There is an ongoing debate in the natural food movement about the value of milk products. Occasionally dairy is lumped together with meat as an unhealthy food for humans, and some vegans, or pure vegetarians, even claim that dairy foods cause disease. While there is a degree of truth in such statements, dairy products themselves are not wholly at fault. Improper methods of raising dairy animals, incorrect processing of milk, and lack of understanding about how to use milk products are largely to blame.
There is an ongoing debate in the natural food movement about the value of milk products.
The Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India regard dairy products as excellent foods, particularly for individuals on the spiritual path. While dairy is not recommended for all physical types, it has an important role for most of us, not only for maintaining health but for promoting longevity. Ancient Vedic civilization grew up around the cow, which provided milk, cream, butter, and yogurt. Throughout history, these foods have been favorites of the yogis, who did not find dairy products harmful to their health. In his childhood Krishna, one of India’s greatest sages, was notorious for helping himself to the freshly churned butter any unsuspecting housewife left unattended. Interestingly, the Vedas mention a greater variety of dairy products than any other food source, including grains, fruit, or vegetables.
Ayurveda uses many dairy preparations medicinally, particularly for improving resistance to disease, and to promote convalescence and regeneration. These include milk decoctions, medicated butters and ghees, and other special preparations. Dairy is not only recommended for the young, but also for the elderly and for those who are in any way debilitated or needing strength.
The Sacred Cow
The cow has been the most sacred animal in India since ancient times. This is partly because she naturally produces more milk than her calf needs and is quite happy to share the extra amount with humans. Because of her gentle spirit and the selfless nurturance she provides, the cow is a symbol of the Divine Mother. The greatest Vedic mantra, the Gayatri, is visualized in the form of a cow. Ancient Vedic scriptures describe the universe itself as the Cosmic Cow.
The Earth is also like a cow, selflessly nourishing and supporting the creatures who dwell upon her. The Greek term Gaia and Sanskrit Gau mean both “Earth” and “cow.” The Gaia Principle, which states that there is an organic intelligence pervading and regulating life on Earth, is a modern version of the ancient metaphor of the Cosmic Cow. We can tell how people treat the Earth by how they treat their cows. Today the exploitation of these gentle animals reflects the reckless, consumer-oriented culture polluting and destroying our globe.
We can tell how people treat the Earth by how they treat their cows.
Ramana Maharshi, perhaps the most widely respected sage of modern India, said that his cow gained spiritual liberation (moksha) at her death. At his ashram there are shrines for the cow, as well as for the monkey and the crow who were the Maharshi’s companions. While liberation is easier for humans to gain than for animals (though it is difficult for either one), animals do have souls and respond to spiritual influences. If we recognize the spiritual capacity of animals, we won’t harm them. Exploitation arises because we imagine animals don’t really have feelings, that they’re created by God merely for our convenience.
In the scriptures of ancient India, animals appear as teachers. In the Chandogya Upanishad, for example, Satyakama is taught the four aspects of Brahman (the cosmic reality) by a bull, a fire, a swan, and a crane. When he returns home, his teacher sees the light of truth glowing on his face and acknowledges that he has learned the whole of truth from these alone. Further, the Vedas state that cows should be given to sages, not to kings or merchants. This means that the light of inner knowledge should be shared with the spiritually motivated, not with the politically or commercially minded.
Raising a cow and learning how to milk her was an important duty for brahmin children in Vedic times, and remains so in some parts of India today. The cow was an age-old symbol of nonviolence, and learning to properly care for one taught children to cultivate gentleness, selflessness, receptivity, and wisdom, and to carry these qualities into their meditation.
Modern Methods of Dairy Production
There are a number of health issues relating to milk products which we must understand in order to use dairy correctly. Some people lack the enzymes necessary to digest dairy products because their ethnic group has no history of consuming dairy products. Adults who weren’t breastfed as children may also have trouble digesting dairy. Yet most problems we experience digesting milk are not from dairy products themselves but from their improper preparation. We cannot blame potatoes for the difficulties caused by eating french fries nor can we blame dairy products for the problems people have with them today. Just as whole-wheat flour is quite different from bleached white flour, so naturally prepared dairy products are quite distinct from the overly processed dairy products commonly sold in supermarkets.
In India the cow is allowed to give its milk to its calf first. Only the leftover milk, which is often considerable, is taken by humans. If the calf is taken away from its mother, her milk loses much of its nourishing quality. The dairy industry removes calves from their mothers and slaughters them. We kill the animal’s child and then drink its milk. How would a human mother feel under such circumstances? When a cow hears the call of her calf, she immediately begins to secrete milk. When her calf is taken away, her distress causes toxins to be secreted into her milk.
In India the cow is allowed to give its milk to its calf first. Only the leftover milk, which is often considerable, is taken by humans.
Cows are mistreated in many other ways, including being confined to pens and being milked by machines. They are now hybrid animals, produced through artificial insemination, genetically redesigned to produce far more milk than is healthy for them. They are fed hormones, antibiotics, and inorganic grains. Chemical residues are absorbed into their tissues and concentrated in their milk. Traditional Indian medicine insists that we should avoid chemical and drug contaminants because these then accumulate in our own tissues and breed disease.
Ayurveda explains in great detail the properties of various dairy products, including those of cows, goats, buffaloes, and other milk-producing animals. However, these properties may not be the same in dairy products produced by modern methods of factory farming. Ayurvedic texts tell us that the quality of meat or dairy products from tethered or confined animals is much poorer than that from animals who are able to graze freely.
This gives rise to several questions. To what degree are our dairy products damaged by modern production methods? At what point do they cease to be helpful? To what extent can we counter these negative conditions without giving up dairy altogether? And what can we do to improve the dairy products that we have access to?
The Pitfalls of Pasteurization
According to yoga, milk is pure or sattvic in nature. It is born of love and increases our natural intelligence and sensitivity. Its beneficial properties can be reduced, however, not only by how we raise dairy animals but how we prepare milk products.
Pasteur was the father of the germ theory of disease. Since disease is caused by germs according to this theory, the best way to prevent disease is to sterilize our food and environment. Nature is full of germs and so is regarded as unsafe, while natural products are viewed with suspicion. From the standpoint of holistic medicine, however, to sterilize something is to kill it. A sterile environment is the best place for pathogens to develop because the life-force and the natural immunity it confers have been destroyed. Pasteurizing milk involves heating it to kill any germs it may contain. This allows milk to last longer before spoiling, making it more commercially viable, but doesn’t mean it’s a better food. In this process it is precooked, which reduces its vitality. While pasteurized milk is better for us than meat or junk food, raw dairy products are better still.
Pasteurization is only one of a series of practices that has reduced the quality of our dairy products. It is part of the mentality that says people can always improve upon nature, that natural products are safer if they’re treated first. Our culture regards milk in its natural state as unsafe for human consumption, while considering milk taken from animals raised in an artificial environment with artificial foods and shot with drugs and hormones to be wholesome. Our dairy products are pasteurized, homogenized, refrigerated for long periods of time and injected with additives, including salt, sugar, artificial flavors, and colors. The vitamins A and D added to milk usually come from fish-liver oil, so often milk is not even vegetarian. The natural sattvic or pure properties of dairy are damaged by these processes.
To really benefit from the deeper healing properties of dairy, raw milk is best. This is particularly important in health regimens aiming at rejuvenation or at improving the mind, although we must take care not to allow raw dairy products to get old before we use them, or they can be harmful.
To really benefit from the deeper healing properties of dairy, raw milk is best.
I have treated many patients with a history of adverse reactions to milk. If they switch to raw milk, taken with the right spices, most, if not all, of these reactions disappear. After experiencing fresh dairy products from Ayurvedic farms in India and from family farms here, it is easy to see that what is sold in supermarkets is quite inferior; it is like the difference between garden-fresh vegetables and vegetables that have been sitting in cans for months.
How we take dairy products is also very important. Ayurveda says that warm milk cures disease but cold milk causes it, so we should drink milk warm. In addition, the mucus-producing qualities of milk and other dairy products should be antidoted with the right spices. There are few restrictions on using dairy products in cooking because their properties mix with the food they are cooked with. Using milk, yogurt, cheese, or sour cream in soups, curries, and so on can be quite good.
Ayurveda also notes that dairy products, like sugars, if taken in excess, become harmful, particularly if they are cold. Their damp and heavy nature can clog the channels of circulation. This can aggravate many chronic diseases, such as allergies, asthma, arthritis, or heart disease. The quantity of milk products we consume must be regulated appropriately.
How to Use Dairy Products
Milk is an ideal rejuvenative food; it nourishes the mind and heart. It is good for such conditions as bleeding from the lungs, dry cough, ulcers, infertility, and lack of vitality. Warm milk with ghee is a natural laxative. Pasteurized and homogenized milk, however, often cause constipation.
Cardamom is the best spice for antidoting milk’s mucus-forming properties. Ginger, cinnamon, and turmeric can be used as well. Spicy herbs taken in milk not only make the milk more digestible but add medicinal properties. Warm milk with a pinch of nutmeg before sleep is a good home remedy for insomnia. Tonic herbs in milk decoctions are powerful rejuvenative foods. These include ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), comfrey root, and ginseng.
Cow’s milk is not recommended for kapha (heavy or watery) types, though sometimes they can handle low-fat milk without problems. It is best for vata (airy) and pitta (fiery) types, who need its watery energy. In Ayurvedic thought, good milk is like pure plasma that nourishes all the tissues. However, poor-quality milk is like pure mucus, which is the waste product of the plasma.
Cow’s milk is not recommended for kapha (heavy or watery) types, though sometimes they can handle low-fat milk without problems.
This is good for kapha, for people who have mucus, congestion, and edema. Even so, it should be taken warm, with spices. It has a warm nature and should be avoided by those suffering from febrile or infectious diseases or hyperacidity (pitta types).
Cream is similar to milk, but heavier. We have to be more careful with it when we are suffering from congestion or weak digestion. A good general rule about dairy, particularly heavy milk products like cream or cheese, is to avoid them if you notice a significant coating on your tongue, which indicates congestion in the digestive system.
Ice cream is a difficult food for the body to handle. Its cold nature suppresses the digestive fire, particularly if it is eaten after meals. It contains a lot of sugar and often many other additives, as well as eggs. In Ayurveda it is generally not recommended. However, the more natural forms of ice cream or ice yogurt can be taken in the summer, if our digestion is good, if we are not overweight, and if we are careful what foods we combine them with.
Yogurt is heavy like cheese and, contrary to the popular misconception, it is not helpful for weight reduction (unless one is substituting it for meat or heavier foods). On the contrary, it is a good food for weight gain. While low-fat yogurt is less heavy, it is still not appropriate for weight-loss regimes.
In spite of its use in the West as a breakfast food, yogurt is not always good in the morning, because we have more mucus and congestion in our system after lying down through the night. Cold yogurt in the morning can aggravate mucus in the system. Taking yogurt with fruit increases its watery and mucus-forming nature.
Generally yogurt should not be taken alone or on an empty stomach. It combines well with cucumber, whose lightness balances yogurt’s heaviness. This is the basis of raita, the yogurt salad served with most Indian meals. Yogurt is best taken with spices like cilantro, cumin, coriander, or cayenne.
Yogurt is often the safest of the dairy products. Even milk that is not of the best quality can make tolerable yogurt. Yogurt is also the one dairy product we can easily make for ourselves. However, the more sour the yogurt, the more it can aggravate acidity and make the blood toxic. Sweet yogurt is better. Yogurt also becomes more acidic if taken with acidic fruit or with bananas. Yogurt is mainly for vata types and should be used with care by pitta or kapha (fiery or watery) types, although pitta can handle sweet yogurt.
The more sour the yogurt, the more it can aggravate acidity and make the blood toxic. Sweet yogurt is better.
A good way to take yogurt is to mix it with equal parts of water in a blender and add some cardamom or nutmeg. This is called takra, or Indian buttermilk. It is a good food for convalescence and weak digestion, though it is cooling in nature, and it is particularly helpful for malabsorption and diarrhea. Indian buttermilk is considered to be a food of the gods.
Western buttermilk is pasteurized and often contains large amounts of salt. Otherwise, it is a good dairy product. It is more diuretic (water-removing) than other milk products and less mucus-forming. In this respect it is better for kapha. It is also useful for weak digestion, malabsorption, and diarrhea.
Kefir is another fermented dairy drink particularly useful for vata types, those of an airy or nervous constitution. However, it can cause the same problems as milk and yogurt when combined with fruit. Sweetened kefir may contain large amounts of sugar as well.
Cheese is heavy, sticky, and often hard to digest. It is not recommended when there is congestion, stagnation, or channel blockage. It can aggravate arthritis, gout, infections, acne, colds, flus, and pulmonary disorders, and can increase cholesterol. The more fermented and salty it is, the harder it may be to digest. The rennet commonly used in cheese comes from cow’s intestines, so most commercially available cheeses are not, strictly speaking, vegetarian. Make sure to get those cheeses that do not use rennet.
It is best to eat cheeses which contain little salt and no rennet and which are not strongly fermented. The milder, sweeter-tasting cheeses are preferable. The heavy quality of cheese can be partially antidoted with spices like mustard, cayenne, black pepper, horseradish, and cumin. Cheese can be melted over vegetables, particularly those, like broccoli and cauliflower, which are light in nature. In this way the properties of both the vegetables and the cheese are balanced.
Farmer’s cheese (paneer) is lighter and easier to digest. It is the most common cheese used in India. Cottage cheese is also easy to digest and is light, cool, and nutritive, with a high protein content. Cream cheese is a little more sticky but is also not as hard to digest as regular cheese.
Cottage cheese is also easy to digest and is light, cool, and nutritive, with a high protein content.
Sour cream is perhaps the most acidic dairy product and can aggravate inflammatory (pitta) conditions, including ulcers, heart burn, fevers, and infections. It is best for vata or airy types.
Butter is usually made from pasteurized milk; coloring agents and large amounts of salt are often added, and it may also have been refrigerated for long periods of time, weakening its health-giving properties. Butter is good for people with strong digestion and more internal heat (pitta types). It should not be taken cold—it is better to melt butter over food. Too much butter, like cheese, can clog internal channels and elevate cholesterol. Applied externally, butter is helpful for burns and skin rashes.
Ghee (clarified butter) made from raw butter is good for almost everyone. It increases strength, vitality, and intelligence, and counters fever and infection. It is easy for the liver to digest, though it can increase cholesterol (less than butter, however). It boosts the immune system and promotes both longevity and awareness. It is an excellent food for mental work and meditation.
Ghee should be taken with food or in milk decoctions. Taken directly it may cause nausea, as do many oils taken in this manner. Ghee is the basis for Ayurvedic medicated oils like brahmi (gotu kola) ghee and calamus ghee. It can be placed in the eyes for improving vision. (Triphala ghee is particularly good for this.) Turmeric ghee or turmeric cooked in ghee is one of the best foods for women and for building the blood.
Ghee is best made with raw, unsalted butter. It usually lasts for several months—longer if refrigerated. Kept in a copper vessel it is good for all types of skin rashes and inflammatory skin conditions when applied externally. Ghee is useful as a lamp oil for meditation and ritual worship, as its nourishing power is said to have a purifying effect upon the environment and the mind.
Buying Dairy Products
Given the sad state of milk products in modern society and the mistreatment of dairy animals, some people may want to avoid using dairy products altogether. This is understandable. Many others, however, particularly those with debilitated conditions or with vata and pitta constitutions, will find milk useful. Certainly we should try it before we resort to meat, fish, sugar, or foods with artificial additives to gain weight or vitality.
Support your local farmer—and your local cow.
While most of us don’t need to reject dairy altogether, we do need to insist on higher standards for our milk products. Try to get dairy products from companies which treat their animals well and feed them organically. Buy raw dairy products if possible. If they are not legal in your area, encourage changes in these unreasonable laws. Support your local farmer—and your local cow.
Dairy and Other Foods
Dairy products do not combine well with some other foods—they may not even mix well with each other.
- Any Dairy with Meat or Fish
- Any Dairy with Yeast Breads
- Any Dairy with Sour Fruit
- Any Dairy with Nuts
- Milk with Yogurt
- Milk with Salt
- Dairy with Sweet Fruit
- Dairy with Starchy Vegetables
- Dairy with Whole Grains