Milk Doesn't Make You Phlegmier, OK?

It's unclear where this dairy-maligning myth started, but it's time to banish it once and for all, a new study says.

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Sep 11 2018, 6:11pm

Photo: Getty Images - Leong Thian Fu / EyeEm

Like maybe other typical American children, I drank a lot of milk growing up—preferably spiked with heaping spoonfuls of sugary Nesquik. Whether chocolate or plain, I downed the creamy stuff alongside most foods, in pairings that I shudder to think of now: with pizza, with hot dogs, even with Chinese food.

But when I had even the slightest inkling of a cold, my mom forbade the consumption of my beloved milk, pushing juice, tea, or even (shudder) plain water instead. The reason, according to her, was that drinking milk or eating cheese would make my runny nose runnier, my phlegmy cough phlgemier.

The milk-mucus myth is a persistent one. Whether based on the advice of a doctor or just an enduring bit of homespun wisdom, many people avoid milk, yogurt, and cheese when they’re feeling under the weather, on the belief that dairy increases mucus production and will make their symptoms worse. But according to a new study, this belief is total baloney.

Published last week in the medical journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, “Milk, mucus and myths” disproves the link between milk and mucus once and for all. Authored by pediatric pulmonologist Dr. Ian M. Balfour Lynn, the review was a response to all the concerned—but misinformed—parents Dr. Lynn sees on a daily basis.

“We hear it so often from parents in our clinics,” Lynn told MUNCHIES. “It will be useful to refer them to the review now.”

Although it’s unclear how the milk-mucus myth originated, it’s been an enduring one. Traditional Chinese medical texts linked dairy consumption with "a humidifying effect and thicker phlegm," Balfour-Lynn writes in the review, and Middle Ages doctor and philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that milk causes “a stuffing in the head.”

And “Dr. Spock’s books certainly perpetuated the story,” Lynn noted. The influential pediatrician, whose book Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care has sold more than 50 million copies since its 1946 publication, stated that “dairy products may cause more mucus complications and more discomfort with upper respiratory infections.”

But in his review of the medical literature, Lynn found studies dating back to 1948 show that drinking milk is not associated with an increase of mucus in the respiratory tract. This aligns with his own clinical experience.

“While certainly the texture of milk can make some people feel their mucus and saliva is thicker and harder to swallow, there is no evidence (and indeed evidence to the contrary) that milk leads to excessive mucus secretion,” he writes in the review. “The milk–mucus myth needs to be rebutted firmly by healthcare workers.”

So far, though, Lynn has found this myth to be particularly durable. In his practice, he frequently encounters parents who ask him about the milk-mucus connection.

“I kept saying it was not true, but they still don’t believe me,” he said. Since the review’s publication last week, Lynn has fielded a lot of comments from people who refuse to get on board.

“When comments are available, many still disbelieve the evidence,” he said. “Including accusing the review of being sponsored by the milk industry! Ridiculous, and in fact I never could stand drinking milk!”

Well, there you have it, straight from a doctor’s mouth: Milk is gross. But if you’re into it, now you know that the next time you have a cold, you can binge kefir, Cheddar, and ice cream to your heart’s delight.