You wouldn’t necessarily think milk, of all things, would be a persistent source of controversy and hot takes. And yet! To take one example, there was the tale of a family who says inflation means they’re paying almost one dollar more per gallon—an increase that adds up, given that they’re going through 12 gallons a week. That was enough to kick off a heavy round of social-media discourse earlier this month. Some couldn’t believe one family drinks that much; others wondered when a gallon of milk was just $1.99, the price the family says it had been paying until recently. (Localized spikes in the price of milk have happened since the start of 2021, but the average national price of one gallon has been roughly the same, a little more than $3, for years.)
Before that, New York Magazine’s Grub Street trollishly proclaimed whole milk had made a “triumphant comeback“—among “hot girls,” at least. For the rest of us, new milk alternatives seem to pop up every time you go to the store (Gawker on this trend? “No More Milk.”) And it has lately been impossible to avoid ads for Oatly pitching a debatably-unhealthy oat beverage as “Like Milk but Made for Humans.” You might reasonably wonder: Why does milk inspire such strong feelings? Why are there so many products that allow you to avoid it? And is it good for you or not?
The answer to the last question, at least to the federal government, is “yes.” Citing research that milk is beneficial to bone health and cardiovascular functioning, current recommendations from the USDA call for three 8-ounce glasses of milk a day (or the equivalent portions of other dairy products, like cheese and yogurt).
From one angle, when you consider what’s in milk, this makes sense. Much of it, about 90 percent, is just water. The rest is an amalgamation of fat, carbs, minerals, vitamins, and protein—including the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which play an essential part in building muscles and supporting healthy body composition. Milk is packed with calcium, vitamins B2 and B12, potassium, phosphorus, and added vitamin A and vitamin D. These are all key components of a healthy diet.
But research on the dietary effects of milk is sometimes contradictory. For example, when it comes to heart disease, studies of large groups of men and women found that milk wasn’t associated with overall risk of heart disease. But when people swapped out dairy in favor of vegetable oils, researchers found heart disease among men decreased by 24 percent. (Don’t tell the anti-seed oil crowd.)
An article published in 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine goes further than that, examining the effect of milk in a number of areas: body weight; cardiovascular disease; diabetes; cancer; and, maybe the reason cited most often for drinking milk, overall bone health. One 8-ounce glass of whole milk contains 276 milligrams of calcium. The doctors who authored the NEJM article, however, note that “countries with the highest intakes of milk and calcium tend to have the highest rates of hip fractures.” Another study of 10,000 U.S. men and women found that “calcium intake was unrelated to bone mineral density at the hip.”