NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

Portrait of Vesanto Melina• It is the oddest thing that, until fairly recently, the fluid that cows produce to grow their calves to 450 pounds or more in a year was recommended in our national food guides as the basis of an essential food group. It was an assumption on the part of Health Canada and nutritional scientists that humans of all ages require these bovine secretions on a daily basis.

Only about a decade ago did the “milk and milk products” group become “milk and alternatives,” making room for fortified soy milk as the single alternative. Such food groups have important practical implications. For example, Canada’s gradually evolving food guide has long been the basis for planning meals in institutions, hospitals and schools. But for many, the food guide’s insistence on dairy has been problematic. Consider that worldwide, seven out of 10 people experience some degree of lactase insufficiency, the problem of digesting the milk sugar known as lactose.

For about eight decades, Canadian legislation has permitted cow’s milk to be fortified with vitamin D. This addition has significantly reduced a disease of childhood known as rickets, which involves softened and malformed bones. Vitamin D can be considered both a vitamin (essential to life and required in the diet) and a non-vitamin (if we have adequate exposure to sunlight, our bodies can make this substance). At the northern latitudes, and with the limited sun exposure we experience in Canada, vitamin D production is low and insufficient throughout the winter. Thus, the vitamin D levels of many Canadians are low or borderline, especially in winter and spring.

The vitamin D fortification of cow’s milk, viewed as a commonly consumed product, was considered a simple way for Canadian children and adults to avoid vitamin D deficiency and rickets. However, no parallel provision was made for those within our population who experience lactose intolerance: people allergic to milk protein, vegans and others who do not use cow’s milk. Canadian legislation did not permit soy milk companies to fortify their non-dairy beverages with vitamin D until about 1997.

In the last two decades, living a dairy-free life in excellent health has become easier. Now, supermarket shelves display an assortment of non-dairy beverages fortified with vitamin D. Among the non-dairy beverages, fortified soymilk is the best choice for growing children due to its content of protein and fat. The isoflavones present also appear to reduce the risk of breast cancer in later life among girls who consume soy; a similar situation may exist for boys who consume soy, lessening the likelihood of prostate cancer later.

Without consuming one drop of dairy, we can derive all the nutrients found in fortified cow`s milk. For example, we can get abundant calcium from plant sources – as our non-milk-drinking ancestors did before the herding of animals became common practice. We can obtain sufficient vitamin D from a mix of sun, fortified non-dairy beverages and supplements. And we can find some extremely tasty dairy-free alternatives to cheese and ice cream.

EVENT April 3, 2PM: Vesanto Melina co-presents “Dairy Free Living” at Vancouver Central Library, 350 W. Georgia, Alma Van Dusen Room. Register at http://tinyurl.com/dairyfreeliving

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian, author and consultant. www.nutrispeak.com, 604-882-6782.

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