chocolate milk
January 17, 2019

The Checkoff Research Investment Is Paying Off

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Funny how in high school, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t gain a pound. Then I got the freshman 15 (or so) in college, and my weight escalated from there. Today I’m one of millions of Americans who goes on diets periodically, usually this time of year, to get my weight under control.

My diets are usually the high protein, low carbohydrate variety mixed in with some sort of exercise. Everyone has their own preference.

What concerns me, though, are the number of diet programs that cut out dairy. While I do cut back on my allotment of ice cream, and I opt for higher protein yogurts, I can’t imagine not including milk, cheese, cottage cheese and other assortments of dairy products in my regular diet. 

I would hope that the justification for the removal of dairy from the diet by self-proclaimed experts is based on some sort of research. Unfortunately not all research is good research, and even with good research sometimes we don’t get the full picture of the results. 
For example, a recent Bloomberg article states that “there’s growing recognition that high dairy intake can increase risks of heart disease, cancer, and weight gain” and goes on to tout a Swedish study, published in an actual journal, that says people that drank three glasses of milk per day died more often over a 20 year span than people who didn’t drink that much.  

I’m not discounting the research. The data probably did come to that conclusion, however we don’t know what other variables are part of the study. But there are two aspects of this story that really get under my skin.

The first is the pure acceptance of the research by the author of the article as undisputed fact. The second is the author goes on within the story to discount any contrary research just because it comes from the dairy industry. 

To get dairy’s untold side of the story, I did what any good journalist would do and talked to a dairy industry expert. That expert is Greg Miller, PhD, chief science officer of National Dairy Council (NDC), an organization funded through dairy producer checkoff dollars as part of Dairy Management, Inc.  As expected he bristles at the notion that the dairy industry would do anything less than publish true and honest peer-reviewed research.

NDC actually does no research, yet funds a variety of research projects that are conducted at universities, medical schools and other institutions. Each proposal goes through a rigorous process to determine the validity of the proposal, the method by which the research will be conducted, the funding to support it and other key factors. 

“We’re really proud of our research program and the way we do business. We run an open and transparent program,” Miller says. “We are transparent and open about what we find and we have an external nutrition research advisory committee to evaluate all of our proposals for scientific merit. All results get published regardless of the outcome.”

In this era where government funding for research is going by the wayside, it’s important to have organizations that can support valuable research. 

“It’s frustrating,” Miller says. “You’d like to see better government investment in research because that’s so critical in defining the dietary guidelines and making sure policymakers have the information they need to make well-informed decisions.”

The lack of government funding for research forces private industry to get involved, and sometimes that investment can come with certain outcome expectations that fit a specific agenda. And sometimes only certain parts of research is publicized that fit that agenda.

Preconceived beliefs can cloud research, especially in the field of nutrition, according to Miller. “A lot of people go into the field of nutrition because they have this belief system around nutrition and what it means for long term health,” he says. “But that belief system tends to cloud their judgment in science and they lose rationality along the way.”

Because they work on behalf of dairy farmers, Miller says he and his colleagues at NDC can’t afford to take anything but a rational view of science. “Dairy farmers are taking money out of their pockets and giving it to us to spend on their behalf, and we take that very seriously,” he says. “So we have a very rigorous strategic planning process that we go through to identify the core issues out there for the industry and determine how we are going to do research to either take down the barriers to dairy consumption or create opportunities.”

One of the wins for dairy farmer-funded research was in the area of flavored milk. That drink went from a comfort snack drink to an exercise recovery beverage and opened up the exercise industry to the need for protein in recovery drinks. Miller says the research funded by dairy farmers forced major sports drinks to reformulate products because they didn’t have a high protein component.

“We’re selling more flavored milk now as a result of direct farmer investment in research,” Miller says.

It’s that research, which I trust, that keeps our family, which includes two active athletes, stocked in chocolate milk. And its other research, and personal preference, that keeps dairy in my diet, no matter how much weight I have to lose.

What do you think? Is research funded by NDC credible? Send me your thoughts at [email protected]