholesterol, so food makers sometimes compensate by adding antioxidants, further complicating what had been a simple one-ingredient whole food. Also, removing the fat makes it that much harder for your body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins that are one of the reasons to drink milk in the first place” (3).
It’s also important to point out that although skim or low-fat milk have significantly less calories and fat than whole milk, and are often touted for supporting weight loss, the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) found only in whole milk has actually been shown to reduce body fat and increase lean muscle mass. CLA is found in whole dairy and meat products (especially grass-fed varieties) and is shown to combat cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, insulin resistance, inflammation, immune system invaders, and food-induced allergic reactions, as well as being beneficial in lowering body fat by increasing metabolism (4).
With child obesity at its peak, it’s fair to assume our national dietary guidelines are more concerned with our fat intake then the nutritional value of foods we consume. However, one study, the European Journal of Nutrition, has shown that “high-fat dairy was associated with a lower risk of obesity and heart disease” (5). This conclusion was repeated in a study by the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, which failed to correlate high-fat dairy intake to obesity (6).
Why do you think our national guidelines for a healthy diet still emphasize low-fat milk as an important requirement?
3) Pollan, Michael (2009). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.