Israeli Health Ministry Ignoring Advice on Lowering Milk Consumption

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Tnuva milk cartonsCredit: Dan Keinan

The Health Ministry is set to publish updated nutritional recommendations but will not follow its nutrition department's advice that the consumption of milk products be capped at two per day.

The ministry said it did a comprehensive study of the scientific literature in preparing its report. In July, the ministry’s nutrition department submitted its own findings on milk.

According to that report, “Fermented milk reduces indexes of inflammation; regular milk and milk drinks raise indexes of inflammation; puddings containing sugar [and] hard cream cheeses contribute a high quantity of sodium, saturated fat and cholesterol.”

The nutrition department recommended against three servings of milk products per day. It said people could "consume two servings of milk products per day with no harm to health,” but the Health Ministry's official recommendation will remain at two to three servings per day.

The Health Ministry is publishing the recommendations after a delay of more than a year.

The milk industry takes in about 10 billion shekels ($2.67 billion) a year and accounts for 17 percent of Israelis' annual food outlays. The fact that health care systems worldwide are revisiting the effects of milk on health puts medical experts and the milk industry in a conflict of interest for the first time.

The Israeli Dairy Board aims to increase the public’s consumption of milk and milk products; one of its marketing campaigns called for “three a day” three servings of milk products.

It encourages the consumption of milk among children, in hospitals and in schools. It also has senior medical figures on its payroll and funds Health Ministry research on the effects of milk on the human body.

The Dairy Board reportedly invested 7.5 million shekels in public relations in 2014.

The Health Ministry’s new nutritional recommendations will be passed on to Israel's council on nutrition, gastroenterology and liver disease, which advises the health minister.

The council’s chairman, Prof. Zamir Halpern, is an expert in liver disease and the digestive system at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. But Halpern told Haaretz not to ask him about milk because he was the scientific adviser for Tnuva, a major milk producer. Halpern is also a member of the Dairy Board's scientific committee.

“I deal with science, not marketing,” Halpern said, adding that each member of the council was asked about possible conflicts of interest.

The Health Ministry added that it was holding discussions with experts “on the subject of an updated paper on recommendations in all areas. A draft of the paper was distributed and received many responses that are now under discussion.”

The ministry said its chief scientist conducts "independent scientific follow-up of research in various areas, including the influence of milk on human health.”

For its part, the Dairy Board said it was only a body that operates for the good of the public by law, and its board of directors contained officials from government ministries.

“The law authorizes the Dairy Board among other things to encourage and fund research on milk . The research fund operates independently and with complete transparency ....The Dairy Board’s explanatory and marketing work has always been based on recommendations of the Health Ministry and bodies authorized to deal with nutrition," the board said.

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