07/02/2007 09:57 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Caveat Elsie!

Last weekend, I found myself sitting on a bale of hay, listening to a nutrition expert discuss how deadly milk and dairy products are for adult humans. Now, I've heard talks with that message before, and I consider myself well-read enough on the subject to separate the curds from the whey, but what I was hearing now was completely different, and totally compelling. Full disclosure: I am a cheesaholic. In fact, I relish dairy products in all their myriad forms. But I am now trying to reconcile (or even, reform) my milk-fed existence in light of what was said that day.

This discussion was part of the program on the beautiful summer day I was visiting the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, a wonderful institution located eight miles outside of that famous upstate, upscale, New York community. As their name implies, this is a haven for rescued or rejected (or escaped) farm animals, critters that were destined to end up on someone's plate. It was started a few years ago by a young couple, Jenny Brown and Doug Abel, two filmmakers who finally took one-too-many hidden cameras into one-too-many slaughterhouses. The result was this lovely place, where what once could have been your dinner -- my dinner -- now roams around the grounds without fear of being eaten. Cows, pigs as big as sofas, chickens (broilers and egg-layers), goats, sheep, and much, much more, come here to live out their natural lifespans in peace.

The man who was speaking that day was George Eisman, a registered dietician considered an expert on vegan and vegetarian living. Good thing, as Doug and Jenny, and many of the other visitors there were committed vegans.

(By the way, if you vegans are so damn' smart, could you please come up with a better name for yourselves? Vegan sounds like what Trekkies would call a resident of a planet circling the white dwarf star Vega. I suppose we could call you Vegalones -- with a soft G sound -- but then you'd all sound like you were Italian.)

George's presentation, as I've said, was compelling. Not only because of what he said, but how he said it. Not the crusading exhortations one might expect in such a venue, but rather, spoken softly as by a teacher with a small class of bright, skeptical students. The presentation allowed me to focus on the enormity of what he said. Dairy, said George, is a tremendous health risk for human adults. Not because of its fat content, but because milk products are full of growth hormones. "Ooooh!" I thought, "Those nasty dairy companies, adding that stuff to nature's most-perfect food!" But, no, these growth hormones are natural -- they belong there. Every milk-giving creature (humans included), George pointed out, has its milk laced with growth hormones. When animals are young, the hormones are there to -- you guessed it -- help them grow. But, at some point, animals are weaned from their mother's milk, and never drink it again. They have all the growth hormone they need, for life.

But humans, it transpires, are the only higher mammals that continue to consume milk and milk products after we are weaned. And that's the crux of the problem, you see. Every cheeseburger, every milkshake, every latté, is dumping growth hormones into our bodies that we no longer need. Hormones are extremely powerful chemicals. A tiny amount goes a long way. And so what does growth hormone do in a body no longer able to assimilate it? It causes growth -- growth of fat, and explosive growth of other tissues as well. Things we call tumors. Cancer. Yikes! In case I hadn't gotten the message, George then cited research indicating that growth hormone might even be more carcinogenic than dioxin, the active ingredient in Agent Orange.

George noted that for much of human history, adult humans didn't consume milk and dairy products, and even today, much of humanity is still lactose-intolerant -- they can't digest the sugar found in milk. Regular dairy consumption is a fairly recent development, maybe the last 5,000 years or so, and then mostly in northern latitudes where the climate is right, and where industrialized nations have created both a huge dairy industry and the means to produce, preserve and distribute the products before they go bad. As lactose intolerance waned here, coincident with the rise of factory dairy farms, that's roughly when the West's twin epidemics of cancer and obesity really took off. Perhaps there's a connection?

George cited T. Colin Campbell's landmark research in China, which has no dairy industry, and where an estimated 90 percent of the people are lactose-intolerant anyway. In the USA, Dairy Central, if you will, the incidence of breast cancer in women is 1 in 33, and of prostate cancer in men, a horrendous 1 in 7. In China, breast cancer strikes 1 in 10,000 women. Prostate cancer afflicts just 1 in 50,000 men. That's quite a difference, isn't it? The inference is that it is mainly our consumption of dairy that makes the (fatal) difference.

Here's another point George made, almost as an aside. This is an important reason not to eat meat, but not one you'd expect to hear from a zealot. As meat animals are herded down the chutes at slaughterhouses, the noise and smell of the frightened animals being killed ahead of them set off bursts of adrenalin that floods the bodies of these poor beasts. Adrenalin is another very powerful chemical, the so-called "fight-or-flight" hormone, and it has inundated the tissues of these animals at the moment of their death. And we eat it later. Doesn't take much adrenalin to do its job, and we are, many of us, consuming it on a regular basis, when we don't need it in our bloodstreams. Please tell me, if you can, that this isn't doing anything strange and awful to us.

In sum, milk is really important for young fast-growing mammals, like cows, although its effect on humans is less benign. That's for sure. Two years ago, I met a newly arrived calf at the Woodstock sanctuary. It was as big as, well, a calf. Last weekend, I was reintroduced to what is now a 1,000-lb bull that stands as tall as I do, and looks bigger than a compact car. Now, the Masai warriors of Kenya are famous for drinking a concoction of cow's milk mixed with cow's blood (a double-whammy!). Those guys are really, really tall. And really, really fierce!

I honestly don't know if all George told us is factually rock-solid, scientifically proven, and true. I DO know that what I heard has the ring of truth. I'll just report, you decide (Arianna, you didn't hear me say that!). I also know that I plan to learn much more about this subject, and so should you. I'm not yet ready to have a bowl of leaves and beans, George Eisman's favorite meal, but that cheeseburger, loaded with both adrenalin AND growth hormone (the tissues of slaughtered dairy animals are also suffused with growth hormone, so you can leave off the cheese), well, it just doesn't sound so yummy anymore, dammit.