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Dec 27, 2002 12:24 PM

Why do adults in Western cultures drink milk?

  • m

Some think that the question is not why is the rest of the world not drinking milk, but why does the West drink so much of it. Phrasing the question this way also takes away the implication that something is awry with the diet of the rest of the world when it is not like ours (including ecologically, a la Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel. And it is not clear the relationship with cows is that symbiotic either, consider Ben and Jerry's on down, dairy products aren't necessarily benefitting the health of adults.).
But it may be worth considering that something is in our diet that we would be better off without.
(Although when asked by non-Americans why don't Americans eat more tofu? or why don't Americans exercise more and lower their fat intake? I hear the implication that something is not right with my country's diet and find it hard to disagree...)

The attached link is just one example of the many works out there on this subject, it is a World Bank view. Lactose intolerance appears to be one the least of the worries when it comes to high consumption of dairy products spreading to the rest of the world.

Incidentally, my recently-come-to-America Chinese husband is trying to force his lactose intolerant body to get used to milk, and I can only say "why?". Even though i can understand why he would like to fit in with American cultural dietary norms, along with trying to fit into the rest of society, he would be better off without our milk, ice cream, butter, cream etc. and should stick to the healthy Chinese lots of vegetables, tofu, seafood, seaweed, nattou and some meat dishes that he often cooks (ok, the seaweed and nattou part comes from years spent in Japan...).
Washed down with a glass of warm dou jiang (soy milk) or high antioxidant tea can't be beat.

I can understand why the Chinese government is trying to introduce milk in schools, because it promotes growth and strong bones, the reason why still-growing youngster mammals drink it. The Japanese government instituted a similar school lunch program after WWII; it is popular to this day. But what does it do for adults.


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  1. Just one brief addition, the whole "milk is good for you" thing is a bit silly. There are plenty of other ways to get calcium: sardines, leafy vegetables, tofu, etc.

    Tofu is often made with calcium sulfate as the coagulent. There is as much calcium in 4 Oz of firm (calcium sulfate)tofu as a cup of milk.


    1 Reply
    1. re: StriperGuy

      You can get calcium in other ways than drinking milk, it's true. Most people, even though they may drink milk, don't get enough calcium. I can't eat that many sardines. I take calcium supplements, as I occasionally eat cheese, but never drink milk.

      How much calcium do you get in a serving of your tofu? According to the label on the package in my refrigerator, you'd need to eat more than a pound a day to get your recommended daily intake of calcium.

      Natural soy milk (the kind you make at home, not the kind that you buy in an aseptic box at the supermarket) contains an insignificant quantity of calcium.

    2. It's hard to imagine people of another culture asking why Americans don't exercise more and cut their fat intake - after all, we are #1 in the world as far as dietary re-engineering goes. Nowhere else is it assumed that the population needs to completely throw out all traditional foods and start eating more processed foods for better health (margarine? vegetable oil?). And we seem to do more conscious exercising than anywhere else, either.

      It's your opinion that dairy products are of no nutritive value, and there are (obviously, in the group you cited) those who agree with you, but there are groups as well that feel that soy products are not especially nutritious and should not be a major part of anyone's diet.

      It is indisputable that dairy products have been a major source of nutrition in western culture since the start of the agricultural revolution.


      3 Replies
      1. re: ironmom

        "perfect physical form and perfect health "

        Perfect physical form?

        That sounds ethnocentric enough, if not downright racist. Who is deciding what constitutes physical form.

        Perfect health?

        who has got perfect health? the close as one can get, the longest living people on this earth are japanese and adults there arent drinking much milk.

        1. re: Sally

          I'd be most interested in where you got that quote from. It didn't come out of my posting.

          The Japanese government wants the population to eat less white rice, miso, and pickles, and more fresh vegetables and pork, in order to live more productive long lives. Too many elderly people there are bedridden from strokes and osteoporosis, due to the high salt and low protein content of the traditional diet.

          The late dowager empress was bedridden for over 30 years til her death last year.

          1. re: Sally

            The another extremely-long lived people are the Icelandic,

            Life expectancy at birth:
            total population: 79.39 years
            male: 77.19 years
            female: 81.77 years (2000 est.) (this is from the inside website.)

            Compare this with Japan:

            total population: 80.8 years
            male: 77.62 years
            female: 84.15 years (2001 est.)

            The Icelandic actually consume both a large amount of fish AND dairy. This may have to do with their clean air and water (geothermal and weather patterns favor the little frosty island), too, though, so perhaps it's not a good measure for this kind of debate.

            My point is, long-lived people can live on dairy too! Let's not make it all about the milk.

        2. Adults in certain cultures drink and use milk products because they are customary in those cultures and fine sources of important nutrients. Not just in the west, but in the middle east, south and central asia, etc.

          They also taste good (to those who have a taste for them). It may be that in modern times, in cultures where overweight rather than scarcity of nutritious food is the risk, high levels of consumption of some of these items can be questioned. In developing countries, it may not be as "green" or efficient to switch over from traditional diets and protein sources to dairy products.

          I have found many of the "milk is bad" arguments to be simplistic and debatable. Possibly leading to bad dietary decisions by people who are not good at organizing a healthy diet for themselves. And not really a chowhoundish topic, since milk is, after all a customary food and not a poisonous substance. For chowhounds, the question really is whether milk and milk products taste good. And (for many of us) they do.

          7 Replies
          1. re: jen kalb

            Amen! In case you haven't tried it, Trader Joe's organic milk is truly the best milk I've had (besides, perhaps, getting it fresh from the cow).

            1. re: Emma

              That reminds me... are the cows that produce organic milk and "grass fed" and "meadow grazed" killed when they are 4 years old like the rest of milk cows?

              I read in Fast Food Nation what happens with milk cows and I am wondering if it is the same with "eco-friendly" milk cows as well. If the treatment is the same, I won't feel so good about buying organic milk anymore. But if these cows both get to have frolic on green pastures and not get slaughtered, then organic milk is still tasting ok.

              1. re: Zania

                Is this another opportunity for a vegetarian debate? Don't eat food you slaughter?

                Or even furs? Survival techniques of Eskimos?

                That could take decades. Maybe we all should have been born eating soy instead of breastfeeding?

                1. re: Zania

                  Would you adopt a cow past its procreative age and nurse it until it died of natural causes?

                  1. re: Zania

                    The calves at my place stop frolicing after about a year, if that makes you feel any better.

                2. re: jen kalb

                  First, "Americans" are not the only adults that drink milk. Splaying on the comment, "Adults in certain cultures drink and use milk products because they are customary in those cultures," there rests the question, "Why is it customary?" I would venture to say that one of the reasons it is "customary" in America is because not only does it taste very good to so many Americans, it is also comforting to some.

                  I would even venture further to splay the ideas presented in Dr. Peter D'Adamo's book "Eat Right 4 Your Type" that presents theory of 4 blood types, 4 diets. It presents his father's and his research. They offer that Type O blood was first evolutionarily and was found in the age of hunters who had more acid in the stomach for the reason of digestion of meat. They said subsequent blood types evolved in more settled civilizations, such as Type A that were gatherers, and less acid was needed to digest veggies and fruits. But that's pretty arid ground and not a currently totally acceptable theory. I don't know enough about that to even warrant any discussion on it right now - I'm neutral. Anyway,

                  It mentions in the book that some blood types (O, A, B, or AB) handle foods differently because of their evolution revolutions. To bring that back to the original question, I would suggest that we drink milk because is good for some, especially comforting to some with "acid stomach" which is sometimes caused by nerves, sometimes caused by heredity, . . . whatever. (and, granted today there are other solutions to offset it), but it is still rather culturally found.

                  To take that further, I would suggest that as America was discovered and frontiered, there were many times the settlers were running on empty stomachs and adults drank milk to calm the acid that naturally occurred as they lived. Even more than that, stress had to be a factor to some in those frontier days (Oregon Trail, Lewis and Clark Trail - remember the phrase "Go West Young Man"?). Stress causes acid stomach, too. Remember, there were times that one family could go for days or even months without ever seeing another family and they ate what was available.

                  Milk has fat in it, whereas, vegetables and fruits have little. Fat lines the stomach and protects itself from excess acids that might be present. So, culturally, Americans had milk from a blessed, warm cow that travelled right along with them on their way over plains and mountains to the "new world."

                  That seems logical so far as I can see it.

                  1. re: kc girl

                    You are forgetting one thing. Milk has traditionally been considered a food in our culture. When people felt pangs of hunger, they did not take milk as a medicine, to kill the pain of hunger, but as a form of food, which was, after all, what they needed.

                    People have always eaten the foods their parents ate because they did, not because of any conscious choice they made. Only now, in these times of plenty, do we have the option to reject traditional foods.

                3. I will answer your question,speaking as an "adult in Western culture" :-)
                  My greatgrandparents were Danish farmers who produced nearly all their own food, or would have starved otherwise! Huge emphasis was on dairy,including that amazing preserved milk product ! cheese. My favorite daily protein source is organic non fat yogurt. I also eat lots of soy, but I find some soy products difficult to digest. I am pretty sure that my genetics call for "Dairy", in moderation, of course.
                  I think there are separate two issues here:
                  one is dairy products as part of a balanced diet
                  and the other is dairy products as part of a culture of overconsumption.
                  I wish I could live in the country and have my own happy cow, till then I buy Strauss dairy products.
                  ps...Don't forget cows and dairy products status in Indian culture and cuisine.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: ciaolette

                    From another Western woman-
                    My grandmother's family was in the dairy business too. She is a big dairy products consumer to this day. She also got breast cancer. There is a positive correllation with breast cancer and dairy consumption.
                    Who knows what caused it in her case, but this granddaughter is wary of consuming that much dairy.

                    1. re: Celia

                      I am sorry for your Grandmothers illness. What I have read about a connection between dairy products and breast cancer pointed to the chemicals used in commercial production. I may be terribly uninformed about this but it's why I try to stick with organic small farm dairy products. Thus my earlier kudos for Strauss Dairy, which by the way had a great write up in the NYtimes food section on wens. that explained how the Strauss family matriarch had had a profound affect on land use and preservation in beautiful Marin county.

                  2. My mother, an excellent but very thrifty cook, raised during the depression, when asked "Can I have a glass of milk?" after school, or at the dinner table "Can I have another glass of milk?" was almost invariably heard to respond "Milk is a food not a beverage if you're thirsty drink water." To this day I can say that phrase in a tempo to almost match a Hail Mary.

                    And then there's that pesky dairy subsidy.