Milk Day: celebrating dairy

Posted 1/13/20

Today, Jan. 11, is not for the lactose intolerant because it is National Milk Day.

Dairy has an interesting connection to human development. Like all mammals, humans are born with the ability to …

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Milk Day: celebrating dairy


Today, Jan. 11, is not for the lactose intolerant because it is National Milk Day.

Dairy has an interesting connection to human development. Like all mammals, humans are born with the ability to digest milk produced by the mother’s breast but that goes away after weaning because lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose in milk, ceases production. Despite the popular image of cats hungrily lapping up cow’s milk and purring contentedly afterward, the truth is adult cats generally don’t digest milk well, and it can make them sick.

For untold generations, humans thrived on mother’s milk as infants but were lactose intolerant thereafter. That is still the condition for a large part of the world’s population, especially in Asia and Africa.

The people in Northern Europe and people living in North America, with Northern European ancestry are different. Many of them never cease lactase production and are able to consume large amounts of dairy products without any discomfort.

Geneticists have determined a population of Neolithic pastoralists living about 7,500 years ago somewhere in Central Europe, or the Central Balkans, underwent an evolutionary change when the gene controlling lactase production failed to shut off in one or more individuals. For people raising cattle, goats or sheep, this proved a highly desirable trait because it gave them access to a nutritious food source.

Nutritionists and others who study the science of food consider milk a staple food, meaning with its nine essential nutrients it can support life without any help from the other food groups, but that makes for a dull diet. Other staple foods include sourdough bread, chicken eggs, red beans and beer.

A slightly different gene mutation selecting for the lactase enzyme also developed among some pastoral groups in Asia and Africa but apparently did not

experience the widespread success seen with the northern European population. For a long time, the thinking was the gene was favored because it prevented starvation, but that is less accepted today. The pastoralists with the gene evolution existed alongside other populations, without the lactase enzyme, that were also thriving.

What the gene did was allow people to directly consume milk.

Keeping milk producing domesticated animals predates the evolutionary change. The early days of dairy production probably did not involve drinking milk. Pottery shards from nearly 8,000 years ago in present day Romania and Hungary test positive for traces of milk protein

It is most likely the milk was valued for the other food substances made from it such as butter, yogurt, kefir and cheese. All of these products are much lower in lactose and easier to digest. Even lactose intolerant people can generally consume some of these products without any consequences.

Cheese is such an old food that we don’t know when or where or how it originated. It is theorized making cheese was discovered shortly after sheep were domesticated 8,000 years ago. It was certainly an important food source. Egyptian hieroglyphics depict cheese making, and cheese was known throughout the Roman Empire. It wasn’t the type of cheese used today and was probably made fresh daily to avoid preservation problems.

The Romans may have preferred converting milk to cheese but ancient documents indicate the Germanic tribes and the Celts were prodigious milk drinkers.

Milk is not only part of the Northern European diet as a beverage and as cheese, it is an integral part in the preparation of many dishes from soup to dessert.

So celebrate today with a glass of milk, a milkshake, a grilled cheese sandwich (just don’t use American cheese since it is not real cheese), eggnog, a bourbon milk punch cocktail or any number of milk-based foods.