Assemblyman Tague embarks on crusade to make milk whole

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
Fat-free milk has been a staple in school cafeterias for years as this 2013 photo taken at Berne-Knox-Westerlo shows.

ALBANY COUNTY — On an overcast Monday in a barn in Sharon Springs, Assemblyman Chris Tague, a Republican representing the 102nd District, and a series of guest speakers all advocated for Tague’s new bill that would reintroduce whole and 2-percent milk to New York schools. 

Right now, the federal government allows schools to use public funds to purchase only 1-percent and fat-free milk because those lower-fat milks contain all the same nutrients, at the same levels, as higher-fat milks; except, obviously, for saturated fat, which is indirectly linked to heart disease. 

The government is also trying to combat childhood obesity with its school-food program, which was revamped during President Barack Obama’s administration following First Lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy for healthier living. Obesity, defined as a body-mass index that falls at or above the 95th percentile for an individual’s cohort, occured at a rate of 19.3 percent in children between 2 and 19 years old in 2017-18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

But Tague and his guest-speakers — who included Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell, Capital Region Board of Cooperative Extension Services District Superintendent Anita Murphy, and dietitian and media-personality Toby Amidor — argued that fears over the dangers of milk fat are overblown and that making kids drink less appealing milk products results in a disinclination to drink milk in the cafeteria, resulting in less nutrition, and as an adult, which hurts farmers’ bottom lines. 

Todd Heyn, a manager at the New York Farm Bureau, said the bill would “support New York’s dairy farmers, who are facing a number of economic challenges right now, including higher labor costs, rising energy prices, inflation, and regulatory pressures.” 

At 15 billion pounds annually, New York is the fourth-largest milk producer in the United States, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, and dairy is the leading agricultural area within the state.

State Senator Michelle Hinchey, a Democrat representing the 46th District who chairs of the Senate’s Agricultural Committee, told The Enterprise in an email through her spokesperson that Hinchey herself is “working on several bills to strengthen farm-to-school connections across New York, including ways to support upstate dairy farmers and giving schools the ability to offer wholesome milk varieties.”

There have been similar movements to reintroduce whole milk to cafeterias in other states, including Pennsylvania, where a bill like Tague’s received near-unanimous support from the state’s House of Representatives. Pennsylvania is the seventh largest milk producer in the United States, according to the Center for Dairy Excellence.

Tangentially, in Los Angeles, as Tague referenced, the city school district reversed a decision to ban sugary, flavored milks, because students were throwing out the healthier replacements, creating 600 tons of organic waste each day, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A bill that would once again allow whole milk was introduced in the federal government as well. 



In conversations about nutrient-oriented legislation, it’s crucial to know that determining whether a food is healthy or not is scientifically complicated, and, at the individual level, subjective. 

Short-term studies that measure diet and can be strictly monitored, like feeding trials, are complicated to pull off because they’re resource-intensive and require serious investment on the part of subjects. 

“The burden on participants enrolled in feeding trials is great, and the risk for nonadherence increases as the trial goes on,” write scholars Mara Vitolins and Talsi Case in an article for the journal Diabetes Spectrum, who explain that, even under tightly controlled conditions, participants can still find ways to eat outside of the standards set by researchers. 

Long-term studies — which are the kind that would be of greatest interest to those involved with food legislation — are generally easier to conduct from an economic perspective, Vitolins and Case say, but the results are often much muddier because it’s more difficult to control standards. 

For one thing, food production can change in ways that are virtually invisible, and so the introduction or removal of a processing ingredient (Vitolins and Case offer trans fats used as an emulsifier in cookies as an example) can complicate the results of a study. 

And while a statistical standard has been set for nutrient contents in food, the actual nutrient composition in any one piece of actual food can vary depending on how it was produced and how it’s been processed. 

“Seasonal variations can make a difference in the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables,” Vitolins and Case explain. “Also, those purchased directly from local farms have different levels of nutrients than those picked before they have ripened and been transported many miles to grocery stores.”

And, if someone eats a vegetable raw, it will have a different nutritional profile than a vegetable that’s been boiled or sauteed, they say. 

Further complicating analysis is that people’s bodies use food differently, and people themselves have different behaviors, all of which contributes to a food’s ultimate impact. 

“People vary in many ways, including by sex, race/ethnicity, BMI [body mass index], economic status, metabolic rate, food preferences, exercise patterns, and fitness levels, among others,” Vitolins and Case say. “All of these differences could affect what study participants eat, how they metabolize what they eat, and how much they remember about what they eat.”

As such, population-level food recommendations, federal or otherwise, aim to provide the most benefit for the most people, not the best benefit for all people. For someone who needs a lot of carbohydrates and fat but doesn’t have to worry about sodium intake, potato chips can be considered healthy, while they would be unhealthy for someone who has an inverted profile. 

With all that in mind, the scientific consensus at this point, as indicated by Harvard Health, is that there are good fats and bad fats, categorized that way based on the changes they trigger in the body and how people with those changes fare long-term. 

Unsaturated fat, found in nuts, fish, and plant-based oils, is considered “good” because it raises high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (like fat, cholesterol types can be good or bad), which can lower levels of its “bad” counterpart, low-density cholesterol, Harvard Health says. It’s LDL cholesterol that clogs arteries and leads to heart disease, and its level in the body is increased by saturated fat, which is what milk contains. 

Tague referenced this relatively new scientific understanding of the relationship between dietary fat and health, but said that the government had not caught up to the research, when in fact the United States Department of Agriculture recommends in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 that people adopt what’s known as the Mediterranean diet — a diet that’s rich in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats. Part of that would be reducing whole-milk consumption. 

Dairy advocates may be pleased to know that the USDA has found that only 2 percent of the population gets the recommended amount of dairy — three cups’ worth — and encourages greater consumption. 

Unfortunately for whole-milkers, only 23 percent of people are eating at or under the recommended limit of saturated fat, which is no more than 10 percent of total calorie intake, the USDA says. 

The average intake of saturated fat for all people older than 1 is 239 calories per day, which is 39 calories over the recommended daily limit, the USDA says. Higher-fat milk and yogurt makes up 19 percent of saturated fat intake in children between 2 and 5 years old, and 11 percent in children between 6 and 11 years old. 



So, the government is more up to speed than Tague suggested. What’s lagging is human evolution, and that’s why we tend to overeat certain types of foods, like fat and salt, and it’s overconsumption that makes “bad” foods bad. 

But accumulation of body fat has little to do with what type of food we eat — at least directly. Fat is the body’s way of storing excess energy, so fat builds up when we eat more calories than we expend. 

Set-point theory posits that every person’s body has a built-in weight preference — the set-point weight — and that it’s this genetic inclination that most broadly accounts for variation in body types, according to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Under this theory, some people will always eat more than others, and people should be more concerned with body composition (fat and muscle ratios) than weight. 

According to one analysis, though, some evidence suggests that the modern Western lifestyle contains factors strong enough to override the body’s set-point weight, which is partly why obesity is more problematic these days than in past eras.

According to Dr. Anastassios G. Pittas, of Tufts Medical Center, food preferences have their root in early-history availability: Humans are especially driven to eat foods that have been historically scarce. Now that basically any nutrient can be found in abundance with minimal effort, people are at the mercy of an outdated regulatory system.

For instance, the body does not appear to naturally regulate fat intake, researcher Adam Drewnowski mentions in an article for the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, so how much we eat really comes down to how much is available, and a lot is available. 

Processed and ultra-processed foods increased from less than 5 percent of foods to more than 60 percent, write researchers in a study looking at food availability between 1800 and 2019, stating, “Large increases occurred for sugar, white and whole wheat flour, rice, poultry, eggs, vegetable oils, dairy products, and fresh vegetables.”

It’s often difficult for adults to make healthy decisions about their diet, and they’re equipped with long-term thinking skills that, as Stanford Children’s Health says, kids don’t typically develop until middle adolescence. 

Still, it’s not clear what, exactly, drives obesity, and there’s little reason to believe that a panacea exists. 

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development points out that lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain because the hormones that influence our appetite are released during sleep. 

The Sleep Foundation says that roughly 35 percent of American adults report sleeping less than seven hours per night. The Cleveland Clinic reports that school-aged children need between nine and 12 hours of sleep, but that most children get only seven or eight. The foundation, too, points to the connection between sleep and obesity. 

Other factors for obesity include availability of safe outdoor spaces, genetics, health conditions, medications, and stress, the Institute of Child Health says. 

All this makes it difficult to know where whole-fat milk, specifically, fits into the picture.


Economy and culture 

The other side of the argument has to do with milk sales, which have gone down nationwide by $3 billion between 2013 and 2018 despite an increase in dairy consumption overall, according to researchers who published in the Journal of Dairy Science.

Tague and some of the bill’s advocates went so far as to rail against nut-milk alternatives, which one person referred to as nut juices, imbuing each expression of “juice” with venom. 

Indeed, these non-dairy milks have grown by 61 percent since 2013, the dairy researchers write, and sales reached $2.3 billion in 2018. 

“The transition to plant-based beverages by some consumers has significant implications for dairy product marketing and policy, motivating advocacy groups to propose legislation that might prevent nondairy alternatives from using the word ‘milk’ on packaging and marketing …,” the researchers say. “Empirical evidence of actual consumer confusion caused by plant-based beverages labeled as ‘milk’ is largely mixed, … suggesting that more research is needed to understand the degree of confusion and its influence on choice.”

In any case, the USDA Dietary Guidelines specify that plant milk cannot be used as a substitute in daily dairy consumption because of the different nutritional compositions. 

But the decline in consumption of milk as a beverage is certainly much older than the move away from the use of higher-fat milk in school. The USDA states that, after accounting for race and income, every American generation since 1930 has drunk less milk than the preceding generations. 

The younger generations of today even seem to find it pretty strange that adults drink cow milk at all, as evidenced by a lot — and a lot, and a lot — of lifestyle articles about the topic.  

“Have you ever gone into a restaurant and ordered a tall glass of milk to go with a steak? I have, and you’d have thunk I ordered a New York strip extra well done when the waiter brought it over with a side of stink eye,” writes Andy Kryza, for Thrillist.

And it’s not necessarily tied to any particular value. 

One writer pointed out that the horror movie “Get Out” has a discomforting scene where an adult woman drinks a glass of milk alongside her cereal. The director, Jordan Peele, told the Los Angeles Times he created that scene because “there’s something kind of horrific about milk,” and called the act “kind of gross.” 

The actor who played the character, Allison Williams, linked milk-drinking to that character’s stunted emotional state — arguably similar to the characterization of Alex DeLarge, a sadistic milk-drinker, in “A Clockwork Orange.”

But there are more concrete reasons people avoid milk as well. 

Cows are commonly associated with climate change — although one study funded by a dairy-advocacy group has found that dairy cows produce less than 1 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions — and there are calls to reduce our reliance on them as sources of nutrition in favor of more environmentally-friendly sources, which can include nut milks. 

The human body is also not well-equipped to handle dairy, with 68 percent of the world’s population experiencing some degree of lactose malabsorption, which leads to lactose intolerance, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Lactose intolerance is less common in those of European descent than those of African, Asian, and Native American descent, the institute says. While most Americans are still descended from Europeans, populations of Americans descended from other places are getting larger.

People who are lactose intolerant can take over-the-counter treatments, or just choose to consume dairy products that don’t have lactose, which, if people are simply no longer putting up with the headaches that come from drinking milk, may partly explain the decline in milk sales. 


The takeaway

The decision of whether to reintroduce whole milk into schools is a complicated one that balances the interests of many different populations, and what people understand about it — and how they feel — is built on changing ground. 

In the end, whether it’s a good idea can’t be known in advance, and may come down to a single factor: taste.

“I’m a child of Italian immigrants,” BOCES District Superintendent Murphy told the crowd at Tague’s press event. “When I was growing up, milk [was] something you’d get at breakfast and lunch, and then you have a glass of wine with dinner. But I don’t drink skim milk. I don’t like it. And [in cafeterias], that’s the only thing there.”

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