Trust me, I’m a Doctor

It’s perhaps curious that an event dedicated to cheese would hold a debate that questions milk’s credibility as a factor in a balanced diet. Nevertheless, a medical perspective was approached in the milk workshop Milk: Yay or Nay?


The panel was composed of Paolo Bellingeri, nutritionist in oncology; Reneta Alleva, nutrition specialist; Piercarlo Grimaldi, professor of Anthropology and dean of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo; and Andrea Pezzana, director of dietetics and clinical nutrition and chair of the discussion. Such an assortment allowed for a range of perspectives and insights.


One question to which the panel was unanimous in agreement was the question of breastfeeding. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding up to the age of two and all members of the panel agreed that this provided multiple benefits, including helping to protect against obesity and diabetes in adulthood and reducing the risk of breast cancer for mothers.


Bellingeri spoke about how after World War Two, women, pressed for time, opted for more practical methods in feeding their children and consequently shied away from breastfeeding. What’s more, milk has since become an economic interest and as Grimaldi noted, since the 1970s a move away from breastfeeding had been encouraged, and that doctors themselves have urged newborn babies towards formula milk.


Although the answer to the question of breast milk was a resounding yes, Alleva argued that cow’s milk, or the milk from any animal in fact, could never replace breast milk in terms of nutritional value. This owes to the beneficial proportion of protein and fats present in breast milk, but which lacks in animal milk. In fact she cited an Italian study that had found a link between excessive protein intake in early childhood and the appearance of diabetes and cancer in adulthood, and she suggested that this could be connected to the use of cow’s milk from the age of six months, give that it is commonly used to wean babies off breast milk.


Pezzana agreed and admitted that medical literature was anti-milk, but stressed caution in adopting what he described as a ‘terrorist view’ in condemning the use of milk.  He argued instead that as milk became a commodity we lost the knowledge surrounding it as well as the ability to properly incorporate its use. He highlighted similarities with other animal products such as meat, suggesting that as its consumption became less associated with festivities and began to be consumed on a daily basis, we began to develop further health problems.


This brought him onto the issue of cheese. Cheese, he suggested, should not be consumed every day, rather as part of a balanced diet. In fact Bellingeri emphasized the importance of a well-balanced diet, but also indicated the education of parents and teachers as crucial in instilling positive eating behaviors in children. Pezzana built on this by suggesting that many aren’t aware of the problems with the food they eat: not just in adopting a balanced diet, but also factors related to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides. Alleva suggested that not only can pesticides, for instance, be transferred from the mother to the fetus, but she also explained that one particular study indicated that tastes actually develop in the fetus. She used the example of a mother eating fast food, and the higher probability of babies developing a deeper attraction to the same food in adulthood.


The panel was again unanimous in asserting the importance of quality products, a sentiment echoed by Alleva. She expressed her worry of the effects of pesticides and consequently recommends eating organic wherever possible.  She did admit that the effects of GMO consumption is still unknown, but was defiant in her condemnation of pesticides and their link to a number of health problems.


When it came to milk products in general, Bellingeri suggested that fermented alternatives could be beneficial to our health owing to their high microbiota content. Perhaps a little surprisingly though, he was adamant that raw milk holds few benefits. Alleva agreed, saying she wouldn’t recommend raw milk for young children, but she did propose that many of the problems attached to raw milk are linked to the preservation of the product rather than to milk itself.


Pezzana also accepted that there were possible risks attached to raw milk, but maintained the importance of preserving tradition: “If raw milk is banned then biodiversity disappears as it leads to the production of thousands of different cheeses in the world.” As such he suggested that anti-raw-milk rules benefit only multinationals, allowing the impoverishment of products.


The conference was ultimately frank and vitally transparent. Only when given information free of any agenda can we make a properly informed decision. As such, the motto of ‘eating less but of better quality’ that is usually attached to Slow Food’s Slow Meat campaign, can be extended to all animal products. So it might be best to enjoy Cheese while it’s here, appreciate the diversity and wealth of variety, but as the doctor(s) hinted, don’t overdo it.


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