Article

Why Do People Drink Milk?

March 19, 2019

A simple Internet search reveals that many people question why humans drink the milk of other animals. 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 nutrition for people 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 and using milk to make butter, cheese and yogurt goes back 6,000 years, according to researchers who found fatty acids from milkfat preserved in cooking vessels.
  • Milk consumption in central Europe, including Poland and the Netherlands, has been traced as far back as 5,200 B.C. by archeologists who found well-preserved milk fat on samples of ceramic strainers used for making cheese.
  • A scientific report provides direct evidence of people drinking milk (from cows, sheep and goats) as early as the Bronze Age (3,000 B.C.). 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, it played an important role in the ancient history of agriculture. People have retained the ability to digest lactose into adulthood—though to varying degrees depending on genetics. Some believe that persistence of the lactase enzyme (which is needed to digest lactose) into adulthood was a genetic adaptation to the prevalence of dairy farming in a culture. In American culture today, some people may have trouble digesting lactose, but is often not a reason to avoid dairy foods. Lactose-free milk, yogurt with live and 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, culture and celebrations. Milk, cheese and yogurt not only taste great, but also are nutrient-rich, affordable, readily available and versatile; this makes dairy foods a realistic option to help people build healthier meal plans. Milk provides nine essential nutrients important for children and adults alike—including calcium, vitamin D, protein and B vitamins. Dairy foods’ nutrient package can be hard to replace with other foods, as discussed here.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommend low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, as a part of healthy eating styles that have been linked to health benefits, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In addition, dairy foods have been linked to improved bone health, especially in children and adolescents.