Wednesday, July 11, 2018
Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky
Kurlansky is justly famous for his earlier works about Salt and Cod, among other things, so when I saw this 2018 Bloomsbury Publishing nonfiction about Milk, I was interested. I was particularly interested to see what he would say about humans consuming milk after infancy, when approximately sixty percent of the world's human population appear to lose their tolerance for and ability to digest lactose. Europeans, Middle Easterners, North Africans and some of the Indian subcontinent appear to lack a gene which shuts off production of lactase--an intestinally-controlled enzyme which digests lactose present in all milk.
In 2006 Cornell University's T. Colin Campbell published his thirty-year study on the eating habits of Chinese people called The China Study. The findings of Campbell's study blew me away, one of which was that consumption of milk products can cause osteoporosis in adults, a finding exactly opposite to what we have been told here in America. Kurlansky does not mention this startling information, sadly. But that study made me look closely at where the promotion of milk products was coming from—the industry itself, and lobbyists targeting government scientists, commercial attachés, and spokespeople.
Kurlanksy does remark on lactose intolerance briefly at the beginning and again in the section on China. He indicates that while there is a growing tolerance for dairy products gradually in China among the wealthier and more worldly citizens, it fights with the notion that the Chinese are genetically lactose intolerant. It may be that livestock was discouraged in a country which needed all possible land for food production, and that reintroducing dairy stimulates the production of lactase.
Kurlansky mostly elucidates the uses of milk in the part of the world that uses it daily, giving recipes that have survived the ages, showing some changes in those recipes over time. And certainly coincidentally but with a weird synchronicity he discusses breast-feeding throughout the world and throughout history. Breastfeeding has come and gone in popularity, with scientists in the past forty years generally concluding that until clean water and sterile bottles and low pricing for formula could be achieved throughout the world, perhaps breast milk was superior to any industrial formula.
It is now de rigueur to pump breast milk, offering convenience and nutrition. Pumping breast milk induces lactating mothers to produce more than they need, which has led to an oversupply. Some entrepreneurs have endeavored to sell soap made with breast milk; those selling breast milk ice cream in London found they couldn’t keep up with demand. Some sell breast milk on the internet to athletes who believe it makes them stronger. Some people buy it when they are ill, believing it has medicinal qualities. Some testing internet purchases found 10% of the time cow’s milk was mixed in, while 75% was contaminated with bacteria and/or pathogens.
It turns out that yogurt made from yak milk makes that made from cow’s milk seem boring and tasteless due to the high percentage of fat in yak’s milk. Consumption of milk in the United States has declined almost 40% since the 1970s, and now large scale industrial farming is the key to survival of the industry. At the end, Kurlansky takes another quick trip around the world to look at how dairy farms manage and what problems they are encountering now, including some of the profit calculations small producers are making.
Kurlanky is a wonderful writer of nonfiction who manages to take on big subjects and make them intelligible to the non-specialist. If you are looking for specific information, this book may simply be too diffuse, but Kurlansky is a wonderful host for a general reader.