Dairy, dairy, quite contrary,
how does your biome grow?
With bunged-up guts or constant trots
and toilet rolls all in a row.
With all the bad press grains (rightly) get for having been so recently assimilated into the human diet, relatively speaking, it’s easy to forget that dairy has been a regular for only about the same length of time, in the region of 10,000 years.
So can the arguments against grains – we haven’t evolved to eat them, we flourished and thrived for millions of years without them, we only tolerate them at best but ultimately they make us ill, etc – equally be applied to dairy? Should we drink milk? Should we eat cheese? And who are ‘we’ exactly? If you’re of old European stock, the answer might not be the same as if you’re of, say, Vietnamese extraction.
In the 1970s, archaeologists excavating a Stone Age site in Poland found fragments of pottery made by the people who lived there around 7,000 years ago, central Europe’s first farmers. The pottery was dotted with tiny holes, as though the clay had been baked while pierced with pieces of straw.
Their exact use remained unclear until 2011, when a geochemist at the University of Bristol analysed fatty residues preserved in the clay. Those early farmers had used the pottery as sieves to separate fatty milk solids from liquid whey, making these relics the oldest known evidence of cheese-making in the world.
For adults 11,000 years ago, milk was toxic, and today it can cause diarrhoea in many people. Adult humans did not produce lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose, the sugar found in milk. Children produce lactase, of course, because their first food is their mother’s milk. After a certain age they stop producing it, as they move on to grown-up food. (Meat).
As farming started to replace hunting and gathering in the Middle East around 11,000 years ago, cattle herders learned how to ferment milk from their animals to reduce the lactose content, rendering these newfangled ‘dairy products’ – cheese, yogurt – digestible. Several thousand years later, a genetic mutation spread through Europe that meant some people didn’t cease to produce lactase after childhood (‘lactase persistence‘) – they could drink milk without it being toxic. In modern humans, lactose tolerance/lactase persistence is commonest in western and northern Europe, and rarest in south-east Asia and south-west Africa.
It’s not just about the lactose in dairy, though. Remember, we mainly consume cow’s milk, a substance that has evolved to make calves grow. Which means that, for example, the protein profile of cow’s milk is very different from that of human milk. Many people who have allergic reactions to milk are reacting to casein, while whey proteins cause insulin spikes that can create all the problems that insulin spikes create.
Calcium is great for strong bones and healthy teeth, though, isn’t it? And there’s lots of calcium in milk and cheese. Well, an increase in dairy consumption in the West, which includes an increase in milk consumption, has accompanied an increase in osteoporosis. If, in and of itself, milk strengthened bones, then there would be a clear reduction in osteoporosis, but the opposite is happening. By 2050, the worldwide incidence of hip fracture in men is projected to increase by 310% and 240% in women, compared to rates in 1990, says the International Osteoporosis Foundation.
While cheese is low in lactose, it usually has casein, not only difficult to digest but alleged to contain enough casomorphins to have a mild addictive effect. Cheese? Addictive? With cheese, as with all dairy products, the higher the fat content, the lower the protein content, and vice versa, and the milk proteins are what you want to avoid.
Our consumption of milk and cheese is understandable: it tastes good to a lot of us, is satisfying, and possibly also a little addictive (I’m holding my hand up here!). The received wisdom and state propaganda tell us that we need dairy for good health, yet it might make most sense to just avoid milk completely, even if your roots lie in Western Europe and you are lactase persistent. It adds nothing positive to the adult diet and has potential negative effects. Even if you are lactase persistent, you are still consuming casein and whey, neither of which do you any favours, especially compared to meat. Just because you don’t appear to have any ill effects from milk doesn’t mean you should carry on drinking it. Just like grains, dairy can take its time and have subtle yet significant effects. Really, confining ourselves to meat and fish and eggs is a kind of insurance.
Finally, anecdotally, raw cow’s milk seems to have healing effects for some conditions. Is it the milk? Would eating nothing but meat have the same or greater healing effect? No studies exist, as far as I know, on raw milk, but many people swear by it. It certainly tastes good – I used to get it at my farmers’ market in my milk-drinking days. If you have any good results from raw milk, let me know.
Till next time. Blessed are the cheesemakers.