Scientific Reductionism: The Incomplete Truth

This week in the news, I read the following headline:

“Children Who Drink Non-Cow’s Milk Are Twice as Likely To Have Low Vitamin D.”

I read the article a few times and I have thoughts.  But first, allow me to clarify: I am not a scientist.  I am not a doctor.  Hell, I didn’t even go to University.  I am a layperson, a civilian, an average Joe Public. Am I biased against the meat and dairy industry and more favourable towards a vegan lifestyle? Absolutely.  But not for no reason.  I have been on both sides of that fence and I can tell you, I found there to be a lot more truth and reason on the plant-based side.  It was a no-brainer once I compared the two.

What I find the most unacceptable about how industries and government bodies present us with the “facts” about our food is that it is not a complete picture.  If people wish to continue to eat meat and dairy or even be unhealthy vegetarians and vegans by eating nothing but chips and processed foods, that is every individual person’s right to do so.  But no matter what food choice you are going to make, may it at least be an informed one.  If you rely solely on advertising, headlines and scientific studies funded by public and private industry without doing any investigating for yourself, I can tell you this: you will not have all the facts.  And if you don’t have all the facts, how do you know you’re making the best choice?  It reminds me of that great song, Mother, by Pink Floyd: “Mother, should I trust the government?” goes one of the lyrics. Were I that mother who had to answer the boy in that song, I would say, “Never wholeheartedly, never unequivocally and never without questioning.”

There’s a term that Dr. Colin Campbell uses in his book, The China Study, called Scientific Reductionism.  Sounds fancy, I know.  But before I get into the article on cow’s milk and vitamin D, I wanted to mention it.  Here’s why: Scientific Reductionism, in Dr. Campbell’s words, is:

“The mistake of characterizing whole foods by the health effects of specific nutrients.  For example, the health effect of a hamburger cannot simply be attributed to the effect of a few grams of saturated fat in the meat. Saturated fat is merely one ingredient.”

Further expanding on the hamburger example, he adds:

“Hamburgers also include other types of fat, in addition to cholesterol, protein and very small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Even if you change the level of saturated fat in the meat, all of the other nutrients are still present and may still have harmful effects on health.  It is a case of the whole (the hamburger) being greater than the sum of its parts (the saturated fat, cholesterol, etc.)”

Dr. Campbell readily admits this was a mistake he also made early in his career and the scientific community continues to make by, “focusing on individual nutrients instead of whole foods.”  In referring to a 1982 research study he was a part of with the National Academy of Sciences on Diet, Nutrition and Cancer that divided the study up by individual components (one chapter each for fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals), he even goes so far as to say,

“I am convinced it was a great mistake on our part. We did not stress enough that our recommendations were concerned with whole foods because many people still regarded the report as cataloguing the specific individual nutrients.”

This is why the vitamin supplement industry is a billion dollar industry. This is why specific foods are continually marketed to us as having one specific attribute that is healthy: Orange juice has vitamin C!  Fish has Omega 3! Yogurt has Calcium! All true. And all an incomplete picture of how those foods truly behave as a whole once they are ingested into our bodies. I liken it to someone receiving tainted blood: that blood may provide them with the essentials to survive initially but it will harm them in the long-term.

Which brings me to the article on cow’s milk versus non-cow’s milk. This was a study that was recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and led by a team of researchers from St. Michael’s Hospital here in Toronto. There were several issues I had with the way the article/study was presented, not the least of which was the misleading headline, indicated at the beginning of this post. Here are a few things I take issue with:

“Children who drink non-cow’s milk such as rice, almond, soy or goat’s milk, have lower levels of vitamin D in their blood than those who drink cow’s milk.”

Bear in mind, “lower levels” do not necessarily mean a deficiency. I have lower levels of iron in my blood because I don’t eat red meat but my iron levels are still normal and healthy.

“Non-cow’s milk is becoming increasingly popular because of perceived health benefits…”

“Perceived?” If that word doesn’t imply bias, I don’t know what does.  Even the word “suggested” in its place would have been more objective; “perceived” implies any health benefits from non-cow’s milk are an illusion.

“Vitamin D is an essential nutrient produced through sun exposure or found in fortified cow’s milk, fish and other foods. It plays an important role in the development and strengthening of bones.  In children, low levels of vitamin D can cause bones weakness and, in severe cases, rickets.”

Note the, “…essential nutrient is produced through sun exposure OR found in fortified cow’s milk, fish and other foods.”  That’s right.  Clearly there is more than one way to get essential vitamin D (which I will tell you about in a moment).  The development and strengthening of bones is through vitamin D, not cow’s milk. It’s an important distinction: yes, cow’s milk has vitamin D but remember it is the vitamin D that builds bone, not the cow’s milk in and of itself (and in fact, as pointed out in my previous post, cow’s milk has never been scientifically proven to improve bone health).

More from the article:

“In North America, every 100 millilitres of cow’s milk is required to be fortified with 40 units of vitamin D. Adding vitamin D to non-cow’s milk, however, is voluntary.”

First of all, cow’s milk needs to have vitamin D added to it (this is what fortified means) because it doesn’t actually contain any in its raw, natural state.  Just like leather, an animal’s skin on its own would fall apart.  It is only with an incredible amount of toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, with which the skin is treated, does it becomes strong enough to be called leather. And for the record, any almond milk or soy milk that I have consumed have all been fortified with vitamin D as well, sometimes more than the cow’s milk sitting next to it on the shelf in the grocery store.  The wording of that last quoted sentence implies that non-cow’s milk does not contain vitamin D since it is only added on a “voluntary” basis.  At best its poor wording; at worst, it’s misleading.

Dr. Jonathon Maguire, who led this research at St. Mike’s says in the article:

“It is difficult for consumers to tell how much vitamin D is in non-cow’s milk.”

Um, no it’s not: it’s right there on the carton, listed in percentage just like cow’s milk.  He goes on:

“Caregivers need to be aware of the amount of vitamin D, calcium and other nutrients in alternative milk beverages so they can make informed choices for their children.”

Yeah, and they also need to be made aware of not just the vitamin D, calcium and other nutrients in cow’s milk but also the crap in it, like hormones, additives, cholesterol and saturated fat.

At this point, I was starting to wonder who funded this study.  And because I’m an asshole, I decided to do a little digging.  It took about three minutes.  The 3,821 children selected for this study, all deemed to be healthy (including the ones who drank non-cow’s milk – go figure) were, “recruited from seven Toronto pediatric or family medicine practices that are part of a research network called TARGet Kids!” So I went to the TARGet Kids! website (who thinks up these names?) and tried to find out who funded this particular study.  The problem is, I only know the name of study that they’ve released, the one that’s published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal; it may have been called something else when they first applied for the grant funding and it may have been called something else while it was being researched and written. The point is, I couldn’t find out for sure who funded this particular study. But I still found something interesting.

Under the “Our Supporters” page of the TARGet Kids! site, there is a list of grants and granting agencies who fund their research.  Not surprisingly, there is a lot of government funding, primarily by the CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research).  Then I noticed three particular grants and their respective funding agencies:

Grant Title: Low milk intake, Vitamin D deficiency and fracture risk in young children.  Granting Agency: Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Grant Title: Vitamin D deficiency in urban Canadian toddlers: A study of prevalence and risk factors.  Granting Agency: Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Grant Title: Nutritional education and the prevention of iron depletion in children 9 months to 2 years: A randomized controlled trial. Granting Agency: Danone Institute.  Yes, that Danone.

What a fucking surprise.

Do you think there may be a slight conflict of interest here?  Isn’t it likely that a major dairy corporation or association who is paying for various medical facilities to research specific health topics are going to want a favourable “result” as it relates to their business?  What do you think would happen if a study was released to the public, that was paid for by the dairy industry, that found cow’s milk to be harmful to children and the saturated fat content in it could lead to early-onset diabetes and even early menstruation for girls?  The answer is pretty obvious, which is why we never read about those studies.

And by the way, here’s the scoop on vitamin D, as beautifully clarified for all of humanity in Chapter 8 of The China Study:

“This ‘vitamin’ (vitamin D) is not a nutrient that we need to consume. Our body can make all that we need simply by being in sunlight fifteen to thirty minutes every couple of days.”

Pretty great, huh?  Here’s more:

“The first step in the vitamin D process occurs when you go outside on a sunny day.  When the sunshine hits your exposed skin, the skin produces vitamin D.  The vitamin D then must be activated in the kidney in order to produce a form that helps repress the development of autoimmune diseases.”

It goes in-depth on just how cool this mechanism is, “a process that is closely monitored and controlled by our bodies.”

And on behalf of the animals, do you know why cow’s milk in its raw form doesn’t have vitamin D?  Because it was meant for baby cows.  And that’s not a nutrient they need from milk. No, in a better world, the calves would be able to drink their mother’s milk, full of rich iron, fat and protein meant for their early growth and development.  And the calves would be getting their vitamin D just like the rest of us: by spending some time in the goddamn sun.  But that’s not the caring or logical world we currently live in.

Since reading Dr. Campbell’s book, a biochemist who has been researching health and nutrition for over forty years, I no longer feel as confused as I used to when I would read the latest health study that happened to make the news.  In fact, I now understand WHY I was so confused for so many years. I’m sure we can all relate to that feeling: one minute red wine is bad for you, the next it can thin your blood and reduce your chance of heart disease.  One study says chocolate should be avoided, the next says it’s an antioxidant and you should eat a little every day. I even read just today about a study that stated older women who are trying to get pregnant should eat more ice-cream. Ice cream!  Want to know why?  Because of the hormone levels in dairy (an animal-based product) which I guess is supposed to give them that extra “fighting chance” to get pregnant when working in conjunction with their own estrogen and progesterone.  Forget that telling women to increase their daily dairy intake will also increase their dietary fat intake and can expose them to an excess amount of hormones which can put them at risk for a whole slew of other health problems down the road.  Ice cream….pffftFuck off.

Now when I read studies, thanks to Dr. Campbell’s book, I understand what is happening: usually only a single ingredient or nutrient is being focused on which allows just enough room to claim that “X” product/vitamin/supplement is either good or bad for you.  That’s when corporations get this information in their hot little hands and run with it to endorse their own product so they can turn a profit. Dr. Campbell calls it, “technological tinkering and marketing, not science.”

The unfortunate part of reports like this is that most of the general public will only remember the headline. Even if they take the time to read the entire article, the results of the study are presented in a way that require quite a bit of time to get to the heart of what it means and to interpret what is really being stated.  This cow’s milk article is a perfect example. Nowhere in the article does it state that children who don’t drink cow’s milk can easily get their vitamin D just from going outside every couple of days (it is merely suggested as a passing idea). Nowhere does it mention that cow’s milk on its own has no vitamin D either and must also be artificially added, just as non-cow’s milk has to be. Nowhere does it point out that none of the children in the study, including the ones who drank non-cow’s milk, were deficient in vitamin D (thankfully, two doctors mentioned this when commenting on the study’s limitations). To quote Dr. Campbell, “What you have without the context is just a lot of confusion.”  Confusion and misinformation.  The takeaway from that headline for most people will be (and understandably so), Cow’s milk is the best way to ensure my child gets all the vitamin D they need.  And so it goes. Fuck knows how much money was spent to conduct this study and at the end of the day, all we have is another victory for the dairy industry and another confused and exasperated public.

I will leave you with one final quote from (who else?) Dr. Colin Campbell.  It’s at the end of chapter 16, entitled, “Government: Is It For the People?

“I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to health, government is not for the people; it is for the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of the people. It is a systematic problem where industry, academia and government combine to determine the health of this country.  Industry provides funding for public health reports, and academic leaders with industry ties play key roles in developing them.  A revolving door exists between government jobs and industry jobs, and government research funding goes to the development of drugs and devices instead of healthy nutrition.  It is a system built by people who play their isolated parts, oftentimes unaware of the top decision makers and ulterior motivations.  The system is a waste of taxpayer money and is profoundly damaging to our health.”


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