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A Reply To Mark Bittman's Milk Freak-Out, Part 1: Don't Be A Weasel

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In last Saturday's New York Times, Mark Bittman tells the story of his heartburn, and how quitting dairy helped him lick a lifelong case of acid reflux. Turns out, after leaving off cow-juice for just a day, he found total relief.

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I mentioned this to a friend who had the same problem, tried the same approach, and had the same results. Presto! No dairy, no heartburn! (A third had no success. Hey, it's not a controlled double-blind experiment, but there is no downside to trying it.)

Bully for him. Some cheap self-experimentation sounds a lot better to me than a lifetime of antacids. But he should have taken the whole "it's not rigorous science" thing to heart, because the rest of his column is filled with bad arguments about dairy, and milk in particular, propped up with some highly dubious "experts".

Bittman starts out by noting that both government and the dairy industry have been promoting fluid milk as the greatest thing in a glass, which is certainly true. There's been plenty of valid criticism about the food industry's influence on government nutrition guidelines, although we seem to have made more improvements of late than he implies. But things start to sour when he pulls a quote from Dr. Neal Barnard, of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine:

Sugar -- in the form of lactose -- contributes about 55 percent of skim milk's calories, giving it ounce for ounce the same calorie load as soda.

This statement caught my attention, because it's a very weasely way of combining two truths into one misleading factoid.

It's true that lactose is a kind of sugar, and that skim milk actually has about the same calories per cup as soda. Checking the nutrition info at CalorieKing, you'll find that one cup of skim milk has 91 calories, while one can (slightly less than a cup) of Coke has 90 calories. But the same serving of skim milk has only 12.3 grams of sugar versus a Coke's 25 grams. So skim has about half the sugar, something a casual reader certainly wouldn't get from Dr. Barnard's explanation.

To add to the confusion, Bittman makes no attempt to distinguish the sugars in soda. In a Coke sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, the sugar is a mixture of fructose and glucose. In milk, it's all lactose -- a different carbohydrate.

Things get worse when he starts pulling in evolutionary biology, by way of his personal doctor, general practitioner Sidney M. Baker:

"What's clear is that the widespread existence of lactose intolerance," says Dr. Baker, is "a pretty good sign that we've evolved to drink human milk when we're babies but have no need for the milk of any animals."

Dr. Baker isn't a scientist, but he seems pretty confident restating utter nonsense. Contrary to what he asserts, it actually appears that humans evolved milk tolerance at least twice. But this is neither here nor there, because evolutionary success does not equal long life or good health for an individual member of the species. Just ask the short-lived, broken-boned, wildly successful opossum.

Fortunately, I happen to be married to a scientist, so I asked culture science adviser Dr. Minda Berbeco to build a similarly deceptive argument. As a biogeochemist, my sweetie isn't any more qualified to comment on human evolution than Dr. Baker, but agreed to be quoted as long as I use sarcasm italics:

Bittman's Minimalist recipes contain far too few ingredients. Humans evolved eating a very diverse array of foods: rats, berries, mammoths, bugs... you know. We couldn't afford to be as picky as we are now. I never eat anything with less than fifteen, maybe twenty ingredients, just to be safe.

Sounds good coming from a PhD, right? But it's total BS.

I would add that humans didn't evolve eating broccoli either. Nor did we evolve eating potatoes or tomatoes (New World veggies, both), olive oil (product of late-breaking civilization), bread (ditto), lemons (a Frankenstein hybrid of citrons and oranges), chicken (or any other domestic farm animal, actually), sushi, Charleston Chews, Fig Newtons or most other modern foodstuffs.

This is all very frustrating, because it's important that we have informed conversations about what Americans eat. The obesity epidemic is real, our children are being fed lots of junk food in their schools, and industrial food and agriculture has amassed huge amounts of power over our political system, tipping the playing field to their advantage every legislative cycle.

But if we're going to dig out of this mess, the arguments we use have to be supported by evidence.

Speaking of which, I've got more to say about Mark's unfortunate column in part 2...

Will Fertman is a writer and jack-of-all-trades for culture: the word on cheese. He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife, Dr. Minda Berbeco, who wanted to remind you that she was joking about the whole fifteen ingredient thing, and that anyone other than a paleontologist who talks about how humans "evolved to eat x" is most likely talking out of their butt.

Mark Bittman photo via Sally Stein

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