There is a common myth that singers should avoid dairy products because they create too much mucus (phlegm) in the throat. For this reason, some teachers advise singers to avoid dairy products before performing. What is the truth? Are dairy products the enemy of good singing? Let’s explore that question in this myth-buster post.
It's gross, right?
Ahem… Have you experienced that annoying feeling of sticky gunk in the back of your throat when you need to sing? Many names describe this; mucus, phlegm, post nasal drip, and “having a frog in the throat.” It’s both annoying and can interfere with your singing, causing unwanted tickles, and making you feel the need to clear your throat.
Is dairy the enemy?
According to some teachers, dairy products, particularly milk cause excess mucus. For this reason, they advise singers and actors to avoid consuming dairy products before performing. A quick search of the internet reveals many articles and videos claiming that dairy products negatively affect the voice. Some of the common objections to milk products include:
As an example, this coach presents a firm “say no to dairy” opinion:
Dairy and Singing: The Science
For a long time, information about voice care, particularly what foods singers should avoid, has been passed around the vocal community. However, we have to be careful to differentiate between information which is just hearsay and information which comes from a solid evidence base.
Recent studies are challenging ideas we once thought true about voice care. A number of scientific studies have examined whether there is a connection between dairy foods and excess mucus, and whether dairy foods negatively affect the voice.
Full cream milk, because of its consistency, can temporarily create the sensation of thickened saliva or mucus. However, a blind study in Australia that included people who believed the milk-mucus relationship found no difference in reports of mucus in the throat among those who ate chocolate- disguised cows’ milk or soy milk.
On the strength of other scientific studies, many medical experts are refuting any connection between dairy foods and mucus production. For example,
- “The evidence is very scarce to support any relationship between dairy consumption and either symptoms of mucus or worse asthma control,” said Dr. Sonali Bose, assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. (3)
- “while the milk-mucus belief is prominent among the general population, at no point has it been correlated with objective scientific findings relating to either mucus production or voice function.” London doctor, Vishar Bhavsar (2)
- “Excessive milk consumption has a long association with increased respiratory tract mucus production and asthma. Such an association cannot be explained using a conventional allergic paradigm and there is limited medical evidence showing causality”, Doctor Jim Bartly from the Auckland University faculty of surgery and biotechnology (1)
Summary and Conclusion
Nothing you eat or drink can affect your voice via direct touch. Put another way, it’s impossible for milk products to coat the vocal folds directly. Food and drink goes down your oesophagus (food pipe), while the vocal folds are housed within your trachea (wind pipe).
Singers are not wrong when they feel gunk in their throats. However, the three main causes of this are: viruses, allergies, and gastric reflux. Dairy products might have a connection to these causes. However, there is no reliable scientific evidence demonstrating that dairy products CAUSE increased mucus or even adversely affect your voice.
Does this mean we can knock ourselves out and eat huge amounts of dairy before a gig? Of course not. There are many arguments for restricting our dairy intake. Some of these include the environmental impact of dairy farming and animal ethics. This discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post.
Anecdotally, some singers claim that their throats feel better when they avoid dairy before a performance. If you are one of those people who still have a “funny” feeling in your throat after having a glass of milk, then don’t drink it before you sing. Performing in front of other people is challenging enough for anyone. So why should you add one more factor to the equation?
References and further reading
- (1) Bartly, Jim (2009) “Does Milk Increase Mucus Production” in Medical Hypothesis Vol 74, No. 4. pp. 732-44
- (2) Bhavsar, Vishar (2009) “An Essay on the Evidence Base of Vocal Hygiene” in Journal of Singing Vol. 65, No. 3, pp.285-296
- (3) Callahan, Alice (2017) “Do Dairy Foods Cause Mucus Production?” in The New York Times. February 24, 2017
- Gurkaran, Thiara & Goldman, Ran (2012) “Milk consumption and mucus production in children with asthma” in Canadian Family Physician, Vol 58, No 2
- Knickerbocker, Kristie (2015) “Do Dairy Products Really Thicken Your Mucus?” in The Voice Council Magazine
- Ray, Clairborne C (2011) “Milk as Menace”in New York Times