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Science

Milk facts: Germans like it, the Irish love it

As health trends shift, milk, once unquestioned as a beverage and staple ingredient, is increasingly under scrutiny. DW takes a look at how Europeans consume their favorite source of calcium.

How much milk do Germans drink?

Germans consume an average of 90 kilograms (200 pounds) of milk products per year. That includes milk, of course, but also butter and cheese. In 2013, the exact per-person average was 90.7 kilos.

That breaks down into 53 liters of milk, 24 kilos of cheese and six kilos of butter. The butter breaks down to 53 sticks per year, or about one stick per week.

How about the rest of the EU?

In Ireland, the per-person milk consumption is a lot higher. The average Irish person drank 142 liters of milk in 2013, according to statistics accumulated by the European Commission's Eurostat institute. In the European Union generally, the average was 65. That puts the Irish at twice the EU average and Germans just under it with their 53 liters per year.

All these statistics deal with cow's milk, by the way. Dietary replacements like soy or almond milk, which you can find on almost every supermarket's shelves today, are not included.

Is it actually good for us?

If you believe the milk industry, you should stay away from "non-animal replacements" like soy- and almond milk. The dairy lobby says they cannot replace all the nutrients included in cow's milk, which best-known for supplying the human body with calcium. Milk is stocked with that mineral - more so than any other food.

Calcium is important for building up bones and teeth, for example. The German Society for Nutrition says everyone should ingest at least one gram of calcium per day. That's equivalent of 250 ml of milk (eight ounces) or two slices of Swiss cheese.

So do we have to drink milk?

Not necessarily. "A balanced diet consisting of lots of vegetables, and few or no dairy products, can provide all the calcium you need," said Hans Hauner, a professor of nutritional medicine at the Technical University of Munich in an interview with German daily newspaper "Die Zeit."

Calcium can be found in some mineral water, in broccoli and in some pulses and legumes, such as beans, peas,and lentils.

Some studies suggest calcium may not be the wonder-stuff for bones as we tend to believe, however. Whether a person develops osteoporosis - the illness that gives you brittle bones - depends just as much on how much calcium they consume as how much physical activity they undertake.

A study conducted by the Harvard Medical School even suggests it is vitamin D, and not calcium, that lowers the risks of osteoporosis. Vitamin D in the small intestine enables our bodies to absorb calcium in the first place.

What are the risks?

First, milk is not a natural product. The milk we buy in supermarkets is heat-treated (pasteurized) and homogenized to ensure it lasts longer. This is how we can digest the milk fat, and it's what makes us fat.

Model Milch Fotografie Symbolbild

In the future, will that be an alternative milk?

Another issue is the use of antibiotics. Cows have to produce so much milk these days that they often suffer from health problems, which are treated with antibiotics. Residues from the medication can find its way into the milk and contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.

Critics blame milk for a number of illnesses, including cancer and tonsillitis. Some studies have suggested links between milk consumption and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer or ovarian cancer. Jürgen Schrezenmeir of the Federal Institute for Milk Research told "Die Zeit": "There are indications, but no reliable evidence, that milk leads to these cancers."

So based on the latest approved research, milk drinkers in Germany, at least, have no need to panic.

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