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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Letter to the Editor | VegSource Interactive, Inc.

Honest Advocacy

Letter to the editor by Syd Baumel
The views expressed in Letters to the Editor
do not necessarily reflect those of VegSource

June 6, 2002 -- Congratulations to Stephen Walsh, Ph.D., for continuing to expose the serious misinformation that permeates Robert Cohen's writings and lectures. Honest mistakes -- even dishonest ones, if regretfully acknowledged and corrected -- are excusable. But in my experience and that of other vegans like Walsh (a specialist in data analysis and Vice Chair of the Vegan Society), Jeff Nelson (owner/operator of VegSource and Chair Elect of EarthSave), John Robbins (widely regarded as the father of the contemporary vegan revolution), and Stephen Kaufman, M.D. (President of Vegetarian Advocates and Medical Director of the Christian Vegetarian Association, among other distinctions), who shun milk for ethical reasons, Robert Cohen obstinately (and sometimes extremely offensively) refuses either to retract or to rationally defend and support the many patently deceptive and manipulative claims with which he purports to educate people about the real and not-so-real perils of milk (see for example the saga detailed in Walsh's open letter to Cohen).

It worries me that many well-meaning people believe the scales are being lifted from their eyes by the self-described "not milk man" when so much wool is also involved. And it frightens me that Robert Cohen's fanatically slanted exposés and revelations have made him a sitting duck for those who would use his untruthfulness to impugn the credibility of all vegans and other similarly motivated people who value truth in public health education and a more compassionate way of eating.

It may seem harsh, but after repeated failures by prominent vegans like Jeff Nelson and John Robbins to persuade Robert Cohen to play fair with his facts and his rhetoric, I believe it's necessary for other vegans who see through his fabrications to expose him before he winds up discrediting us -- not to mention deluding even more people. Any special interest group -- whether it be doctors, clergy, drug manufacturers, or even the notorious National Fluid Milk Processors Promotion Board -- that refuses to discipline and, if necessary, repudiate its own offenders against the public good, rightly earns the contempt of society. Cohen's deeply offensive reaction this winter to Nelson et al.'s initial gutsy effort to expose "The Sad Truth About Robert Cohen" has heightened the urgency to speak out. Stephen Walsh, in particular, has been outrageously maligned as a "Judas," a "traitor," a "stalker," and a dairy industry "infiltrator" by Cohen and some of his followers. This would almost be funny were it not for the fact that some people, apparently unacquainted with Walsh's own record of rational dairy-bashing, have been taken in by this absurd fantasy.


 



It's ironic that Cohen, who styles himself as a fearless truth seeker who has "stood toe to toe with the most powerful and influential industry in America, the dairy industry, and fear[s] no man or group of men," could have avoided this scandal merely by standing toe to toe with Stephen Walsh and answering his very legitimate questions. Those questions were posed by Walsh, and later by Jeff Nelson and independently by me and (again independently) by Stephen Kaufman in the very same spirit as Cohen's own avowed mission "to level the informational playing field for all consumers so that they may be empowered to make informed decisions that bear on the health and welfare of themselves and their children."

I'm writing this letter not just to commend and defend Stephen Walsh but because I'm concerned that some people, strongly predisposed to believe Robert Cohen, will read one (in particular) of Walsh's succinct criticisms and conclude it's just one man's word against another's. I fear that Stephen underestimates many people's distrust of scientific authority. That distrust is often very well founded; but not in this case. For that reason -- and at the risk of boring some VegSource readers to death -- I'd like to rebut in detail what I would refer to as "Cohen's Law of Calcium Absorption," which Cohen enunciates in an email to his notmilk mailing list as follows:

"In order to absorb one milligram of calcium, one needs an equal milligram of magnesium. Therefore, in examining calcium values of food, one must also consider the amounts of magnesium."

As far as I can tell, "Cohen's Law" is recognized by no dietitian, nutritionist, or other scientist, including at least several who are vegans themselves. Yet Cohen uses it to justify his claim that the soymilk that can be made with the "SoyToy" milkmaker which he sells (I believe exclusively) provides more calcium than any other soymilk -- or cow's milk, for that matter (which Cohen habitually refers to as "liquid meat," even though it contains only 3% protein by volume and virtually no fat in its "skim" form).

As a writer who has long specialized in health and nutrition, I have never seen any evidence to support Cohen's Law. I could have asked Cohen to provide any evidence he might have; but the last time I asked him to support some other outrageous claims (those detailed in Walsh's open letter), he persistently evaded my questions, posed an unanswerable riddle instead, and wound up threatening to sue me and one of the publications I edit. To quote the bizarre aside to his wife and secretary Lisa with which he concluded an email to me at the time (the parentheses are his):

"(Lisa -- please file this. It's clear that I am being set up, and this so-called reporter and his journal may very well be hit with a libel and slander suit similar to the brief we are preparing for the JN/ES thing. As per the other EMAILS, this needs to be well documented -- Robert)"

(NOTE: "JN/ES" presumably stands for Jeff Nelson and EarthSave.)

So here I am, challenging Cohen's Law on a very public, high traffic website -- not to air dirty vegan laundry in public or to indulge in undignified "infighting," but to demonstrate that some of us (I hope most) hold truth and public responsibility higher than any insecurities we may have about "is this bad for the vegans?"

I think it's good for the vegans.

Let me start by saying that all the research I'm aware of utterly fails to support Cohen's Law.

Cohen, who loves to impute bias, incompetence, or deceit to any scientist whose work conflicts with his own numerous pseudoscientific claims, would probably reject much of that research, because at least two of the leading investigators --nutritionist Connie Weaver and physician Robert Heaney -- are enthusiastic dairy boosters. But unlike Cohen, Weaver and Heaney have graciously rendered unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. Based on real science (much of it their own), they have publicly supported the "not milk" alternative.

Weaver has said that "calcium fortified soy milk is a good source of calcium, which should be offered as an alternative to milk in school lunch programs." Heaney is quoted in an article on the website of EarthSave (an organization founded by John Robbins) as saying: "The sheer quantity of calcium in dairy products certainly makes them attractive sources, but they have no monopoly on calcium. There's no reason in the world why you couldn't get an adequate intake from a vegetable source."

Weaver, Heaney, and others scientists' research on the "fractional absorption" of calcium from various foods (i.e., the percentage we absorb) is trusted enough by vegan authorities to have been used as source material in a recent book by two of the world's leading and most respected vegan dietitians, Brenda Davis, R.D., and Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D. The book is a rigorous self-help masterpiece called Becoming Vegan. Basing their figures on a literature review by Weaver and Plawecki published in 1994 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (see here for a more recent full-text version), Davis and Melina cite the fractional absorption of calcium from half a cup of cow's milk as 48 milligrams; that is, the average person absorbs 32% of the milk's 150 mg (milligrams) of calcium. But according to Cohen's Law, that figure should be 16 mg -- because that's all the magnesium there is.

This scientific contradiction of Cohen's Law is not unique to milk. It appears to apply across the board.

For example, among the foods studied by Weaver and associates and listed in Becoming Vegan (Table 6.6, page 97) is "fruit punch with calcium citrate malate." The research says we absorb 117 mg of calcium from a six ounce glass. But the USDA's nutrient database says six ounces of fruit punch contains only 4 to 7.5 mg of magnesium. (Most fruits are a poor source of magnesium.) In other words, we absorb roughly twenty times as much calcium from calcium-fortified fruit punch as we're "supposed to" according to Cohen's Law.

Similarly, another study indicates that the fractional calcium absorption from apple juice and orange juice fortified with 250 mg of calcium citrate malate is 42 and 36 percent, or 105 and 90 mg, respectively. Yet there are just 12 milligrams of magnesium in a cup of frozen apple juice and 25 in a cup of OJ -- another blatant violation of Cohen's Law.

It's not just foods artificially fortified with calcium that violate Cohen's Law. Closer to home, so do beans.

As with soybeans, all beans typically contain similar amounts of magnesium and calcium. Yet according to research by Connie Weaver and her associates we only absorb about 20 to 25% of that calcium (see "Absorbability of calcium from common beans," Weaver et al., Journal of Food Science, 1993, 58:1401-1403 96 -- sorry, no link available). Take white beans. (Please!) Despite their ample endowment of 159 mg of magnesium and 226 mg of calcium per 220 gram cup (cooked), research says we absorb just 49 mg of that calcium. That's less than a third of what Cohen's Law predicts.

In 1994, the Journal of the American College of Nutrition published a study that, in effect, was a direct test of Cohen's Law. Titled "Effect of magnesium on the intestinal absorption of calcium in man," it found no effect whatsoever, regardless of whether the subjects had a normal (about 250 mg/day) or a high (about 800 mg/day) magnesium intake while on a normal (about 800 mg/day) or a very low (about 250 mg/day) calcium diet. I should add, however, that the study boosted dietary magnesium levels with magnesium oxide, the inorganic form you can find in the supplement section of any health food store. The magnesium naturally present in foods is mostly organic magnesium salts and chelates. But while the study is open to criticism on those grounds, its results are entirely consistent with the fractional absorption data for calcium that I've discussed above -- and as we've seen, that body of data is, without any reservations, entirely incompatible with Cohen's Law.

So what about soymilk?

Cohen's Law (dare I say it) conveniently justifies his allegation that -- unlike other soymilks -- fully 100% of the small amount of calcium in the soymilk from the milkmaker he aggressively promotes above all others must be absorbed, because the milk contains as much magnesium as calcium. (Cohen: "In order to absorb one milligram of calcium, one needs an equal milligram of magnesium. . . Homemade soymilk contains 32 mg of both calcium and magnesium. Exactly the perfect proportion!") That's an extraordinary claim, not only because there is no basis for the Law it depends upon, but because the highest fractional absorption rate reported by Weaver et al. (and Davis and Melina in Becoming Vegan) is 61% (for half a cup of broccoli).

In fact, according to Davis and Melina, "the absorbability of calcium from soy beverages (often fortified with tricalcium phosphate) is . . . about 24%." (Becoming Vegan, p. 98.)

Cohen's disinformation (and if I'm wrong to call it that, I invite Cohen -- to whom I will email a link to this letter -- or anyone else for that matter, to publicly correct me here on this forum) is almost trivial in comparison to Cohen's attempted character assassination of Stephen Walsh for daring to question, among other things, Cohen's entirely unsubstantiated accusation that a Norwegian research group perpetrated "the fraudulent study of the century" when they dared to publish data suggesting that milk may prevent breast cancer. (Stephen Kaufman and I will soon be publishing our own independent report that corroborates Walsh's charges, as well as Cohen's evasiveness and hostility when challenged to support his claims.)

I've never met Stephen Walsh, but I've exchanged many substantive emails with him, privately and on "IVU-SCI," the science mailing list of the International Vegetarian Union. A few months ago, when I was researching a complex article on the controversy over milk, Stephen -- true to form -- suggested that I was overestimating the evidence against milk in some instances. At other times, he suggested I was underestimating it.

I consider Stephen to be a consummate scholar and a role model for all "evidence-based activists" (to coin a term). By adhering to "the data" and sound reasoning -- and by resisting the cheap allure of hype, spin, selective citation of evidence, and other forms of manipulation -- he has proven to be as effective a challenge to dairy industry disinformation as he is to false anti-dairy prophets.


Syd Baumel is author of Dealing with Depression Naturally and editor of The Aquarian, Winnipeg Vegetarian, and plant-based. He hasn't had a drop of milk (that he knows of) for two years -- not because he thinks milk is a "deadly poison," as Robert Cohen describes it, but because the dairy industry is deadly to cows.

C


 

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