Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Not that there's anything wrong with that

I did it!  I finally found the time to wait in the lunch line and buy myself 65 cents worth of chocolate milk.  I'm not a fan of chocolate milk to begin with, nor am I a skim milk drinker, but the half pint carton wasn't too bad.

Let's start with the good news: the milk sold at my middle school, and presumably throughout the school district, is local! ish. Oak Farms is based in Dallas, with plants in Houston, San Antonio and Waco.  As far as I can tell, all of the milk that is distributed by Oak Farms comes from cows that reside on farms somewhere in the state of Texas, and usually from within the region - in our case, central Texas - where the milk is actually being consumed.

I am already well acquainted with Oak Farms.  When we run out of the organic milk that we usually keep stocked in our fridge, I often pop down to the local convenience store to buy a small bottle to tide us over to the next grocery run.  Our corner store carries Oak Farm bottles with "Our Farmers' Pledge", stating that the milk comes from cows who are not treated with rbST.  Since the store owner refuses to carry organic milk (even though I've asked several times), I choose the Oak Farms brand and even feel good about drinking it.  But don't forget, *there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.  Every time I read that disclaimer on dairy products I feel like I'm in a Seinfeld episode: no rBST, not that there's anything wrong with that. (in the Seinfeld episode, Jerry uses this line to deny that he is gay, but at the same time prove that he is not anti-gay).

A few notes of rbST.  It stands for Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin, also known as Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.  As Professor Merrigan - now Deputy Secretary Merrigan - taught us last year, if you are on the side of "Big Ag" then you call it rbST.  If you are on the sustainable food team, you say "growth hormones" or rBGH.  So, if you are trying to sound scientifically informed in front of a group of policy makers or Big Ag lobbyists, then go with rbST.

Bovine somatotropin is the naturally occurring protein hormone produced in the pituitary glands of all cattle.  RbST refers to the artificial reproduction of these protein hormones in labs using recombinant DNA technologies.  After years of research and increasing opposition to its use, RbST was approved for commercial use by the FDA in 1993.  Since then, it is estimated that about one-third of American dairy farmers use it on some portion (on average 45 percent) of their herd in order to increase milk production.

Although there is little scientific evidence to support the widespread belief that rbST has adverse health effects on humans, there are many reasons to seek out rbST-free milk.  The first is that use of rbST frequently causes mastitis - a painful infection of the cow's udder that causes inflammation and the production of abnormal milk - leading to an increased need for antibiotic use and more frequent contamination of milk with pus . Yum.  In addition, widespread use of rbST amongst factory farms further threatens the viability of small dairy farms who cannot compete with rbST-induced levels of milk production.  Lastly, rbST milk contains startlingly high levels of a natural growth factor, IGF-1, which is readily absorbed by human stomachs and has been linked to breast, colon and prostate cancers.  Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union have all banned the use of rbST in commercial milk production.  If you're interested in rbST, more detailed information can found at rbST Facts and the Organic Consumers Association.

So, the good news is that the milk served at my middle school does not come from Wisconsin or Vermont or Mexico.  The bad news? Well, for starters, the Oak Farms milk that I buy for myself does not contain artificial growth hormones (everybody with me now, "not that there's anything wrong with that"); yet the half pint cartons provided to students contain no such guarantee.  Because, you know, it's not like children are more sensitive than adults to chemical additives in their foods, or anything.

The ingredients of the chocolate milk are as follows:  skim milk, high fructose corn syrup, cocoa (processed with alkali), salt, cornstarch, carrageenan, vitamin A palmate, vitamin D3.   Good news? I know what most of those ingredients are.  According to wikipedia, carrageenans are "a family of linear sulphated polysaccharides extracted from red seaweeds" that are used as thickening or stablising agents.  Bad news? High fructose corn syrup.

Good news: the chocolate milk contains no trans fats or saturated fats, 8 grams of protein, 10 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamin A, 4 percent DV of vitamin C, 30 percent DV of Calcium, 2 percent DV of Iron, and 25 percent DV of vitamin D .  Bad news: the sodium content of the milk makes up 9 percent of our DV for sodium, and there are 29 grams of carbohydrates in a half pint of chocolate milk, 28 grams of which is high fructose corn syrup.

Up for grabs is the question of fat content.  The chocolate milk that I had the pleasure of sampling happens to be fat-free.  I personally prefer one or two percent milk, mostly because it tastes better, but also because a little bit of fat, especially the good kind, can go a long way in facilitating the absorption of essential nutrients.  Fats help the body to more efficiently use carotenoids, like lycopene and beta-carotene, which are found in those veggies that the students are consuming alongside their milk.  A girl can wish, right?  Fat is also important for maximizing the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, like the A and D vitamins that are present in our carton of chocolate milk.  (Please please correct me if I'm wrong on all this, my nutrition science is a bit rusty.)

When I was purchasing my little carton of milk, I noticed that while the sugary chocolate and strawberry milks contained no fat, the "plain" milk was labeled as low-fat or "1 percent".  It seems obvious to me that if we are going to promote milk consumption in our schools, as a necessary source of protein and calcium, then we should not compromise its nutritional value by including high fructose corn syrup and removing all fats. Wouldn't it be better to simply offer "plain", low-fat milk?  I can already anticipate the opposition to this kind of policy, which certainly requires some attention: will students drink unflavored milk? Or will the absence of chocolate and strawberry flavors reduce student consumption of this dairy product that has become such a symbol of nutrition in American culture?

Based on my experience with the after-school snack program and Kids Cafe - where students must take "all or nothing", and usually end up eating what's on their plate - I would strongly advocate for the removal of fat-free, flavored milks from school lunches.  I predict that without the option of strawberry and chocolate milk, students will chose the put the "plain" milk on their trays, and once it's there, more often than not, they will drink it.

There is no doubt in my mind that we should provide students with rbST-free milk.  Just like with genetically modified foods (GMOs), the impact of rbST on humans, animals and our natural environment remains unknown; therefore, we must not gamble with our children's health and future.

What do we want for our children? Low-fat, "plain" milk from cows not treated with rbST (not that there's anything wrong with that).

When do we want it? Now.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this comprehensive editorial. I am on the team who use the term rBGH, and will be paying attention to who uses what letters. I very much apprecitate your pros and cons approach here, and couldn't agree more with the idea of put the non-contridictory milk in front of the kids. Good work!