Walking through a downtown Toronto subway station recently, I couldn't help but notice a wall-to-wall advertisement that had taken over the concourse. The ad featured a disembodied hand holding a piece of cheese in the air and directed passersby to see if they are getting enough calcium. The ad also featured the logos of both the Dairy Farmers of Canada and Osteoporosis Canada.
It's not surprising to see a major dairy-industry group encouraging Canadians to eat more cheese, milk and other dairy products. It's quite another when a national charity dedicated to reducing osteoporosis and improving treatment aligns itself with those industry interests – especially since mounting research is casting substantial doubt on the oft-repeated mantra that more dairy is better for our health.
Despite this, a number of groups, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Dietitians of Canada, and yes, Osteoporosis Canada, have relationships with the national dairy-industry group.
Every March, for instance, the Dietitians of Canada and the Dairy Farmers team up to bring Canadians "Nutrition Month," a campaign to help people eat better. The nutrition month website, created by the Dairy Farmers, contains links to several of its other websites that promote milk consumption, such as dairygoodness.ca. Kate Comeau, manager of public relations and media with Dietitians of Canada, said they are "careful about the types of organizations we do align with" and that corporate funding doesn't influence policy.
And last year, the Dairy Farmers of Canada announced a partnership with Osteoporosis Canada, the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada to promote its new "Get Enough Helper App." The free mobile app encourages people to "eat healthier and feel great" and for each day individuals track how many servings of food they consume from Canada's Food Guide, the Dairy Farmers donated $1 to one of the groups. Eager to maximize the donations, each of the groups sent an appeal to the public to download the app as a way of improving their health.
By the end of the year, each group received $50,000 from Dairy Farmers. The program was so successful, according to the Dairy Farmers of Canada 2014 annual report, that it is running again this year. (Hence the giant subway advertisement.)
Haven't downloaded the app yet? Here are the sorts of things you can expect to learn, according to getenough.ca, the official campaign website: That you should add milk to soups, smoothies and even pasta sauces to get the recommended daily amount. Or that "the sugar that is added to chocolate milk and yogurt doesn't turn them into bad foods," and that chocolate milk contains just as much sugar as unsweetened apple juice. You'll also be told that milk products reduce the risk of certain diseases.
What you won't hear, however, is that dairy is not especially important if you want to have a healthy diet. Or that a recent study in the British Medical Journal found that people who consume high amounts of calcium do not have a reduced fracture risk. Or that high dairy intake has been associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer (although a cause-and-effect relationship has not been established).
Osteoporosis Canada states on its website that Dairy Farmers of Canada is its official corporate sponsor. On the same page, Osteoporosis Canada touts the perks of being a sponsor, saying "we can provide you with a marketing platform to help you reach your target audience and achieve your business objectives."
Dr. Famida Jiwa, president and CEO of Osteoporosis Canada, said any funding the organization receives from corporate sponsors does not influence guidelines or other policies.
On the Osteoporosis Canada website, a section on calcium features a photo of milk, cheese, butter, eggs and a tomato and notes that Canada's Food Guide recommends three servings of milk and alternatives a day. "Take your pick: have a glass of milk [go ahead and have chocolate if you prefer], have soup that's made with milk … main courses made with cheese … or have yogurt with fruit for dessert," the website says. Then, there is a note that anyone who is intolerant or prefers to avoid dairy can find calcium in other foods, such as fortified beverages or canned salmon.
These examples raise important questions about what happens when reputable health organizations willingly align themselves with an industry that wants to influence our behaviour and increase consumption of its products.
If the industry in question was, say, sugary carbonated beverages, there would undoubtedly be a public outcry. When the dairy industry funds educational school programs, mobile apps or nutrition websites, they pass muster because, ostensibly, milk products are vital to our health.
That's simply not true. As Mark McGill, a registered dietitian in Ottawa, says, "I don't think it's necessary to focus on a particular nutrient." Instead, Canadians should try and consume a well-balanced diet, be physically active and realize that calcium comes from many food sources such as broccoli, kale, oranges or black-eyed peas – not just dairy.
Corporate sponsors provide health organizations with funds to help them do their work. What are those organizations giving up in return?