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Does milk consumption promote growth in children? Agriculture and Health Research in Action Seminar hosted by LIDC

At the latest event in the Agriculture and Health Research in Action Seminar Series, Andrea Wiley, Director of the Human Biology program and Professor of Anthropology from Indiana University, Bloomington, talked about milk and child growth research in India and US.

Cultural valuations of milk among populations have influenced how milk has taken a global presence. The United States and India are the largest milk producing and consuming countries in the world, and have positioned milk as a food with unique qualities influencing physical growth. In large part due to promotional efforts by governments and the dairy industry, normative messages around milk’s contribution to physical growth are tied with the ways in which milk consumption by children has become globally ubiquitous.

What are the unique qualities of milk which might enhance physical growth? Milk is said to provide health benefits from having high calcium and protein content, as well as being a source of energy. As such it contributes to bone density and linear growth. Milk is the only mammalian food that is used to support infant growth (of calves). This food that is essentially produced to promote growth in calves is also consumed by human infants, another species, whose growth is four times less rapid. Milk contains a unique sugar, lactose, which requires the enzyme lactase to be digested. Populations vary in their production of the enzyme, but most people stop producing lactase after the period of infancy.

Andrea presented data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) of milk intake among 5,000 individuals - adults, children and adolescents. Controlling for caloric intake, the study showed differences in height among 2 to 4-year-olds who consumed a lot of milk and those who did not. Children who drank milk daily were taller by 0.6 percentile points than those who drank milk less frequently. However, no significant differences were observed in the age group between 5-10 years of age. Andrea concluded that the association between growth and height from milk consumption varies during childhood. The relationship between milk consumption and growth is stronger in younger children than in older ones and adolescents. One of the hypotheses here is that young children are biologically ‘primed’ for milk consumption. However, the growth could be attributed to extra calories consumed through milk, so studies need to control for differences in protein and energy intakes. Additionally, milk is often consumed in processed form (cheese, yoghurt), whereas studies tend to focus on fluid milk only.

These assertions of milk’s contribution to growth have influenced the spread of milk consumption globally. The US and India provide examples of how milk has become a global commodity featuring special qualities, and the ways populations conform the image of milk to fit positively with their cultural values. 

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Previous seminars in the series

The Agriculture and Health Research in Action Seminar Series aims to foster discussion around the links between agricultural production, food consumption, and the generation of health.
 
The Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH) is a new initiative established under a five-year £3.5m grant from The Leverhulme Trust to build a new inter-sectoral and interdisciplinary platform for integrating research in agriculture and health, with a focus on international development goals. This Centre is enabling researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, School of Oriental and African Studies, School of Pharmacy, Royal Veterinary College and their partners, to work together to develop unifying research approaches and methodologies that integrate agricultural and health research. LCIRAH is hosted and supported by LIDC.

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