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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.


Link: http://www.globalhunger.net/GoodlandC...

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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.

    Link: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/calcium.htm

    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.

      Link: http://www.westonaprice.org/

      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 countries.com 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.

                    1. Most of us drink milk and eat dairy because we were raised on them and they still taste good to us. If we are concerned about cholesterol and fat, we choose low fat products. Most of us still make our dietary choices based on habit and personal satisfaction, rather than ethical or moral considerations

                      In a post below, Ironmom says, “Moderation in all things seems to be the philosophy that no one follows nowadays.”

                      That is the truth! And these arguments for and against the consumption of dairy products (and soy) frequently miss the point. Unless you have a specific health issue, it is not a question of either/or. Most of us can benefit from eating some of everything. Those of us who over consume could consider the ethical implications of their choices and those of us who moralize the issue could be a little less righteous, more tolerant.

                      I think the World Bank article is very interesting because it reaffirms what Diet for a Small Planet (and the update) pointed out years ago - the modern day methods of beef and dairy production are wasteful of planetary resources and also create a lot of pollution. It doesn't make sense to feed grain that could feed humans to cows who can't digest it in unsanitary, water and air polluting feedlots but that is just what we do. On the other hand it makes perfect sense to raise cows on grasslands that aren't good for too much else. Of course, this means that there isn't as much beef to eat on a daily basis as there would be grains and vegetables. As I understand it, many traditional diets looked just like that. They weren't vegetarian but a lot of their meals were. Meat was a treat, and no part of the animal was wasted. And dairy products were a plus of animal husbandry, a way to store protein and fat (and a marketable commodity).

                      As for soy products, they are one of the most heavily genetically modified crops that Monsanto has going and of course they want us to believe in their health benefits. This is not to say that I don’t believe there are benefits but the way they are being touted today makes me think we should “follow the money”. For instance, who paid for the studies showing the connection between estrogen and soy?

                      If chowhounding is about the pleasures of eating, then any aspects of our experiences with food and pleasure should be fair game. For me, the more I know about my food, the more I enjoy it. For instance, learning about another culture by exploring its cuisine; enjoying the skills of a creative chef in a fine dining setting; searching out unusual ingredients; shopping at the farmer’s market. Being aware of the health benefits, whether personal or planetary, can be part of this mindfulness. We are really the first generation to have so many choices and so much information available. We are also the first to experience overpopulation and hunger on the scale we see today. So when we eat a chunk of cheese or a tofu stir fry or a grass fed steak, let’s think about it, enjoy it, and let’s be damn glad we can!

                      1. Because it tastes good!

                        1. I drink Milk, and lots of it, because women need a lot of calcium, to avoid osteoporosis. When I'm ninety, I want to still have nice, strong, whole bones. My doctor tells me I should have the equivalent of three large glasses of milk per day to remain strong. So I do. I eat yogurt, drink lots of skim milk, and eat cheese. Plus, it all tastes good!

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Jaylea

                            That's why I drink it too... and I think it is the best reason anyone has come up with so far.
                            My doctor said either drink milk or take calcium pills; I do both.

                            1. re: Jaylea

                              Actually, the milk myth is perpetuated by the dairy industry in America. Nutritionists agree that there are plenty of sources of calcium that are better than milk. Problem is, we don't eat a balanced diet to include calcium-rich veggies and the like.

                              Personally, I love dairy products. But I think it's odd that humans seem to be the only mammals that enjoy OTHER animals' milk!

                              1. re: anne

                                You've never lived with a cat, have you?

                            2. I am absolutely certain that there is something in milk or dairy products that is not good for us. But I think this is more about fat content than it is about why people drink milk or enjoy dairy products. The answer is very simple: eating butter, cream, eggs, ice cream and milk is part of American culture. For some including myself I will go out of my way to find Guernsey milk (4% butterfat), cream top milk and regular pasteurized cream because they taste better. I grew up with this taste which today is kind of a comforting taste as well as a taste that I absolutely love.
                              As a child I would put a bottle (yes, bottle) of milk in the freezer to make it colder to drink with cake or chocolate chip cookies. To this day that is still one of the best things I've ever tasted. Ice cream that I make with my own hand cranked White Mountain freezer tastes better to me than any other I've ever had. (I use Guernsey milk and cream or pastuerized milk and cream.) I'll buy organic butter and spread it on a hot roll, have it melt on pancakes even drip it on popcorn. If I can find a bottle of cream top milk I'll take a spoon and eat the cream which has formed at the top. I also enjoy cream sauces on pasta, I live for triple creme cheeses, make gorgonzola dolce risotto which is laden with butter, cheese and all kinds of fattening things. I've been known to melt butter on top of a steak, crumble cheese on a salad, mix with garlic to top bread, use cream in a variety of soups; sometimes I even eat eggs for breakfast.
                              All of this is fattening. Very fattening. For that reason I don't do it very often. Usually if I drink milk I compromise and drink 1%. But if it's a special moment-because of the calories and fat-I look past this and get the most fattening, richest, creamiest that I can find.
                              Drinking milk, eating dairy products in America is like living in Italy and eating pasta. It is part of our culture, part of growing up here. It's as American as mom and apple pie. And you'll note that apple pie is better when it's a la mode with a dairy product, ice cream.

                              1. Why do adults drink soda or lemonade? At least milk contains some nutrients, and if, like me, you drink skim milk, you're not getting fat and other bad stuff from it.

                                Most of the adults in my circle, though, don't drink milk much at all, except as part of their lattes. I know very few people who sit down and have a glass of milk, and the little containers of it in our kitchen at work seem to be used to soften the bad coffee more than anything else.

                                1. Hi Miraette,

                                  I know many Europeans think it's completely gross. I've a friend from France who couldn't watch me drink a glass of milk with dessert one evening we were together. Milk has been promoted as a beverage by the dairy industry in this country since early in the century. There were subsidies, etc, and milk became a big drink in the 50s and 60s.

                                  However, consumption of milk as a beverage is declining, and has been for years. Milk-fat, however, finds its way into our diet in many other ways than just the beverage, which, even in its whole state, isn't quite as much of a villain as large quantities of processed high-fat cheese and butter, ice cream, etc. That's where the problem is -- not necessarily in drinking whole milk. If we Americans limited our milk-fat intake to the 3-4% that's in whole milk or yogurt: (meaning no butter, ice cream, cheese,) we would probably be in better shape. That ratio corresponds to the amount of fat in most wild game, which is considered to be one of the crucial ratios of protein-to-fat that affected our evolution, and produces optimum health. It's the concentrated high-fat products, eaten in quantity, which I think is the problem. Milk, yes, even whole, is not so bad in comparison to these things, and as a beverage is miles and miles above sodapop and coffee. Antioxidant tea is a wonderful beverage and should be consumed of course, but it's hard to compare tea and milk: milk is more a food than a beverage, while tea is definitely a beverage.

                                  There are good and bad things about milk, like almost any food. One thing that I'd like to note is, that for some ethnicities, it IS a traditional diet (as referred to in the World Bank paper). Part of my ancestry is Norwegian, and the Norwegians have dairy at almost every meal and in every conceivable fashion -- both high-fat and low fat ways, too. I'm sure many Norse folks were kept alive during northern winters when there were no fresh vegetables to harvest, and streams and lakes were frozen over, and no tofu was available since soybeans didn't grow in that area of the world :) I truly believe that certain ethnicities can handle dairy in quantity better than others -- not just lactose tolerance, but actual assimilation of the protein and calicium and other vitamins, and getting good nutrition from it. Dairy collection has been going in in some parts of the world for at least 7000 years, probably for longer than that, and I think some small digestive evolutionary changes have occurred in the people who had milk, whether cow or goat, in their diet consistently. Also, you must remember it is not exclusively a Western (read: European) thing. I know traditional Mongolian culture relies heavily on mare's milk (I wonder if I could digest that!!), and certain Middle Eastern cultures use camel's milk.

                                  I think the milk-focus grows out of an original American basis in northern European cultures that, at one time, relied on milk and milk products (remember, cheese evolved as a way of preserving milk and preventing starvation during the winter), and that culture has taken a good thing, milk, and consumed too much of the high-fat variety of milk products.

                                  I don't think it's any more strange than eating seaweed or tofu as an adult, if it is a part of the culture that you grew up in. For a long time people in certain ethnicities relied on animal proteins to survive because it was available to them in their climate, and since they got a lot of calories for every bit of it consumed. Many Northern cultures, such as the Inuits of Greenland, survive quite healthily on wild protein-based diets. Northern Europeans had an agricultural variety of this protein-based diet at one time. In survival situations, the highest-fat, highest-protein foods are prized by the body. Our bodies haven't yet figured out (will they ever?) that most of us in America are in no danger of starvation --but rather malnourishment through obesity!

                                  It hasn't been that many generations in most ethnicities of the world separating us from subsistence agriculture and frequent famine. Our minds may know the difference now, but I don't think our bodies have caught up yet. I think my love of milk goes beyond just liking the taste and being used to it. I think my cells respond to it as a familiar food! Unlike many people, milk actually settles my stomach, and makes me feel full and not hungry (and I drink the fat free kind!) Perhaps this is how some Chinese feel about rice (which was considered a strange food in America for a long time, you will remember), and how some Native Americans may feel about corn. I'm not sure -- possibly I'm reading too much into it, but I don't think it's surprising, or necessarily bad, that Americans drink milk. High-fat dairy is the problem.

                                  1. It seems to me that there are two questions that people are really addressing. one is about the consumption of dairy products in general and the other is about drinking milk as a beverage.

                                    As far as dairy products in general are concerned, one could make the argument that it is the non-dairy consuming east and southeast asian cultures that are really in the minority, as most of the world's other cultures consume it in some form (tho not necessarily always from cows). The issue of americans consuming dairy to excess is different, but i consider that to be a component of the issue of americans consuming to excess in general--i don't see dairy as a particular villain.

                                    About the issue of grown-ups drinking glasses of milk--only Americans do this as far as i know. perhaps this is partly because we can, having had refrigeration longer than most cultures. My pure-veg family in bombay, for instance, consumes tons of dairy products but have no fridge. so their milk is immediately made into yogurt and their butter into ghee (clarified butter). Who really knows. it's an american habit, one i think of as curiously childish but one that i enjoy from time to time. (but not whole milk. too thick and rich tasting to drink.)
                                    all you food historians and psychologists, weigh in on this!