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Book of the Week: Let us now ask serious questions about the limited good and many evils of milk

George Henderson gets to grips with the subject of New Zealand’s white, lucrative, high-fat, glutenous gold: milk.

There is probably no food that tests our individual tolerance as much as milk. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, yet I love some of its products. If you’re gluten intolerant or allergic to wheat, you just avoid that problematic grain like the plague, but if you’re lactose intolerant you can probably eat cheese, yoghurt, and butter. If you’re casein intolerant you can eat ghee, and maybe A2 milk and some cheeses. We learn all this by trial and error. You could also be allergic to whey proteins, or even to the dead bacteria that were killed by pasteurization. Are you one of those people who recovers from cold and flu faster if you avoid dairy, and not at all if you don’t? There’s still only one way to find out.

Even if you tolerate milk fine, you’ll likely not tolerate all its forms. Will you have green or blue milk in your coffee? Some people cannot stand one or the other. Will you have cream? Why yes, please, but some people are hypersensitive to the smell of milk fat, and avoid it in hot drinks for that reason. Will you replace it with some milky ersatz of plant-based emulsion? For health or ethical reasons? Must your milk be organic? Must your cheeses be bland, or stinky? What is your opinion on permeate? Were you breast or bottle fed, and if the latter, what was in the bottle? (It’s merciful indeed that few of us remember the answer.) We seem to have wasted half the day already and I still don’t have your order.

Mark Kurlansky, author of Milk: A 10,000-Year Old Food Fracas is the best-selling author on a bewilderingly promiscuous range of mostly interesting subjects. Salt and Cod were previous titles, and I also remember his 1968: the Year that Rocked the World as a great read. Anyone who saw the need for a book about 1968 is quite alright in my book. His style is well-balanced between erudition and everyman journalism, meaning that Milk is easy to read, although it’s jam-packed with often long and convoluted recipes including the fully archaic. My favourite is Elizabeth Cleland’s 1755 recipe for syllabub: “Sweeten either wine, cider, or strong ale, put it in a bowl, take it to the cow, and milk her on your liquor as fast as you can.”

I’m no wiser as to what a syllabub is, but I’d eat it, or drink it, whichever.

There are stories in Milk to leave you aghast. We find from Kurlansky, via Samuel Pepys via Thomas Moffett, that “Dr Caius of Cambridge University, who was very old, lived entirely on women’s breast milk”. Dr Thomas Moffett had studied medicine at Cambridge under a Dr John Caius, and in his 1655 book Health’s Improvement, reported that Caius sucked the milk directly from a nursemaid’s breasts. When his nursemaid was ill-tempered, Dr Caius was ill-tempered too, but when he switched to a better natured nurse, his disposition improved…

Dr Moffett brought in other examples to support his thesis that this was a general law of nature, but unfortunately it seems all those other examples were mythical – cruel Romulus and Polyphemus suckled by she-wolves, gentle Giles the Abbot who “suckt a doe” for 3 years, brutish Pelias (Tyrus and Neptune’s son) nursed by an unhappy mare, etcetera, etcetera, QED.

And so the subtext to the stories in Milk is that doctors, rich in reading but removed from real life, have always had extreme ideas of one sort or another about both infant feeding and the use of milk. We see the same thing today. “Most preschoolers are still drinking full-fat milk, despite dietary guidelines that children over two should be given the low-fat variety, according to a Massey University study.” Good on them. Perhaps dietary guidelines of that sort were spun from the same moonshine used by the medieval doctors.

Children who drink full-fat milk are less likely to be overweight than children drinking low fat milk, according to multiple studies, including the New Zealand one above. (It’s sobering to realise that this is the first time in the whole of human history that less fat on a child has been considered at all desirable). Of course, this could be reverse causation, assuming kids who gain too much weight are more likely to be put on low-fat milk, but luckily there’s a study of breast milk fat content and infant BMI showing the exact same thing: the more fat and calories in a mother’s milk, the leaner her children are likely to be. No reverse causation there.

But mightn’t there be some harm later in life from a high-fat diet in childhood? Sir John Boyd Orr, who was behind the introduction of free milk to British schools, set up an experiment in the 1930s that followed children to adulthood at a time when the main fats in the British diet were dairy and beef fats. There was no trend toward any higher incidence of heart disease or other mortality by the year 2000 for those kids who ate more fat in the 1930s, the trend ran the other way.

Boyd Orr was an important figure in the history of milk, especially the set of ideas which influenced New Zealand’s nutrition policy. But Kurlansky skips Britain and focusses on the history of milk in the US, India and China. When discussing Pasteur’s work, which rendered this often very unsafe foodstuff a very safe one, he only gives the temperatures for sterilization in degrees Fahrenheit, something Pasteur himself never did. And when he discusses the dearth of artisanal cheeses in Britain in 1950, he misses the fact that wartime rationing regulations decreed that milk could only be used to make cheddar, almost entirely wiping out the artisanal industry. Britain, which fed livestock on imported grain, had to balance the relative value of milk and meat to the nation’s survival in the war years, and came down heavily in favour of milk.

What Kurlansky’s story misses most is the lessons learnt from lean times – the World Wars, and great depressions and famines – exactly those periods when the nutritional value of milk was most firmly established in public opinion and government policy.

The history of milk is not for the faint-hearted. It inevitably abounds in sexism, some racism, and much animal cruelty. We have the spectacle of dying cows being hoisted off the ground in the backstreets of 19th Century American cities to extract their last drop of milk, to be sold to people who will probably die of the germs it will spread. In contrast, when cows in some Hindu Indian states reach the end of their milking lives today, they are fed and housed comfortably for years in camps called gaushalas and not eaten, a humane practice which no doubt increases the environmental footprint of Indian milk.

As far as I can imagine it, milking was invented by a woman able to relate events in her own body with the distress she saw in a captive animal that had lost its young but continued to produce milk. Kurlansky describes the exhausting labour – woman’s work – involved in churning butter, but also the mass female unemployment caused by the industrialisation of dairying, when the jobs went to men.

One of the mysteries in milk history is the reliance of the poor on buttermilk, because butter production from cream produces very little buttermilk. In fact the way milk is split up into subfractions, even traditionally, is dizzying – milk was a scarce resource and if someone eats curds or cheese someone else has to drink whey. If large numbers need buttermilk then someone is eating lots of butter. How on earth did this all balance out at the village level?

We’re lucky in New Zealand that the Indian diaspora is providing us with high quality milk products which were previously unavailable. We now have fresh ghee, and we finally have affordable unsweetened yoghurts. The history of yoghurt in the West is a classic story of a healthy concept being turned into a junk food – we are so good at this now, it’s a fine art. The label on the usual Kiwi yoghurt pottle tells you that milk has died a death of a thousand cuts – we have milk solids, milk protein, if we’re lucky a tiny bit of milk fat, but no actual milk, sweetened with sugar and held together with dodgy emulsifiers and stabilisers, and made sour with probiotic cultures, oh wow, which have then been sterilised, oh no.

The label on a good Indian yoghurt pottle by Gopal, Noor, or Mathura (750 mls and cheap as milk) tells you absolutely none of this was necessary, and if you want it sweet, just add fruit.

Milk is a starting point towards thinking about food, an appetiser so to speak. It stimulates interest, but doesn’t have all the answers. For example, why does lactose intolerance result in diarrhoea? Lactose intolerance is important to his story, yet Kurlansky doesn’t tell us. So I looked it up. Lactose is a small molecule, and like other small molecules – sugar, salt, or ascorbic acid – attracts moisture (by osmosis, if inside the body). A function of the colon is to extract the last drops of water from food. If an undigested small molecule, such as lactose or vitamin C, reaches the colon in sufficient amounts, the water will stay in the poo, and then the poo will not stay in the gut when you need it to. Sometimes this only takes a few grams, the amount of lactose in a glass of milk; but in someone who digests lactose, it’s absorbed high in the gut long before reaching the colon.

Kurlansky’s study isn’t going to change anyone’s relationship with the ivory fluid. Kurlansky doesn’t engage with the vegan or paleo arguments for avoiding milk, or the nutritional or vegetarian arguments for consuming it. You won’t learn what vitamins, minerals or essential fats you can get from milk that are hard to get anywhere else (his one comment in this line, that cow’s milk contains no linoleic acid, seems to be wrong; it is not, however, a source of omega-3). I expected more on Jewish dietary habits – a quote from Maimonides, that sort of thing.

Sometimes I read a book, stand back in awe, and go “wow”. Other times, as Dorothy Parker said, I don’t put it aside lightly but throw it at the wall with great force. And sometimes I want to sit down and rewrite it. I want to be that person at the publisher’s office who bothers the author till he’s given his all then takes the book off him and completes it for him. Milk is that sort of book.


Milk: A 10,000 Year Old Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky (Bloomsbury, $30) is available from Unity Books.

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