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Milk, An Essential Source of Nutrition, Or Just Great PR?

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Mukabonera Beatrice from Rwamagana district, milking her Girinka cow

A cherubic child, the very picture of health, holding a cup of milk, looking into the camera, with contended innocence. It is an image etched on mothers’ minds, the world over, but is milk really essential for the health of children?

The answer from an increasing number of nutritionists and scientists, is no, but, as long as it is drunk in moderation, it does no harm either, and may do some good.

For Rwandans, the very idea of challenging the primacy of milk as an essential source of everything good for their children, is little short of heresy. Any suggestion that milk is anything but the food of the gods, will be given short thrift.

The dairy industry in Western nations, would give anything for the almost mythical attachment Rwandans have to cows, and their milk.

In the absence of such public relations magic however, it seems the industry has created some enduring myths of its own.

For years, parents have been assured that milk strengthens growing bones, and the more of it their little bundles of joy gulped down the better.

But it turns out that the only milk that is essential for a child’s development, is breast milk.

The Cooperative now has 11 milk collection centres in Gicumbi district.

Milk is a good source of calcium, which the body needs to maintain and build strong bones. Calcium also helps muscles, and the heart to function properly.

Milk is also fortified with vitamin D, which to say the chemical is not natural to milk, and is added. Vitamin D helps with the absorption of calcium, and vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, a disease that leads to bent and weakened bones. Lack of the vitamin has also been linked to other complications, affecting nerves and muscles. Studies on its efficacy, including how much of it we really need, continue.

Milk is also a good source of protein, and calories, which as every parent knows, is important for growing children. Malnutrition remains a problem, even among the more advanced nations.

But that is not the whole picture. There is nothing in milk that cannot be found in other food sources. Calcium can be found in beans, nuts, and greens. Scientists and nutritionists are questioning the claim that consumption of milk strengthens children’s bones.

A 2013 peer reviewed study, by JAMA Paediatrics, a medical journal published by the American Medical Association, found that children in countries with lower milk consumption, had fewer instances of fractures, than those in countries with high milk consumption.

It should be noted however, that the study in no way implies that consumption of milk leads to a greater propensity to fractures. What it does however, is dispute the accepted belief that consumption of milk strengthens children’s bones.

Through Girinka, Cooperative IAKIB in Gicumbi has been able to turn around the fortunes of previously poor households.

The amount of protein found in milk, can again, be found in other sources of foods, including, eggs and beans. According to nutritionists, Vitamin D can be difficult to get from a normal diet, but it is found naturally in fatty fish, egg yolks, and beef liver. It is also of course famously found in sunshine. Some scientists have suggested that the best way of getting vitamin D in your child, is send him or her out to play.  

And milk can be too much of a good thing. Given its calorific content, milk can lead to obesity, and the high levels of saturated fat in whole, or full fat milk, has been linked to health problems.

Because Calcium can inhibit the absorption of iron, paradoxically, drinking too much milk, can lead to anaemia, due to iron deficiency in the blood. And many people are intolerant of lactose, a type of sugar found in milk.

But although much of the wonders attributed to milk owe more to public relations campaigns from the dairy industry, than to scientific fact, nutritionists are not advising giving up milk, just the claims for it that cannot be substantiated by science.

And for the many parents who for one reason or other, may find it difficult to provide the balanced diet their children need, milk can be a much needed substitute, as long its consumption is kept within recommended limits.

Two medium sized cups a day, are advised. The Girinka programme for instance, remains rooted in scientific, nutritional advice.

For those who can provide nutrition for their children, from the many available plant sources however, milk can be left to calves.