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December 2005/January 2006
Vegetarian Advocate: Warning: Milk Does A Body Bad

By Jack Rosenberger


A seven year-old African American boy, Rashid Gholson suffered from diarrhea and stomach cramps for years. Hua-Wei Cherng, a 23 year-old Asian American male, also endured lengthy bouts of stomach cramps and diarrhea. Likewise, Glenda G. Costner, a 54 year-old African American woman, suffered from bloating, diarrhea and flatulence. The cause of their illnesses is a food product that, in America, often seems as ubiquitous as the ground we walk upon. The culprit? Milk.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has filed a class-action law suit on behalf of ten plaintiffs, including Gholson, Cherng and Costner, all of whom are lactose intolerant, and other District of Columbia residents who, unaware of their lactose intolerance, unwittingly suffered gastrointestinal pain and discomfort caused by consuming milk.

Lactose intolerance is the inability to properly digest lactose, the predominant sugar in milk. As the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) notes, “This inability results from a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which is normally produced by the cells that line the small intestine. Lactase breaks down milk sugar into simpler forms that can then be absorbed into the bloodstream. When there is not enough lactase to digest the amount of lactose consumed, the results, although not usually dangerous, may be very distressing.”

As the plaintiffs in the PCRM suit know only too well, the symptoms include chronic bloating, cramps, diarrhea, flatulence and nausea.

Even though the average American consumes 200-plus pounds of milk and cream a year, the NDDIC estimates that some 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. The rate of lactose intolerance varies, depending on a person’s ethnic or genetic background. Up to 90 percent of Asian Americans and 75 percent of African Americans and Native Americans are lactose intolerant, according to the NDDIC. It is believed that as many as 80 percent of Latinos are also affected. People of European or Mediterranean descent, however, less frequently suffer from lactose intolerance, with only six to 22 percent suffering from the condition.

The defendants in the PCRM lawsuit are nine milk producers, including Safeway, Horizon Organic and Farmland Dairies, which sell milk in the District of Columbia. PCRM is seeking damages and a permanent injunction requiring the defendants to place a warning label—such as “Warning: Lactose intolerant individuals may experience bloating, diarrhea or other gastrointestinal discomfort from consuming milk. Check with your physician.”—on all milk products marketed in Washington, DC. Clearly, such a warning label could significantly affect milk’s public image and sales.

What You Can Do
Dan Kinburn, a PCRM associate general counsel, urges people to “stop drinking milk and replace it in your diet with plant-based foods. That is the best thing you can do.” Moreover, Kinburn encourages individuals or groups to file similar class-action suits in other jurisdictions. As the PCRM suit pertains only to Washington, DC, “we would like to see such lawsuits brought to court all across the nation,” he says.

Likewise, readers should discuss lactose intolerance and milk consumption with anyone and everyone. And of course, one time-tested method of spreading the word is to write letters to the editor about the subject. Given its prevalence in America, lactose intolerance is a surprisingly little-known medical problem.

To learn more about the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and lactose intolerance, see www.pcrm.org.

 

 


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