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Is Cow Milk Healthy for Humans?

author image Sandi Busch
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.
Is Cow Milk Healthy for Humans?
A young girl drinking a glass of milk. Photo Credit View Stock/View Stock/Getty Images

The health benefits you'll get from cow's milk come from its wide array of nutrients, such as protein, calcium and vitamin B-12. You don't have to worry about fat if you opt for skim milk. But if you're lactose intolerant or allergic to milk, the beneficial nutrients won't matter because milk may not be an option for you. While concerns about hormones and antibiotics in cow’s milk persist, studies to date indicate they're a small risk to your health.

Factor Out the Fat

One concern associated with milk is the amount of saturated fat it contains. However, you can eliminate the problem by choosing skim milk. The fat in 1 cup of milk ranges from a high of 8 grams in whole milk to barely a trace of fat in skim milk. The loss of fat also trims 66 calories. Even if you go with 1 percent milk, you’ll still only get 2.4 grams of total fat and 1.5 grams of saturated fat.

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Nutritional Benefits

Milk is not the only source of calcium, but it’s one of the best. One cup of nonfat milk supplies 30 percent of the daily value for calcium, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. An important advantage to getting calcium from milk is that most brands are fortified with vitamin D. Your body must have vitamin D to absorb calcium and you won’t get it from many foods. Milk is also an excellent source of vitamin B-12 and it supplies about 16 percent of the daily value for protein per cup.

Hormone-Related Concerns

Dairy cows may be treated with a hormone approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which increases the cow's milk production. Any remnants of the hormone -- recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH -- that remain in the milk should not cause a health problem because it’s not active in humans, according to the American Cancer Society. However, milk from rBGH-treated cows has higher levels of another hormone -- IGF-1 -- that may increase your risk of cancers, including prostate, breast and colorectal cancers. Some studies do not support an association between IGF-1 and cancer, while others find it causes a small increase in cancer risk.

Undetermined Risk From Antibiotics

Cows may receive antibiotics to treat mammary gland infections, but whether this presents a health risk for people has yet to be determined. All milk must be tested for the presence of antibiotics and discarded if antibiotic residues are found. However, concern exists that antibiotic use in cows may lead to new antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Allergies and Intolerance

An allergy to cow's milk is common in children, but it’s usually outgrown and rare in adults. When it does occur in adults, it’s often severe, according to a study published in June 2008 in “Clinical and Experimental Allergy.” If you’re allergic, you can’t drink milk. Lactose intolerance is more common in adults. In this condition, you don’t have a sufficient amount of the enzymes needed to digest the sugar in milk. Even if you’re lactose intolerant, you may be able to tolerate up to 1 cup of milk with minimal or no symptoms, reports the Office of Dietary Supplements.

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