Does eating dairy make you happy?

This link appeared in my Feedbook feed some weeks back, and thought I should check it out.  It was shocking to find that even my low expectations of this “research” had been optimistic.

There was no way of tracking down the original research (and I really did try) even supposing it has been published.  The article reports that some kind of “brain wave” monitoring was used to measure people’s responses to dairy (it isn’t clear if they ate dairy or just thought about it), and they were then asked some questions about their enjoyment of dairy products.  The study found that some kind of changes in the brain associated with happiness could be detected, and that many people like dairy products.  Astonishing.  One would probably be able to measure similar responses to sugar, alcohol, and (amongst smokers) tobacco.  In my case, you’d find a similar response to Madhur Jaffrey’s Black-eyed beans and Mushrooms.  Whatever floats your boat.  Food is pleasurable, particularly fatty, salty or sweet foods.  And people do like what they like.

It is possible though, that there is more to it and that there are specific effects from dairy.  Cow's milk products, particularly cheese, contain appreciable quantities of caso-morphines – opiates produced by the cow to reward the calf for suckling.  These are known to have wide-ranging effects in the body, some of them deeply alarming in susceptible individuals, and have been spoken of as specifically addicting.

Certainly the way many people talk about cheese, in particular, make it hard to ignore the possibility of addiction, particularly once you’ve learnt to spot those language patterns.  My training on addiction helped me realise the language used around many foods differs little from the way people talk about alcohol or tobacco.  This is one of the key ways in which we loose our capacity to be objective or rational about our food choices.  One thing is for sure, no matter what the initial pleasure and dopamine hit we may get from feeding an addiction, addictions themselves seldom if ever lead to deep and lasting happiness.  And it is happiness that is claimed to be promoted by dairy here.

Happiness – which is not the same as pleasure, joy, or exhilaration at all – arises when we can meet our emotional and other needs in balance, particularly when our lives have meaning and purpose and we live within a rich and active social network.  We can see that, along with the many other benefits, people are more likely to report a sense of thriving and enjoying life from eating fresh fruits and vegetables.  The FarmingUK study showed no equivalent effect from dairy – just evidence that people enjoy eating dairy products.  It is possible such effects exist, but I’ve yet to find evidence of it.

News of this study is likely to have cheered up dairy farmers - perhaps the target audience -  many of whom lead an unenviable life caught between agrochemical, feed and pharmaceutical companies and the demands of supermarkets; all hell-bent on making this rather extraordinary group of foods into cheap staples.  This is a terrible mistake; most of the longest lived and healthiest people on the planet eat little or no dairy.  This shows there is no actual innate need which can only be met by creating vast quantities of cheap milk.  Whether dairy products – particularly cheese – make people genuinely happy is unclear, but dairy farmers would almost certainly be happier if they could escape from the treadmill of industrialised production.