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The Surprising History of Milk

I’d hazard a guess that milk will no longer be a staple of the western diet in the not so distant future.

Growing up in England, I was required to consume a third of a pint of milk every day at school. I was informed that this was good for my teeth and my bones, and that I had better “drink up,” even though I didn’t actually like the taste of milk.

When a storm or tornado hits in the US, one of the key items people rush to stock up on is milk – right next to bread, toilet paper (and oh yes, beer). Milk has become a staple of the western diet, but it wasn’t always this way.

The Arrival of Milk

The “official” history of cows’ milk begins around 10,000 BCE, when nomadic tribes decided to stop roving and to settle down in farming communities. (The unofficial history may have begun much earlier!) This era is generally referred to as the agricultural revolution, and with it came domesticated animals and the advent of by-products such as milk.

Later, in ancient Egypt, milk and other dairy products were available, but reserved for royalty, priests and the very wealthy. By the 5th century AD in western Europe, we find that milk was taken from both cows and sheep, but that by the 14th century, cows’ milk was more popular.

But it was never the drink of choice amongst the general populace.

In England and other western European countries, in the 16th and 17th centuries, ale, beer or cider were common drinks, the water being unsafe to consume. Other alcoholic drinks, just as whisky, were also popular, but not milk.

If we jump forward to western Europe and the US in the 19th century, milk was becoming more common, but only for young people: fresh cows’ milk was for babies only, although the further it got from the cows who produced it, the more it was likely to be contaminated by bacteria.

How Did Milk Become a Drink of Choice for Kids and Adults?

Deborah Valenze, the author of Milk: A Local and Global History, believes that milk’s rise to fame was due to several factors that coincided at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries:

* As infant mortality rose in cities, practices for making milk safer began to emerge. Louis Pasteur conducted the first pasteurization tests in 1862, and he is credited with revolutionizing the safety of milk and, in turn, the ability to store and distribute milk well beyond the farm. Commercial pasteurization machines were introduced in 1895.

* The first glass milk bottle was patented in 1884 by Dr. Henry Thatcher, after he witnessed a milkman making deliveries from an open bucket into which a child’s filthy rag doll had accidentally fallen.

* A growing interest in nutrition emerged around the same time, and this led to the idea of treating sick people by giving them only the purest, simplest things to eat.

* Some temperance groups opposed to drinking alcohol pressed for the serving of milk in factories. They even set up milk booths in towns and achieved some success.

Eventually it all came together in the early 20th century. The first tank trucks for transporting milk were put into service in 1914, and by 1917, pasteurization of all milk except that from cows proven to be free of tuberculosis was either required or officially encouraged across the US.

In 1922, Congress passed the Capper-Volstead Act, allowing producers of agricultural products, such as milk, to “act together in associations” to organize collective processing, preparation for market, handling, and marketing of milk and other agricultural goods.

In the 1930s, milk cans were replaced with large on-farm storage tanks, and plastic coated milk cartons were invented, which allowed for wider distribution of fresh milk.

And so began the journey leading to the National Milk Processor’s ubiquitous “Got Milk?” advertisements, and the acceptance of milk as a staple of the western diet.

The Declining Popularity of Milk – Does It Do a Body Good?

Cows’ milk remained extremely popular as a foodstuff for both children and adults for several decades, but US milk sales have been slowly declining since the 1970s. According to Forbes, “2011 sales were the lowest since 1984. Whole milk consumption is half what it was in the 1980s.” During the 1990s those Got Milk? commercials boosted sales somewhat, but now they have fallen off again.

Today there is considerable doubt about the nutritional benefits of milk.

Two years ago, Care2 posted an infographic with dozens of statistics that show why milk is not nearly as healthy as the dairy industry might want you to believe.

Several studies have failed to find any association between milk consumption and fewer bone fractures, one of its supposed benefits. Last year, Care2’s Kevin Mathews examined a study from Sweden that looked at the dietary habits of more than 100,000 adults for a span of 10 to 20 years. Surprisingly, those who reported drinking the most milk actually broke their bones the most, running contrary to conventional wisdom.

Could the dairy industry have been lying to us?

I’d hazard a guess that milk will no longer be a staple of the western diet in the not-so-distant future.

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