Milk presents a dilemma in that a significant segment of the world population do not consume this nutrient loaded food but still seem to be apparently healthy. Many in Indian still are nostalgic about the proverbial 'Ramarajya' where milk and honey are supposed to flow freely, symbolizing the value of both these foods for keeping people happy and healthy. Unfortunately the habit of milk consumption during childhood is fast declining in the face of the relentless onslaught of modern calorie rich foods containing sugar and fat. In India per capita daily consumption of milk is about 250 gm which is an average figure, implying that some may be consuming more while others must be taking less. What are the consequences of such a paradigm shift in the eating habits of future generations on their life span and the quality of life?
Milk is traditionally associated with bone development and children are encouraged to cultivate the habit to ensure orderly growth and strong body frame. Of course Mother's milk is a category by itself providing nutrition much beyond the calcium content. Though some of the commercial products being promoted for wrong reasons deserve to be frowned upon, they at least serve the purpose of stimulating milk consumption as dry products like malted or chocolate or flavored milk powders contain milk solids and are invariably consumed with fresh milk. Recent revelations that those who had high dairy products intake when they were children were protected against stroke and other mortal diseases have reinforced the belief that milk is the best food nature has bestowed on human beings.
Thanks to food technologists milk availability has been stretched to all year round and the variety of processed products from milk has increased manifold during the last 3 decades. Products like skim milk powder, hundreds of variants of cheese and cheese based products, pro biotic yogurts and products based on them, long life packed milk with more than an year's shelf life, condensed milk preparations, traditional Indian items like paneer, khoa, chhana, shrikand, burfi, peda and many others make it possible to consume milk solids in a form consumers desire or accept. Technologies like homogenization, aseptic packing, vacuum concentration, roller drying, spray drying, freeze drying, freeze concentration, membrane filtration, reverse osmosis etc are all practiced by the dairy industry to provide the consumers with hundreds of convenient products based on milk.
According to current thinking, based on long term studies spanning almost 70 years, three servings of dairy foods in the form of liquid milk, yogurt and cheese would be adequate to derive full benefits from the nutritional strength of milk. A daily intake of 350 gm of milk can do wonders to the health of the population. The insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), also known earlier as somatomedin, which is a stimulatory hormone for cell growth and multiplication, inhibiting programmed cell death and synthesis of cellular DNA, is found to be in greater concentration in the blood of population consuming milk regularly.
Milk also contains other hormones like ghrelin, leptin and several bio active molecules, some of which, in spite of being peptides pass through the digestive system, though major portion is hydrolyzed into amino acids. Medical opinion is more or less unanimous in accepting milk as suitable for preventing dental caries, increased bone mineral content, fewer bone fractures, reduced risk of protein deficiency malnutrition and rickets. The common belief that milk contributes to increased cholesterol probably will be debunked by studies across the world that chances of dying due to ischaemic stroke or heart attack are reduced significantly by 60% if milk is consumed regularly from early childhood.