Believe it or not, for most of the 150,000 odd years humans have been walking the earth, we couldn’t drink milk. Children drink milk of course, but at the age of 6 or 7 their bodies begin to lose the ability to create lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar in milk called lactose. Before 7,000 years ago, if anyone, anywhere on the planet, ever drank milk, they would have an extreme physical reaction to it that would include bloating, painful cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Drinking milk as an adult, therefore, offered a distinct evolutionary disadvantage.
Then, something happened 7,000 years ago that changed all that. We’re so used to drinking milk in North America that we think it’s commonplace. Although many cultures world-wide consume forms of fermented milk, such as kefir and cheese, only 35% of the world’s population can actually drink fresh milk. That’s because fermentation removes most of the lactose people can’t digest. So what happened? Why can some of us, mostly Europeans, Middle Easterners, and some Africans drink milk and others cannot?
Historians generally agree that dairying began soon after animal domestication about 10,000 years ago. At first, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs supplied meat, hides, and hair. We can imagine an opportunistic Neolithic shepherd or shepherdess watching young animals nursing from their mothers and thinking, “Hey, I want some of that”. Their attempts at drinking “some of that” would have had the disastrous effects on the gut already mentioned.
Luckily for our Neolithic innovators, fermented foods had been around for some time. People well understood that fermentation transformed difficult to digest foods into something more palatable and long lasting (not to mention, occasionally, alcoholic). Fermentation hugely expanded our larders and dairy lent itself well to this process—in the warmer areas of the Middle East, where agriculture began, milk taken from an animal in the morning would be yogurt by noon.
So in the early years of dairying, cheese, yogurt, and other fermented products were the only milk we ever consumed. Then something happened: a genetic mutation appeared that enabled the body to continue producing lactase into adulthood. In a population that ate a lot of dairy this was a distinct advantage. Raw milk is nutritious, and calorie dense. Milk stored “on the hoof” can be accessed as needed; it provides some protection against famine caused by crop failure. Plus, dairying permitted the continuous exploitation of a valuable animal rather than killing it for meat.
People with the mutated gene would have had a better chance at survival and producing children with the same ability. Soon, 80% of early dairying cultures in the Middle East and Europe carried this gene. Dairying became a cultural and dietary mainstay.
For those of us who are able to drink milk, the benefits are many. It’s considered a “complete” food, which means we could live on it exclusively if we had to. It’s loaded with protein, vitamins, digestive enzymes, 8 essential amino acids, and many important minerals including calcium. 80% of the proteins are easy to digest and raw milk is alive with beneficial bacteria to help digestion and protect against disease.
Despite all the benefits our ancestors received by dairying and drinking raw milk, there were some detractors over time. As with all animal husbandry, people and animals come into close contact, and many new diseases transferred to people. Influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles were once unknown to human beings. Over time, populations developed tolerances and the benefits of dairying outweighed the risks.
The History of Milk
The first dairy animal to be domesticated was the sheep around 9,000 years ago. This was followed by goats and cattle in the next thousand years, then donkeys, water buffalo, and horses. In fact, donkeys provide milk that is closest to human mother’s milk and was used for sick or orphaned infants. Subsequently, camels, llamas, reindeer, and yaks were domesticated. All of these species were milked by early farmers.
In North America we rarely come across a carton of yak milk in the diary section (at least in my neighborhood!). According to an article “Milk From Cows and Other Animals” published by the Washington Dairy Products Commission, nine out of every ten glasses of milk we consume in Canada and the U.S. comes from cows. However, the rest of the world obtains their milk from many other sources. Water buffalo produce half the milk consumed in India, and ghee, the oil most commonly used for cooking is made from it. Laplanders in northern Scandinavia drink reindeer milk as they are the only dairy animal that can survive such a brutally cold environment.
Yak-butter tea is a salty, creamy soup whipped up and drunk by people living in the cold Tibetan mountains. 700 years ago, Mongolians dried horse milk into a paste which they carried with them and reconstituted with water when they were on the march. To this day, Russians use mare’s milk to make kumiss, a fermented, slightly alcoholic beverage similar to kefir. People living in hot desert climates find camel milk beneficial, in part because it can last for seven days at 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
In North America, goat milk is much more common these days. The fat globules in goat’s milk are smaller than in cow’s milk, making it easier to digest. Roquefort, Romanian, and chevre cheeses are all made from sheep’s milk, which has twice the fat content of cow’s milk.
The Mighty Aurochs
It’s the aurochs, those large wild cattle that are illustrated on prehistoric cave paintings. Popular as prey animals for ancient hunters, they populated the wilds of Europe and Africa for tens of thousands of years.
Aurochs began to be domesticated 8,000 years ago. According to Dr. Ruth Bollongino of the Johannes Gutenberg University, DNA suggests that all modern cattle originated from about 80 wild female aurochs in the Near East. From there they moved with herding peoples into Europe, largely replacing the wild populations there. Sadly, as often happens with domestication, wild aurochs declined with the spread of their domesticated descendants. The very last of these magnificent animals died in Poland in the 1600’s.
The children of the aurochs are legion. Over 800 breeds of cattle exist today, with a global population of about 1.5 billion. They continue to evolve as breeders select for higher milk volume per cow. Consequently cow population is trending downward as milk production increases. In the 1970’s, dairy cows produced an average of 21 pints of milk per day. In 2012, that average was 42 pints per day. That’s doubled production in 40 years! A modern cow produces 7 to 10 times more than she’d need to feed her calf.
What Milk Makes
Most archaeologists believe cheese was first “discovered” when milk was stored and carried in the stomach of an animal. When the milk mixed with the rennet present in the stomach, the milk separated into curds and whey. The first cheese thus produced would have been soft, white, and virtually tasteless, somewhat like modern cottage cheese. Over time people learned that aged cheese tasted better and salt helped flavor and preserve it.
Scientists exploring an ancient Neolithic site in Poland recently discovered shards of pottery that had been perforated before firing to create a sieve. This was suspected to be the first physical evidence of cheese making. This was confirmed when chemical analysis found milk proteins in the clay. The age of the find was 7,000 years, in the earliest days of dairy consumption.
Since then, cheese and cheese-making has been found on wall murals in Egyptian tombs and has been described in Homer’s Odyssey. Our experimentation with different types of processing, milks, and added ingredients has led to over 900 types of modern cheeses. Cheddar was first created around 1500 years ago, with Parmesan following close behind. Gouda was first made in 1697, and Camembert only appeared in 1791.
In 1815, the first cheese making factory opened in Switzerland. The United States took manufacturing to the next level when Jesse Williams, a dairy farmer from Rome, New York, used the assembly line system in his factory in 1851. This created a cheese-making industry, with hundreds of factories buying local farmers milk by the wagon loads.
With mass-produced rennet and pure microbial cultures in the 1860s, standards became much more reliable, cheese became cheaper to produce and its popularity soared. Today, most North America factory-made cheeses are artificially aged with enzymes. Naturally-aged cheeses are the norm in Europe, and are becoming more available here with artisanal cheese-makers.
Yogurt was likely the very first dairy product ever eaten. Milk ferments quickly, and enzymes produced would have enabled a lactose-intolerant people to benefit from all the proteins and goodness of milk. The word “yogurt” is Turkish, which is where dairying is now believed to have begun. According to dairygoodness.ca/history the first industrialized production of yogurt is attributed to Isaac Carasso in 1919 in Barcelona—his company “Danone” was named for his son, “Little Daniel”.
Today there are three types of yogurt: Balkan, Swiss, and Greek. Balkan is cultured and then poured into vats to set. Swiss is cultured in vats, and when cooled it’s stirred, giving it a thinner, creamier texture. Greek is strained of its whey until it’s almost cheese-like. This is the yogurt used for tzatziki. It keeps the longest and can be used wherever you’d use sour cream.
Butter, that creamy delight, was once so rare and valuable that people used it in religious ceremonies. Ancient Romans and Greeks applied it to their hair to make it shine. Ancient tribes in the north of India ate butter but also used it on their skin and as a lamp oil.
Butter is the fat of milk and is made from cream. Before homogenization, milk was left for the fat to separate and float to the top of the container where it would be skimmed off. Fat molecules are kept suspended in milk by proteins that surround them. When cream is agitated, these proteins break up, releasing the fat which congeals into butter. The liquid remaining is called buttermilk.
Cultured butter is made from fermented milk and has a stronger flavor. Traditional homemade butter may only have 65% fat and 30% water and be much lighter than commercial butter which is about 80% fat and 15% water. Ghee is an exception as it is pure butterfat with milk solids rendered out of it. Ghee has a higher smoke point making it useful for cooking and can last unrefrigerated for three months. Butter itself can be fermented but this practice is rare. An exception is smen, a stinky Moroccan fermented butter made from cow, sheep or goat milk.
Buttermilk can be drunk fresh or fermented into cultured buttermilk. It’s lower in fat and calories than milk, and high in vitamins, potassium, and calcium. It’s soothing to the stomach and was known in the past as “Grandma’s probiotic”. The buttermilk we drink today, however, is not the same our grandparents enjoyed as it’s rarely naturally fermented.
Icy desserts, such as sherbet, have been around for around 4,000 years, but it wasn’t until the 1600’s when it was served as a delicacy to royalty. Over time it became more available and in the 1700’s jumped the pond to America. Before refrigeration, however, ice cream was difficult and expensive to produce and was mostly enjoyed by the elite. Technical innovations in the late 1800’s made it possible for nearly everyone to enjoy this treat. Perhaps not the most nutritious form of dairy, ice cream is still one of the most delightful ways to enjoy it.
Processed Milk – What’s In That Carton Anyway?
Let’s face it—the healthy “complete food” once known to our ancestors is hard to find these days.
Homogenization simply means preventing the natural separation of fat and milk. This is achieved by a purely mechanical process and not by chemicals or heating—it’s generally considered as having no impact on the health benefits of milk. Pasteurization, however, is the cause of some hot debate. It was developed not only to kill harmful bacteria, but also to increase shelf life.
There are some differences in pasteurization processes. Home pasteurization requires milk to be heated to 63 °C (145 °F) for 30 minutes. High Temperature Short Time (HTST) milk is heated to 72 °C (161 °F) for 15 seconds creating milk that can be stored 5 to 12 days. Most store-bought milk follows this process. Ultra High Temperature (UHT) processing heats milk to of 140 °C (284 °F) for 4 seconds. This sterilizes the milk—an important difference. This product can be held for several months without refrigeration. Extended Shelf Life (ESL) milk is high heat processed and filtered to screen out microbes.
According to thekitchen.com, high heat processes are no safer than regular pasteurization. It seems the benefit is in the shelf life of the product. On the other hand, raw milk will only last 1-3 days in the refrigerator. No wonder our ancestors commonly fermented their raw milk.
Regulations around raw milk and its products vary widely worldwide. Only 10 states in the US can sell raw milk, and it’s been banned in Canada since 1991. The European Union allows sales of raw milk, but in Australia it’s illegal. The debate rages on and its best to check all resources before making a decision regarding consuming raw milk.
The Dairy Barn – How Things Have Changed
In 1879, Anna Baldwin patented a milking machine with rubber cups that were placed over cow’s teats. These were connected to a pump lever and bucket. Although her process had flaws, mechanical milking took off, replacing hand-milking virtually everywhere but the family farm.
Since then, dairying has become a major industry that’s affected the milk we drink, the animals we grow, and the regulations we follow. GMOinside.org reports that the majority of dairy cows today are raised in large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The majority of feed these operations give their cows is GMO corn and soy. Since GMO crops need more herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers these enter the “milk stream”, eventually ending up in our bodies. Since cows did not evolve to eat corn and soy, they suffer terrible health problems. New strains of E. coli develop in the fermented contents of cow stomachs, ever increasing the need for antibiotics in these operations.
As for milking, mechanization is the name of the game. In an Automatic Milking System (AMS) it’s possible to keep a herd of animals in a barn and milk them without any human interaction. Monitors scan animals as they move from an open stall area into an enclosed milking station. When the cow steps on a metal platform, a laser sensor identifies the position of the teats, prompting a robotic arm to automatically apply teat cups. Once the machine has milked the cow, she is released into an enclosed feeding area with a one way door back into the barn.
Computer monitoring of the animal’s temperature and bacteria in the milk is meant to flag the farmer as to a health issue. A dairy farmer can check his/her cell phone for this information without ever entering the barn. In her book, Project Animal Farm, Sonia Faruqi writes that when farmers worked with their animals in their environment, barns were cleaner and the animals healthier. The problem with extremely automated systems is that farmers have no personal incentive to make conditions more livable for their animals. The result is often a living hell where air and environmental quality actually make people who visit the barns physically sick.
Regulation of the dairy industry is promoted as the protection of public health, but more and more it serves the needs of the industry it regulates. BigAg has a lot of power in Washington and they use it to protect and build systems that generate profits for themselves and control small producers. Some would also say protecting business interests is done at the expense of the animals living with these systems and the people who consume their products.
The Good News
We create history with every decision we make. Trends start with an individual choice. More and more, people are becoming aware of the impact of their personal choices and the growth of small, local and organic farms is evidence of that. As is the large distribution chains who are cow-towing to public demand by offering more organic or natural choices.
For 35% of us, milk is a nourishing and delicious food. For the rest, fermented milk and products made from it offer the same benefits we’ve enjoyed since we first began domesticating dairy animals. Life today without cheese, yogurt, or butter is unimaginable.
Oh, and ice cream. Let’s not forget ice cream.