I am mystified when I hear people question why we humans drink the milk of other animals. Yet a simple Internet search reveals that this is a sentiment many share. But is the belief that people shouldn’t drink cow, sheep or goat’s milk consistent with human history? With human physiology?
When we delve into this subject a bit deeper, we find that milk has been an important source of human nutrition for thousands of years. Milk drinking is not just a practice of Western culture, but a shared part of human existence around the world, as archaeologists and anthropologists have found:
- Evidence of intensive dairy farming in Ireland goes back 6,000 years, according to researchers who found fatty acids from milkfat preserved in cooking vessels.
- Milk consumption in Finland has been traced back 4,500 years by archeologists who found well-preserved milk fat on samples of pottery.
- A scientific report provides direct evidence of people drinking milk (from cows, sheep and goats) as early as the Bronze Age (3,000 BC). Researchers found dairy protein (β-lactoglobulin) residue on archeological tooth samples of people living in Europe and northern Southwest Asia.
Although dairy farming was not part of the food economy in all parts of the world due to climate or geography back then, it played an important role in the ancient history of agriculture. Humans have retained the ability to digest lactose into adulthood – though to varying degrees depending on genetics. Some believe that persistence of the lactase enzyme (needed to digest lactose) into adulthood was a genetic adaptation to the prevalence of dairy farming in a culture. In American culture today, limited lactose digestion is most prevalent but variable among African Americans, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans, but is not a reason to avoid dairy foods. Lactose-free milk, yogurt with active cultures, and natural cheeses are among the available options that those with lactose intolerance can still enjoy.
Just think, without milk, we wouldn’t have ice cream, yogurt, cheese or butter – foods that play an important part in our everyday lives and celebrations. Milk, cheese and yogurt not only taste great, but also are nutrient-rich, affordable, readily available and versatile; making dairy foods realistic options to help people build healthier meal plans. Milk is the number one source of nine essential nutrients in the diets of America’s children – including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium, three of the four nutrients the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found to be under-consumed. Dairy foods’ nutrient package can be hard to replace with other foods.
And the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans notes moderate evidence that eating milk, yogurt, and cheese are associated with bone health, especially in children and adolescents, and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure in adults.
So if someone asks you as a health and wellness professional why people drink cow’s milk, you could say, “Because we can.” We are the only animals that grow our own food, drive cars and do experiments to enhance our knowledge.
Or you could answer in a more ecological way:
Dairy cows and other ruminant animals have unique stomachs that allow them to eat parts of plants and foods that humans can’t eat such as almond hulls, wheat straw, etc. They then are able to unlock nutrition from these human inedible parts of food and turn them into nutrient-rich milk that can help nourish people.
What reasons do you give people for drinking milk?