The importance of the story of milk as a superfood
Humans, as mammals, are consumers of milk, but that generalization don’t hold as we grow up and need to switch to cow or goat diary products. While some countries consume a fair amount more animal milk than others, even that generalization doesn’t hold up if you look back only 100 years. Consuming non-cheese diary products is actually a fairly recent development, but the specifics of that development have shaped it to feel like a long-standing and wholesome tradition stretching back as far as any of us alive today can remember.
While cows have been domesticated for over 10,000 years, milk was not the primary point of demand. Cheese was a popular use of milk, but drinking it directly was thought of as something only appropriate for babies and children, and then only if it was fresh. As a beverage, milk just spoiled too quickly to keep around, which is why cheese was so much more practical for pre-industrialized people. It wasn’t until the advent of pasteurisation that milk could have a longer shelf life, but that wasn’t really enough for it stake out a larger portion of the western diet.
In the 1880s, John Harvey Kellogg helped shape the identity of milk as a healthful part of the diet. Accompanying the invention of Corn Flakes in 1878, Kellogg heralded milk as part of a healthy and “pure” drink. The fat, carbohydrates and protein made milk a sort of “perfect food,” covering many nutritional needs at once.
Milk’s reputation only continued to grow from there. The purity angle was picked up by various temperance movements in the early 20th century in Europe. Milk was offered to factory workers as a healthier alternative to beer. Doctors wrote about it as “our most important foodstuff.” The dairy industry ramped up, and managed to overproduce in the 1920s, which lead to cow milk being added to a variety of other products, like candy or even plastics.
At this point, the nutritional benefits of milk are up for a bit more debate than 100 years ago. It’s still holding on as a staple in western diets, but the idea of milk being competition to other “all-in-one superfoods” like say, Soylent, doesn’t click for as many people anymore.
Source: How did milk become a staple food? by Veronique Greenwood, BBC Future