Hold on to your seats folks and allow me to spew for a bit (well for a long bit). Today I want to discuss with you the problems with drinking animal milk. Some of this very long spiel comes from a paper I wrote back in my college days, so sorry if it starts to get boring. Just get through it all, and I promise you will feel enlightened.
First of all, I want you to think about something. We are the only animal species in the world that continues to drink milk after we have been weaned from our mothers, and that's not all. Not only do we continue to drink milk, but we drink another species milk. No other animal drinks another species milk. When you really think about it, you have to admit, it's a little icky. It only sounds normal to us now, because we have been doing it for a long time.
The importance of drinking milk has been embedded in American Culture for generations. Billboards, commercials, health class textbooks, and more promote the necessity of milk in our diets. Why is it that we need milk? Well, we’re told that it’s calcium that we need from milk. Calcium can be found in a variety of foods such as leafy green vegetables, beans, nuts, and tofu. We can easily get our daily dose of calcium from these non-dairy foods, so why is milk so important? Where does drinking milk come from? Most importantly, if we need milk, then why do some of us get sick when we drink it? The book A Biography of the Continent Africa, by John Reader, explains just why it is that we started to drink not only milk, but the milk of another animal.
The first art showing the use of animals for dairy was dated to be around 6000 years ago, though Reader states that, “it can be confidently concluded that the knowledge of milking and dairy production was already well advanced and widespread by then,” (Reader 171). Dairy was particularly important, because it could be consumed when other food was scarce. It could also be stored and saved or even sold. Milk’s main purpose though, is to nourish infants and give them essential nutrients needed to successfully develop and grow. The absorption of calcium in milk helps to harden and grow soft bones. Once a child grows to a certain point though, the milk is no longer needed. The reason that we continue to drink milk after infancy is because of how our ancestors thousands of years ago would drink milk because they had to in order to survive. Limited food sources left them with an inadequate diet. The change from food gathering to food production is the root of this dilemma (Reader 172).
Drinking milk from livestock helped malnutrition and nutrition deficiencies. Food production was mainly of grains that were low in calcium and iron, and also often stopped calcium absorption (Reader 172). This caused malnutrition, especially in pregnant women and children. This cycle of malnutrition would continue as children grew up and had their own children who were also malnourished. So milk became the primary reason for keeping animals.
It is important to note though, that humans have become the only mammals who are able to continue drinking milk after infancy. Our gene which enables lactase production is not shut off after infancy (unlike all other mammals) and we can drink milk into adulthood. Some people though, cannot digest lactose. According to Reader, “The undigested lactose accumulates in the large intestine, where it ferments,” (Reader 174). This causes a person to get sick. This was first discovered in the 1960’s when people of poverty-stricken countries complained that the milk volunteers were giving out made them sick. Studies soon showed that 70 percent of black Americans are lactose intolerant, while 85 percent of white Americans can consume milk (Reader 174). In the book, Reader says that, “lactose tolerance and intolerance could be a measure of difference between ethnic groups,” (Reader 174). Another study proved this when it was discovered that 80 percent of cattle-herding Tutsi can drink milk and 80 percent of agriculturist BaGanda cannot. This study led to more research showing that lactose intolerance was actually normal worldwide and that, “Functional levels of adult tolerance to lactose have been recorded only among northern Europeans and white North Americans, and nomadic pastoralists in Africa,” (Reader 175). Almost 100 percent of non-pastoralist Africans are lactose intolerant. Blacks in North America are mostly descendants of slaves from West Africa, who were mostly non-pastoralists. This explains why many black Americans are lactose intolerant. Only those whose descendants were pastoralists will be able to consume dairy, because they were the ones who had cattle to provide milk when all other food was scarce.
The lactose tolerance gene is dominant so that if only one parent can drink milk, all of their children will be able to drink it (Reader 175). So, the ability in humans to drink milk after infancy can only increase throughout populations. Even though lactose tolerance is growing across the world, and can only continue to grow, this doesn’t mean that we should consume dairy. Our bodies are not built for drinking milk after infancy. The milk that females produce after giving birth is meant to give infants who cannot feed themselves, large amounts of important nutrients to kick-start the growing process. Once the child is capable of eating solid foods, they no longer need milk. The only reason that we are able to digest milk is because our ancestor had to to survive. We are no longer trying to survive in the Sahara, so we no longer need milk to keep us alive.
We might not need it, but the #1 thing I hear from people about going vegan is “well, I could stop eating meat, but I could never give up milk”. Let me tell you why my friends, because there actually is an explanation. Casein is a protein in milk and when it enters our bodies it becomes casomorphin. Yes, I said morphin; casomorphin is in fact an opiod. The dairy industry is drugging you. Milk is addictive so that babies will want to nurse and keep nursing and stay healthy. The problem is that we keep drinking it after we are babies. Here’s the scary part, according to Victoria Moran in her book Main Street Vegan:
Human milk has only 2.7 grams of casein per liter. Cow’s milk has 26. And because it takes, on average, ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese or ice cream, you’re looking at a lot of casein and the resultant casomorphin. “In these quantities,” says functional food consultant Kerrie Saunders, MS, LLP, PhD, “it becomes a multiplied opiate addiction, and it can feel like opiate withdrawal when someone tries to get away from cheese and ice cream. People experience headaches, depression, digestive abnormalities (gas, constipation, diarrhea, cramping), anger for no apparent reason, and cravings that are extremely difficult to deal with, as with any opiate addiction.” (110)
Now consider this. Contrary to what most people believe, milk is actually linked with health hazards, not health benefits. Milk has been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Yes, that's right, I said osteoporosis. But weren't we all taught in grade school that milk builds strong bones and that we need it for calcium? Well listen to this. Milk, like all animal products, is acidic. Very acidic. Normally when we think of acidic foods, we think about things like lemon juice right? Well, inside our bodies, lemon juice is the opposite of acidic. For more on the health benefits of lemon check out my post on lemon water. Anyway, our bodies do not like acidity, disease thrives when a body is too acidic. When acidic animal products are ingested, our bodies attempt to neutralize the acid. This is done by pulling calcium out of the bones to buffer the acid from the animal products. So while there is calcium in milk, more calcium is pulled from the bones to buffer the acid from the milk then is gained from drinking the milk in the first place.
On top of that, let’s not forget about recombinant bovine somatotropin. rBST is a growth hormone injected into cows to increase their milk production. Studies show that this growth hormone increases the level of the IGF-1 hormone in the cows. IGF-1 is believed to be connected to tumor growth in people. Countries all over the world have actually banned rBST, but of course it has not been banned in the United States.
And if all that wasn’t enough for you, remember the animals. We grow up thinking that cows naturally produce milk year-round and that they need to be milked and are happy to be milked. Not the case folks. A female cow is artificially inseminated over and over for her entire short life until she is “spent” and can no longer produce a profitable about of milk. She is then sent off to the slaughterhouse to become cheap ground-up meat, such a hamburgers.
She is impregnated about once a year so she will lactate all year long. Ever thought about how the milk you are drinking comes from a pregnant cow with raging hormones?! As soon as her calf is born it is taken away from her. Baby calves never get the chance to get the essential colostrums from their mothers’ milk that we all know is so important for infants. If it is a female calf, she will become a dairy cow. If it is a boy, it will be sold for veal. Calves sold for veal end up in small crates where they cannot move for their entire life. The prevention of any exercise keeps their flesh white and tender because they are unable to build muscle and that is seen as most profitable. They are killed when only a few days to a few weeks old.
While naturally, cows can live for about twenty years, most dairy cows are considered “spent” and sent to slaughter after about four years. Throughout their short confined lives, they often succumb to mastitis (an udder infection) or become lame because of the machines that milked them, because their bodies cannot handle the growth hormones they are given, because of stress, because of having child after child taken from them, and because of being confined.
Okay, had enough? Me too. I know this was long, but sometimes, things have to be lengthy in order to get a point across. If you stayed with me through all of it or most of it, thank you and congratulations. I hope you feel even just a little bit enlightened and more able to make the decision about whether to drink milk or not.
For more information about drinking milk, dairy cows, and animal cruelty check out:
Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy, PhD
Eating Animals by Jonathan Saffan Foer
Main Street Vegan by Victoria Moran
And of course, my complete list of vegan resources.
Be on the lookout for my next post which is the part II of this post. A much happier post about how to make an easy milk alternative: almond milk from scratch and how to make recipes with the almond pulp left over! Thanks for reading!