What’s wrong with drinking milk?

I read a story about an Ethiopian journalist who visited Finland as part of an international group. She made an accurate remark: all the people, grown-ups included, drink vast amounts of milk, even during every meal.

This is quite true, and it is exceptional in the global scale.

Finns are, however, in no way unanimous when it comes to milk consumption. There are usually two contesting sides to the debate:

Side 1: Milk is a healthy and necessary drink rich in several nutrients. No other drink can provide the same nutrients in such a nicely packaged way. Milk is the elixir of life and essential for human development, regardless of age. Milk has been part of the Finnish food culture for ages. Period.

Side 2: Drinking milk in such huge amounts is the result of a dairy industry which is lobbying the government and other influencers to keep us consuming more and more of it. Humans, especially adults, do not need the milk of another mammalian. The same nutrients we get from milk can be obtained from other food products.

The truth lies somewhere in between. Let’s look at this from a biological/anthropological perspective.

First we have to understand how the lactase enzyme works. It is an enzyme found in our small intestine. Its function is to break down lactose, a sugar found only in mammalian milks. This breaking down of lactose is vital because otherwise the digestion and metabolic utilization of milk sugar becomes impossible.

In most humans and other mammalian species lactase enzyme production is high at birth but begins declining around the time of weaning. Most adult humans produce only tiny quantities of lactase. In other words, most adult humans are not lactase persistent. The more common word you might have heard is that they are lactose intolerant.

The gene for the lactase enzyme is found in chromosome 2 and the regulation of this gene is varies across populations. Actually, high rates of lactase persistence can only be found among Northern Europeans (including us Finns), South Asians as well as herding populations of the Middle East, Arabian Peninsula and Sub-Saharan Africa. Why is this?

The common hypothesis is that a history with dairying has meant lactase persistence in later stages of life. And in fact all populations with high lactase persistence have a history of dairying, including Finland. But this hypothesis is not flawless. There are many populations with a long history of domesticating dairy animals that also have low rates of lactase persistence. Instead of drinking milk, they consume products of fermented milk, such as yoghurt and cheese, which tend to have less lactose in them.

Another hypothesis goes that lactase persistence spread among populations even before dairying culture began. Lactase impersistence was, in fact, a defence against falciparum malaria among many populations. If you don’t follow me: malarial parasites require riboflavin to multiply in red cells, and milk is rich in riboflavin. In regions where malaria was not present, being lactase impersistent was not necessary.

But evolutionary biologists do not fully agree on these hypothesis. It is still somewhat a mystery why lactase persistance, a mutation in our genes, spread so quickly in some populations.

Whichever hypothesis is used when debating milk consumption, some critical thinking on labeling milk as the ultimate, quintessential elixir of life is welcome.

Yes, milk is beneficial for fetal growth during pregnancy, and it helps to build and maintain a strong skeleton. A moderate inverse relation has been proved between milk intake and cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes in adults. Higher milk consumption has also been proved to reduce the risk of myocardial infarction, ischemic heart disease, hypertension and stroke compared to those consuming the lowest amount.

On the other hand, other populations (actually the majority of the world’s population) maintain adequate fetal and child growth even in the absence of milk. And no overall association between milk intake and hip fracture risk has been proved in women – those who are most often targeted to consume milk in order to prevent bone fractures.

Let’s put it this way: milk has a lot of essential nutrients packed in a very easily consumable form. One could say it is an extremely user-friendly product. However, these nutrients are also present in other food items. For example calcium is plentiful in dark, green leafy vegetables, legumes and fish.

Those who claim milk to be the product of a lobbying industry have some truth behind their arguments: yes, drinking milk in schools is subsidized by the Finnish government (EU) and yes, every Finn in my generation remembers the milk boys and girls who walked around in classrooms promoting the benefits of milk. I haven’t seen many boys or girls campaigning about the benefits of legumes in my classroom. Milk is a business. Somehow it has become a weird symbol of something unequivocally positive, something pure, almost biblical.

Old milk poster from the 1940s. Wikicommons: https://goo.gl/6y7Gu1

But no, milk is not evil. And there are many places in the world, such as in northern Ethiopia, where drinking goat or camel milk is a means of survival in areas where the dearth of arable land dictates one’s diet.

No, not drinking milk is not harmful either. The same nutrients can be found in other products. A majority of the world lives this way.

No, explaining our milk obsession in Finland with a history of dairy farming is not sufficient. Yes, lobbyists work actively to promote milk consumption. You’ll notice the power of the dairy industry the moment you step into a Finnish supermarket.

Foods are symbols, ideologies, power structures. Milk is a good example of this. It has become an entrenched part of our national identity – and economy.

What’s my stand? I support the middle road in this. Comparing my own country with, for example Ethiopia, where I spent the last two years of my life, Finland does come off a bit milk hysteric.  I would say adding more vegetables, not more milk products, into our diets is what our food culture needs. But what did I miss most in my diet in Ethiopia? Dairy.

First photo from WikiCommons.

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