Does anybody need milk?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

April 2008

Milk is a product that humans can well get along without even though it's a common staple for many people. More than half the world's population cannot digest it easily and it contributes to the epidemic of obesity that confronts every developed nation. Fortunately for the dairy industry and for the human race, the ingenuity of men and women and their ability to adapt to new foods have made milk and milk products nutritious and relatively inexpensive foods.

There were no dairy products during the Stone Age. Human infants had nothing but mother's milk for the first few months of life and she never had any left over for cheese or yogurt. If modern primitive groups are an example, most infants were probably breastfed until about the age of 4 years.

Humans began the domestication of animals about 10,000 years ago and milk was used as food at least by about 4,000 B.C.. The earliest dairy herds were probably made up of sheep and goats because of their small size and tractability. It must have been quite a challenge to wrest milk from wild cows and the first dairymen probably got their start when some gene mutation resulted in a docile heifer that kept her gentle and cooperative personality after she delivered her first calf.

For more than half the world's population, diary products have never been a significant food item because they can't properly digest lactose, the sugar in milk. Roughly 85 percent of the indigenous adults of Asia and Africa, just like their Stone Age ancestors, have lost the ability to produce a digestive enzyme called lactase, which helps to digest lactose. In contrast, most people of Northern European ancestry, whose forbears have included dairy products in their diet for several thousand years, have maintained the capability to produce the lactase enzyme in their digestive system.

By the time they reach young adulthood, many lactose-intolerant persons have linked bloating, cramps, nausea, gas and diarrhea to a recent meal that contained milk or ice cream. Some persons with lactose intolerance can handle small amounts of dairy products and most have no problem with yogurt, in which the lactose has been at least partly digested by bacteria.

Nutrition experts correctly point out that a diet low in calcium may lead to osteoporosis. Although calcium is not the only factor whose deficiency leads to this bone-thinning disease, it is an important nutrient. How can this need be satisfied in the lactose-intolerant person? The answer is green, leafy vegetables, which is where cows and other milk-producing animals get it. Carnivores get calcium from the bones of their prey. Some brands of tofu, cereal and orange juice are fortified with extra calcium and it's also present in shrimp and sardines. Almonds have 3 or 4 times as much calcium as other nuts.

With all these foods available to us from which we can obtain calcium, does anybody need milk? Nope. But don't take away my favorite ice cream.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at