Plenty To Question About Milk’s Status

We began featuring food-related stories by employees and interns, plus occasional visiting friends, during our first couple of years living in India. More recently, taste of place considerations first explored in India became for our Authentica shops in Costa Rica a key differentiator.

So my eye is drawn to food writing that overlaps with ethnicity considerations, and Mayukh Sen’s review of Spoiled brings out that book’s relevance to our pages:

A Fresh History of Lactose Intolerance

In “Spoiled,” the culinary historian Anne Mendelson takes aim at the American fallacy of fresh milk as a wonder food.

Six decades ago, Pedro Cuatrecasas, a fledgling resident at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was studying the lives of impoverished residents of Baltimore when he noticed an unsettling trend. In interviews, a number of his Black patients would confess that they found milk repellent. The consistency of their laments alarmed Cuatrecasas. He suspected, after some digging, that they suffered from lactase deficiency, a condition that precludes one’s body from digesting fluid milk. Cuatrecasas corralled two of his colleagues to conduct a study that would measure the different responses Black and white subjects had to lactose, and the findings confirmed Cuatrecasas’s hunch: the majority of Black patients had trouble processing lactose, whereas the problem was far less pronounced within white test subjects. These Black patients even told Cuatrecasas that they often avoided milk altogether, for fear of the pain it would exact upon their bodies.

The findings of this study—published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet, in January, 1965—were monumental. Here was concrete evidence that the ability to digest lactose might be a genetic condition linked to one’s racial background. More studies over the following decades would draw similar conclusions about the difficulties that other communities of color—Native Americans, Asians—faced when trying to digest unfermented milk. A damning consensus began to form: the long-held belief that humans can drink fresh milk into adulthood applied almost exclusively to white patients with ancestral roots in northwest Europe. What this indicated, in plain terms, is that most people around the world probably couldn’t drink fresh milk without encountering some kind of physical anguish. One might naïvely imagine that this type of data would have prompted a wholesale reëvaluation of drinking milk’s supremacy in American diets. But this was not the case. Despite the consensus of these studies, little changed. Milk retained its pristine reputation as a bone-fortifying nutritional bulwark in the United States and beyond, thanks to such culprits as public-health officials, the dairy industry, and the American government.

The culinary historian Anne Mendelson relays this episode with slack-jawed befuddlement, and a dose of mild rage, in her latest book, “Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood” (Columbia University Press, 2023). As the subtitle intimates, this effort aims to question and dismantle the fallacy that what Mendelson refers to as “drinking-milk”—unfermented milk from an animal that does not undergo any alteration to become yogurt or cheese—is a nutritional necessity. She isn’t even convinced that those who are able to keep down milk really need it for their constitution, hazarding that medical authorities have overexaggerated its protein and calcium benefits. Humans certainly don’t require it to survive in the same way they do water, she reminds her readers. That fresh milk has been foisted upon so many Americans in the name of well-being strikes Mendelson as a grave injustice. To start, it has inconvenienced those in the country who, once they are weaned off their mothers’ breast milk, realize that their bodies aren’t wired to withstand unfermented milk; their experiences don’t correspond with prevailing societal logic about milk’s alleged magic…

Read the whole review here.

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