August 15, 2009

Milking it for all it’s worth

I'm alternately entertained and consternated by lists of things I’m supposed to eat – or not. For example, one article advises me to drink milk for calcium to prevent osteoporosis. But another tells me to avoid dairy products to reduce my risk of heart disease.

That, along with a visit to a restaurant where every other thing on the menu had goat cheese in it, got me wondering: Why do humans consume products made from the milk of ruminants?

Or, as Calvin once said to Hobbes, “Why do we drink cow milk?? Who was the guy who first looked at a cow and said, ‘I think I’ll drink whatever comes out of these things when I squeeze ’em!’?”

Cattle have been domesticated for thousands of years, but even before then sheep, goats and other ruminants were domesticated and provided dairy products like cheese, which was developed about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East.

Legend tells of a trader carrying milk in a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. After being jostled by the movement of the trader’s horse all day, the milk separated into curds and whey. Hungry, he ate/drank it anyway, and the rest is history.

Curds are solidified bits of milk, mostly protein and fat. Whey is the liquid that’s left over, mostly water, lactose (milk sugar), and some proteins and minerals. Yum.

Strain the whey from the curds and you have, basically, cottage cheese. Adding various bacterial cultures and leaving the results to harden produces different types of “aged” cheese. Soft cheeses, such as Camembert, are aged for a short time. Hard cheeses such as Roquefort are aged longer. Both Camembert and Roquefort are made using molds related to penicillin.

Dairy consumption is an almost entirely European idea, although it did also crop up in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Since Europeans spent the 15th through the 19th centuries colonizing other parts of the world, dairy products have become more widespread.

But many segments of the world’s populations do not — or cannot — consume dairy foods. The late, great Bob Mervine, one of Orlando’s most famous foodies, once told me the use of milk and cheese is unheard of in traditional Asian cuisine. Almost 100 percent of Asians are lactose intolerant.

Dairy consumption, evolutionarily speaking, is a recent mutation. The ability to digest lactose is present in infants, because they subsist almost entirely on milk. But the production of lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose) slows after infancy and stops at about age four. Or would, if we didn’t keep consuming milk from other animals.

Lactose tolerance is found only in cultures that have a long history of dairy consumption, such as northern Europe, where only 4 percent of Swedes are lactose intolerant.

In Africa, the population of southern Sudan, where people have long been cattle herders, is only 17 percent lactose intolerant. But in Nigeria, where the climate is not conducive to raising cattle, the lactose intolerance rate is 99 percent.

Native Americans also have a high rate of lactose intolerance — 95 percent — presumably because it is so hard to milk a wild buffalo.

Many nutritionists and physicians now question the health benefits of humans consuming milk from other mammals. Especially when cow’s milk is what allows a calf to double its body weight in only 47 days.

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