Why Are We Still Able To Drink Milk?

Humans weren’t initially able to digest animal milk, but later many populations evolved to tolerating dairy

Why Are We Still Able To Drink Milk?

Even though in recent years there have appeared many alternative “milks” made from plants like soya or almonds, they haven’t been able to fully replace milk. While they might be more suited for vegans or people who are intolerant or allergic to milk, there are some specific nutritional benefits such as fat, protein, sugar and micro nutrients like calcium and vitamin D that can only be found in milk and cannot be mimicked, according to researchers.

Some people consider that milk should be drank only by babies, and that we shouldn’t drink cow milk due to the fact that it is made by cows to feed their young. However, humans have been drinking it for thousands of years now, and even though several modern options are available, it doesn’t seem like we will be stopping anytime soon.

Milk isn’t just for babies

It is true that in some parts of the world drinking milk is more popular than in others, that is because it mainly started becoming a habit for early farmers and pastoralists in western Europe that lived with domesticated animals, including cows. That is why today, drinking milk is common practice in northern Europe, North America, and a patchwork of other places. While in other places, like China, it had just recently become more popular. Back in 2000, there was a nationwide campaign in China that encouraged people to consume more milk and dairy products for health reasons.

Milk contains lactose, which is a type of sugar different from the one found in fruit and other sweet foods. Our bodies make an enzyme called lactase that helps us digest the lactose in milk, it happens when we are babies but after we are weaned in early childhood, for many people it stops, that is why without lactase we cannot properly digest the lactose in milk. Thus many people are lactose intolerant and after drinking milk they can experience bloating, flatulence, cramps, or even diarrhea.

However, along the years of evolution, some people began keeping their lactase enzymes active into adulthood. It started happening in southern Europe about 5,000 years ago, and later in central Europe around 3,000 years ago. This is called lactase persistence and allows them to drink milk without side effects, being the result of mutations in a section of DNA that controls the activity of the lactase gene. This is nowadays quite common in northern Europe and for a few populations in Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, it is quite uncommon in Asia and South America, as well as for most Africans.

Lactase-non-persistent people can still drink milk in small amounts, as well as consume butter, yogurt, cream or cheese, since they have a smaller amount of lactose due to being processed. History shows that people have actually been making and eating cheese longer than they have been drinking milk. In Europe people were making cheese since 6-7,000 years ago, this is well before lactase persistence became common in Europeans.

Nevertheless, milk still remains the first-go-to solution for most people. All the advertising and modern vibes that alternative milks bring will not make much of a dent in the world’s appetite for milk, at least over the next decade. Moreover, specialists pointed in a new planetary health diet meant to maximize health and minimize our impact on the environment, that while we should cut down on meat and other animal products, one glass of milk per day is still recommended.

Source: bbc.com