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Milk and dairy products (from cows) are prevalent in the American diet. A healthy diet is supposed to include school lunches with pints of milk and is further promoted through the commercial association of athletes and milk. Recently, milk cooperatives started an advertising campaign, claiming that if dieters drink 24 ounces of low-fat or fat-free milk every day, they will lose weight. This is surprising because milk is designed to help young mammals gain weight. Nevertheless, milk has historically played a central role in dieting and continues to do so today.
All mammals produce milk for their young (which is why they are called "mammals" from mammae, the Latin word for breast), but this milk varies greatly in terms of proteins and fat content (Schiebinger 1993). Humans, however, are the only mammals that drink milk into adulthood (but not human milk), and not all humans can even do this. Most Americans are of European descent, and this means that they continue to produce the enzyme lactase throughout their lives, but because this enzyme was never meant to be used to digest large quantities of milk, their bodies do not produce very much lactase (Kottak 2008). This is why it is impossible for a normal person to drink an entire gallon of milk without becoming very ill. However, members of the American population who are not of European descent are, to a greater or lesser degree, lactose intolerant.
Cow's milk consists basically of all the proteins and fats that baby cows need to grow, but these proteins, most especially lactose, are difficult for humans to digest once they reach the age of five. This is with the exception of two African tribes and most northern Europeans, who have a genetic trait that allows them to digest milk proteins (Kottak 2008). Lactose is found in all milks, though in varying amounts. Milk thus varies greatly in nutritional quality. Goat's milk, for example, is much closer to human milk in terms of lactose content and so is easier for us to digest, but it is almost universally more expensive than cow's milk in stores. For many people it also has an odd taste, perhaps because they are not used to consuming it or perhaps because it is so similar to human milk that we have a natural aversion to it after the age of five.
Cow's milk did not really become part of the human diet until well after the agricultural revolution and the subsequent domestication of animals (Eaton et al. 1988). In the beginning of the nineteenth century, Cow's milk started to be called the "perfect food" because it was believed to be the only natural food to have the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and other nutrients. As such, many diets called for people to drink more milk, though some of these diets were encouraging weight gain in neuresthenics. Even in the twenty-first century, the USDA recommends three servings (24 oz) of dairy per day.
In many ways, milk is the perfect food, for baby cows, but there is little evidence that milk is a balanced food for humans. One 8-ounce serving of skim milk contains about 8 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates, a small amount of fat (about 0.4 grams), and 80 calories. Some people cannot digest any of the proteins or sugars (carbohydrates) in milk and so receive none of its purported benefits. There are also people who cannot fully digest milk and, therefore, do not receive the full amount of protein that the food contains.
SLG/Joe Bauer See also Food Pyramid; Lindlahr; Mitchell
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