Why are so many people convinced that dairy is the best source of calcium? I’m betting on the remarkable marketing and lobbying work done by the dairy industry.

It’s long been known that bones consist largely of calcium. Literature from around 975 A.D. noted that plaster of paris, which is made of calcium sulphate, was a useful material in the setting of broken bones. In fact, 99 percent of the calcium in our bodies exists in our bones and teeth. It’s easy to assert that calcium = strong bones. Now, what about the assertion that dairy milk = the best source of calcium?

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Way back when, during World War I, there was a dairy surplus, and the USDA Dairy Division began to market cow’s milk. They did this by creating educational milk campaigns, and were successful in their goal to increase demand. As far back as the 1940s, ads for dairy linked milk to bone health.

Dairy marketing has been in schools for a long time and still is today. When you start a habit young, it’s more likely to be a habit for life. Curriculum for 7th and 8th graders from the National Dairy Council promotes milk and other dairy products as the single best sources of calcium, stressing to children that vegetables just don’t cut it. But is this true? Do we even need as much calcium as they want us to believe?

Harvard notes that even with a high intake of calcium, your risk of osteoporosis may not even be lower. More isn’t always better, which is why the nutrition community calculates both lower and upper limits for recommended nutrient intakes.

Furthermore, a heck of a lot of people in this country are lactose intolerant (L.I.). In the U.S., about 25 percent of all people lose their ability to break down lactose after weaning. Worldwide, this stat is 75 percent!

And even when a food is high in certain nutrients, this does not mean that the nutrients will be easily absorbed by our bodies – it hinges somewhat the makeup of the food as a whole. For instance, spinach and chard are not optimal sources of calcium because they contain oxalic acid, a compound that prevents the absorption of calcium. Not to worry, vegans and L.I. folks alike, for Dr. Ginny Messina tells us that calcium is easily absorbed from the following plant foods “kale, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, broccoli, fortified plant milks, fortified juices, and firm tofu made with calcium-sulfate.”

But getting back to dairy, the protein in milk (and in all animal products) appears to acidify the blood. One of the body’s main priorities is to keep the blood at a neutral pH. To buffer the acid in our blood, our bones release calcium. Drinking milk to get calcium seems a little bit counterproductive, wouldn’t you say? This phenomenon may explain why countries with high milk consumption have high rates of osteoporosis and countries with low milk intakes don’t seem to have problems with bone fractures.

All this goes to show, money is power. The dairy industry spends a significant amount of money on lobbying. By infiltrating schools with their products and “educational materials,” using medical professionals to advocate for them, running manipulative advertising campaigns that play on our fears (and are paid for by consumers), and influencing the government’s dietary guidelines, the dairy industry is shaping our food environment and the messages we receive about cow’s milk, which certainly influences our food choices.

Nice try, dairy lobby. You can get all the calcium you need from plants, without the moral consequences, the potentially health-threatening animal protein, the cholesterol, or the saturated fat.

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For more information about the cleanest sources of plant-based calcium, check out our top picks here.

Image source: Michael Rhode / Flickr