A History of Drinking Milk

By Tim Pierson – Graduate Student, Division of Nutrition, University of Utah 

As a graduate student of nutrition, I often find myself heating up the kitchen of countless parties or gatherings. Not because I am cooking up all kinds of delicious appetizers and hors d’oeuvres, but rather because I am talking to people about food – food trends, popular diets, food avoidances etc.  And the conversation almost always whips around to the topic of milk.

Milk is Protein Rich

Milk, although widely accepted by many around the world, seems to stir up passionate debates in every setting with demands like: “Should we drink milk?” “Is it safe?” “Raw, organic, or regular?” “Whole or skim?” “Almond, Soy, or Cow? Camel milk?

All of these questions can be answered by taking a look at the history of milk, animal milk that is. Its a story that begins back at the dawn of agriculture; about 10,000 B.C.E. Cuneiform tablets indicate that ancient Near Easterners gave fresh milk to royalty, while the common milk—that which was soured from sitting out—was used to make butter and cheese. Romans offered libum, essentially the original cheesecake, to the gods. Fast forwarding to 14th century Europe, milk found its way to the top becoming the “white liquor,” a necessary item for any respectable banquet or soiree. Milk (animal milk in general) was a prized possession for Europeans—some might even argue it still is – evidenced by the highly sought after milk chocolate produced by that region. Interesting note about milk chocolate is that the milk itself is responsible for much of the flavor.

However, the history of dairy consumption has not always been favorable. Physicians once advised individuals to consume cheese after a large meal to act as a kind of plug or stopper due to the constipation it causes some people. Likely the result of some intolerance and souring, many cultures viewed its consumption as barbaric and pungent.

You might ask yourself, “why then, have we evolved to indulge in this white elixir? And should we even be drinking it?” The simple answer is yes, we should consume dairy. Here’s a bit of history about why:

Northern Europeans evolved to tolerate lactose from the milk of domesticated animals thousands of years ago and benefited from its nutritional profile with longer life and healthier bones – the genes of those healthier individuals were passed on to future generations. At the time, people did not understand that it was milk’s unique nutrient package which includes calcium, protein, and naturally occurring vitamin D that was giving them a survival advantage and preventing bone issues like rickets, but they knew that milk had its benefits and was contributing to a healthier, longer life. To quote an 1893 article found Hoard’s Dairyman: 

“There is something about milk which is nearly impossible to replace, that stimulates assimilation and digestion and promotes growth.”

They were onto something, and thanks to a man by the name of Elmer V. McCollum, in 1920 vitamin A was discovered by looking at the fat from whole milk. This led to the discovery of vitamin D two years later.  Vitamin D is manufactured by the skin with sun exposure, and there are few foods that contain naturally-occuring vitamin D. Northern Europeans who had been drinking milk were getting a boost during the winter months—there’s not much sun up north- and the vitamin D found naturally in milk was helping maintain bone integrity. Due to its importance and because naturally-occuring vitamin D can be inconsistent in the milk supply, the U.S. began fortifying milk with additional Vitamin D in the 1930’s.

milk is affordable

With what we have learned over the years about milk—cow’s milk—from first the cultural and later nutritional standpoint, how can we deny the benefits and nutrients it provides? Of course which milk you choose to drink—whole, low-fat, skim, lactose-free, organic, raw, or regular—is entirely a personal decision, but it is one that can be made with the satisfaction of knowing that what you are getting is quality nutrition from hard working cows and farmers near you. Perhaps McCollum said it best, “There is no substitute for [cows] milk, and its use should be distinctly increased instead of diminished, regardless of cost.”

More Reading of Interest from DairyGood:

(Note: This post originally appeared on dairyutnv.blogspot.com – content being migrated to this site)

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