Why Does the USDA Recommend Dairy?

Perhaps it’s rhetorical, but for years I’ve been perplexed by this simple question: Why do the USDA’s dietary guidelines recommend that people consume dairy?

I’m talking about the dastardly MyPlate, that annoying image of a plate divided into approximately four equal parts, with a cup labeled “dairy” on the right hand side.

Let’s ignore for now the absurdly reductionist approach to nutrition that suggests that each plate has to maintain a perfect balance of fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. And let’s similarly ignore the awful state of scientific progress when it comes to questions of diet. We’re gonna hone in on the dairy issue.

It might seem odd to be so concerned with why the USDA recommends dairy. Of course, as vegans, we tend to think dairy is morally and physically disgusting — and for good reason. And we know how powerful and influential the dairy industry is. What else would they recommend?, you might wonder.

Water. Numbers vary on the prevalence of dehydration — I don’t believe the unpublished-yet-oft-cited claims that 75% of people are dehydrated, nor do I take seriously the people who assert that adequate hydration is the norm. Anecdotally, I know very few people that regularly drink water, and several that don’t seem to think about water at all. I suspect that people with poor diets might opt for dehydrating diet sodas and similar drinks over water every day of the week. Supporting this, one study (though I could not find a direct link to it) by the CDC allegedly found that 43% of Americans drink less than four cups of water a day.

Sure, some drinks besides water can be hydrating: drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, and even coffee. I found a study (again, no link to the actual text) that claims milk is actually better than water at hydrating you, but unsurprisingly it’s funded by the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Given that dehydration appears to be somewhat of a problem, and lack-of-milk isn’t a medical condition, it’s a mystery as to why the USDA saw fit to promote dairy in place of water.

The USDA’s page on dairy states that low-calcium dairy products don’t fall into their dairy category, suggesting that their recommendation that people consume dairy is based on calcium concerns. Yet a recent systematic review of global calcium intake found that people in the United States fall just slightly below the recommended daily intake of calcium — not much cause for alarm. Dehydration, on the other hand, seems to be more of a problem.

To their credit, they include soy milk in the dairy category, though it doesn’t really answer the question as to why water isn’t better.

How much dairy does the USDA think we should be consuming?

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So I should apparently be drinking 3 cups of milk a day (or consuming 4.5 ounces of natural cheese or 6 ounces of processed cheese). My stomach is groaning in anguish at the thought.

Every comedian has a bit about how we’re the only species that drinks another species’ milk. Dairy is, at best, remarkably odd. At worst, it’s grotesque. We simply don’t need it.

And in a world where people avoid water like the plague, recommending that we drink milk to obtain calcium that we may or may not need in place of water that many of us definitely need, just seems like bad advice.

Unfortunately, such bad advice is nothing new from the USDA.

 

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