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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

"No Use Crying Over Milk" -- A Response

You don’t need European genes to enjoy dairy.

Last week, an old article from the Economist resurfaced in my news feed. “No Use Crying Over Milk: Milk and Economic Development” (2015) traced the roots of European prosperity since the 1800s. In a nutshell, the author proposed that dairy consumption lay behind Europe’s historic rise. Unlike the vast majority of Asians and Africans, most Europeans have a genetic mutation that allows them to digest fresh milk. Supposedly, this mutation gave Europeans an edge over the rest of the world. It enabled them to access extra calories from farm animals, paving the way for better health and global dominance.

If the argument sounds far-fetched, it is.

The article also cherry-picked the evidence, to put it mildly. Most Swedes and other Northern Europeans have inherited a genetic mutation that makes them lactase persistent. Throughout their adult lives, they continue to make lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the complex carbohydrates in milk. This means that they can usually drink milk without obnoxious symptoms, like flatulence or diarrhea.

But Europeans are not the only people who have won the genetic “lottery.” Scientists have also identified two other genetic mutations that perform the same function as the European gene. One of these pops up in Kenya and Tanzania; the other in Sudan and the Middle East. Chinese researchers are on the lookout for a separate mutation for lactase persistence specific to Central Asia.

Besides, you do not even have to be lactase persistent to drink milk. In 2009, the Journal of Molecular Evolution published a study of a population of Somalis living in Ethiopia. A team of biologists found that three quarters of their subjects were lactase deficient, as opposed to persistent.

The Somalis, however, gave no signs of struggling with their milk. Seventy-one percent of them drank over two cups of the stuff each day. This was not a surprise. Somalis have traditionally been pastoralists, so dairy naturally played a significant role in their diet. But if lactase production wasn’t in play, then what gave the Somalis the ability to drink milk? The researchers suspected that the Somalis had favorable gut flora, which aided digestion. If confirmed, this implies that dietary factors are also important.

Camel Milk. My Somali neighbors swear by the stuff, but you can also buy it in Beijing, at a Xinjiang speciality store.

The National Institute of Health (2010) thinks people have been too hasty in swearing off milk. They worry that many people assume that they can’t drink milk because they aren’t white. They also warn that we lack reliable statistics about the prevalence of lactose intolerance (more on that next week).

If you are still worried about milk, there are plenty of things you can do to ease digestion. You can take your milk in small amounts with meals. You might want to curdle your milk with rennet or vinegar to make cheese, or churn cream into butter. You can also culture your milk and make things like yogurt.

After all, this is precisely what our ancestors did.

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