infants possess the enzyme lactase, and can therefore digestlactose, but this ability is lost in many people after weaning(commonly after the age of two). Losing the ability to digestlactose at this age is a clear indication of how humans are notdesigned to drink milk as adults; it is not a natural food for us.The frequency of lactose intolerance varies from around 90-100per cent of Asians, 65-70 per cent of Africans, to 10 per cent of Caucasians (6). In the absence of lactase, lactose is fermented bybacteria in the large intestine, this leads to a build up of gas.Symptoms of lactose intolerance include nausea, cramps,bloating, wind, and diarrhoea. The treatment is straightforward:avoid lactose. This means cutting out all dairy foods andchecking labels for lactose in bread, chocolate and otherprocessed foods. Many lactose intolerant people obtain theircalcium from plant-based sources.
An allergic reaction to cow’s milk is very different to lactoseintolerance and can, in extreme circumstances, be fatal. An allergicreaction to milk occurs when the body’s immune system perceivesone of the proteins in milk (either whey or casein) as a foreigninvader and launches an attack. Symptoms are generally moreextreme than in lactose intolerance and include excessive mucusproduction resulting in a runny nose and blocked ears. Moreserious symptoms include eczema, colic, diarrhoea, asthma andvomiting. Casein is more difficult to avoid as it is commonly usedin the production of bread, processed cereals, instant soups,margarine, salad dressings, sweets and cake mix. People with milk allergies tend to obtain their calcium from plant-based sources.
Cow’s Milk and Diabetes
Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the immunesystem’s ‘soldiers’, known as T-cells, destroy the body’s owninsulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. This type of responseis thought to involve a genetic predisposition (diabetes in thefamily) coupled to an environmental trigger such as cow insulin orcasein – both from cow’s milk. Research shows that some infantsmay be more vulnerable to type I diabetes later in life if exposed tocow's milk formula while very young. A Finnish study of children(with at least one close relative with type I diabetes) examinedwhether early exposure to insulin in cow’s milk formula increasedthe risk of type I diabetes. Results showed that infants given cow'smilk formula at three months old had immune systems whichreacted far more strongly to cow’s insulin (7). This raises concernsthat exposure to cow’s insulin plays a role in the autoimmuneprocess leading to type I diabetes.Another environmental trigger in cow’s milk is thought to be aprotein called casein (8). Casein is similar in shape to theinsulin producing cells in the pancreas. Because the body maysee casein as a foreign invader and attack it, it may also start toattack the pancreas cells having confused them for casein; againleading to diabetes.A review of the clinical evidence suggests that the incidence of typeI diabetes is related to the early consumption of cow’s milk;children with type I diabetes were more likely to have been breast-fed for less than three months and to have been exposed to cow’smilk protein before four months of age (9). The avoidance of cow’s milk during the first few months of life may reduce the risk of type I diabetes. Infants who cannot breastfeed from theirmothers would benefit more from taking a plant-based formulasuch as soya-based formula rather than one based on cow’s milk.
Plant-Based Sources of Calcium
There are many plant-based sources of calcium. Good sourcesinclude non-oxalate (see below) dark green leafy vegetables such asbroccoli, kale, spring greens, cabbage, bok choy, parsley andwatercress. Also rich in calcium are dried fruits, such as figs anddates, nuts, particularly almonds and brazil nuts, and seedsincluding sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste) whichcontains a massive 680 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams.Pulses including soya beans, kidney beans, chick peas, baked beans,broad beans, lentils, peas and calcium-set tofu (soya bean curd)provide a good source of calcium. Other fruit and vegetablesources include parsnips, swede, turnips, lemons,oranges, olives and molasses. A good additionalsource is calcium-enriched soya milk.
Calcium Uptake andAbsorption
The amount of calciumpresent in a particular foodis not the only importantfactor to consider. Thebioavailability of thecalcium should beconsidered whendeciding which foodsare a good source.This means how muchcalcium is actuallyavailable forabsorption into thebody from the food.The calcium in dairyproducts is not as wellabsorbed as that in manydark green leafyvegetables (3). Forexample, calciumabsorbability from kale wasdemonstrated to be considerablyhigher than that from cow’s milk (10). While spinach contains arelatively high amount of calcium, itis bound to a substance called oxalatewhich hinders calcium absorption (11)so it is important to obtain calciumfrom low-oxalate green vegetables.Grains, nuts and seeds contain asubstance called phytic acid which untilrecently was also considered to hindercalcium absorption, now phytic acid isbelieved to have only a minor influence (12).Caffeine and smoking have been shown toreduce calcium absorption (13).
The body requires vitamin D to absorb and retain calcium in the
Food (and serving size)Calcium(milligrams)
Cauldron Foods Organic Plain Tofu (one 500pack - 250g)Sesame seeds (25g - a small handful)168Sunflower seeds (25g - a small handful)28Broccoli (80g portion boiled in unsalted water)32Curly kale (80g portion boiled in unsalted water) 120Watercress (80g portion raw)136Almonds (30g - a small handful)51Brazil nuts (30g - a small handful)87Alpro Soya Milk (200ml glass)240Dried Figs (100g - four to six pieces of fruit) 250Tahini (10g - two teaspoonfuls generously spread 68on one piece of toast or stirred into a bowl of soup)