Is Milk for Everyone?

Complexity: 
Easy

IF MILK IS SO BENEFICIAL, WHY IS there so much controversy about it? The controversy on milk dates back to the 1950s through the 1970s. During that time, international relief agencies gave out millions of tons of surplus milk at home and abroad. They received many complaints that people who drank the milk suffered severe gas pains, cramps, and diarrhea. Was the powdered milk poisoned? Was it mixed with polluted water? No, that wasn't the problem.

Lactose Intolerance

In 1965 a team of research physicians from the Johns Hopkins Medical School discovered that many of the people who suffered from drinking milk were unable to digest lactose, a complex sugar found in milk. Large, complex sugar molecules in milk can't pass through the wall of the small intestines until broken into simple sugars. The enzyme lactase performs this transformation. Lactase is generally found in all young mammals (except seals and walruses), but as mammals get older, many lose the ability to produce lactase: they become lactose intolerant.

Researchers eventually found that an adult human being able to digest a cold glass of milk was exceptional. The population with the highest concentration of lactose-tolerant adults was the Northern Europeans. Some anthropologists speculated that without the peculiar quality of lactose tolerance, Europeans would have died of calcium deficiency. Lactose tolerance and light skin (to help absorb Vitamin D from the sun) were physical adaptations that helped Northern Europeans survive.

People who latched on to these ideas came to the conclusion that light skin and milk-drinking go together. It's unreasonable to expect people from genetic backgrounds other than Northern European to drink milk, they said.

Milk in Other Cultures

But what about the dark-skinned African cow-herding people such as the Fulani pastoralists or the Masai? Or the ancient Hebrews who so eagerly sought the land of milk and honey? And what about the people of India? If it's unnatural for non-Europeans to take milk, how can we explain some of the dietary practices of Africans, Middle Easterners, and South Asians?

Information from the U.S. National Dairy Council gives us several clues. The Dairy Council explains that cheeses, especially aged ones, usually don't cause adverse reactions, because they are low in lactose. Also, many lactose-intolerant people can eat sweetened milk preparations such as milk shakes and ice cream. These pass more slowly through the digestive system, giving it more time to break down the sugars. Finally, yogurt is well tolerated because the active cultures in most yogurts contain their own enzyme to digest lactose and break it down into simple sugars.

So part of the explanation for use of milk outside Northern Europe lies in the techniques employed to pre-serve the milk. If you leave a cup of milk out in the open for a day or two, bacteria will get at it, and it will spoil. So different peoples around the world have developed different methods to preserve milk from unwanted bacteria. There are basically four techniques: You can heat the milk, you can change its structure (as in making butter and curd), you can add a culture to it (to produce yogurt, for example), or you can cool it to about 40 degrees F (as in the modern dairy).

Even in ancient times, Northern Europeans could preserve milk by cooling it (they also made cheese and yogurt). And as recently as a hundred years ago, the typical American farmhouse often had a springhouse or milk cellar to keep milk products cool. But these weren't practical options for people from warm climates. Instead, the Africans and Mediterranean people relied on cultured milk products, and Indians used curd, cultured yogurt, and sweetened hot milk. These are all products that fit the Dairy Council's list of foods least likely to cause problems of lactose intolerance.

Modern Medicine Copies Tradition

According to the late October issue of Hoard's Dairyman, more than fifty million Americans are lactose intolerant, but many products help people take advantage of the benefits of milk. In a way, modern pharmaceutical products like Lactaid and Lac-trace do the same thing as yogurt. They provide the enzymes to break down milk sugars into digestible components so anyone can consume milk products. Products such as Nu Trish (milk fortified with acidophilus bacteria) and Easy 2% (a lactase-fortified milk) also aid the digestion of lactose sugar the way yogurt does.

Who Needs Milk?

Milk is an excellent source of three important nutrients: protein, calcium, and several B vitamins. Though the body can get protein and calcium from other sources, for certain B vitamins the body depends on milk.

In the vegetarian diet, milk plays an essential role by providing vitamin B12 (cobalamin). Most animals have micro-organisms in their stomachs that produce B12, but human beings do not. Their only natural sources of B12 are meat and milk. The body needs vitamin B12 to properly develop red blood cells. A deficiency can cause pernicious and megaloblastic anemia.

For anyone trying to understand the subtleties of spiritual science, possibly the most important role of vitamin B12 is that it helps maintain proper functioning of the nervous system, including brain cells. A deficiency of B12 may take as long as five to ten years to show, but gradually it leads to "unsteadiness, poor memory, confusion, moodiness, delusions, overt psychosis, and eventually death."

Srila Prabhupada emphasizes the value of milk in developing brain tissue for spiritual understanding:

The cow is the most important animal for developing the human body to perfection. The body can be maintained by any kind of foodstuff, but cow's milk is particularly essential for developing the finer tissues of the human brain so that one can understand the intricacies of transcendental knowledge.

—Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.5.7, purport

The B12 content of milk is greatest in whole milk, fresh from the cow. But the body needs only a small amount of B12, and it can get what it needs even when the milk is heated. Ninety percent of the B12 remains after pasteurization, and seventy percent remains after boiling from two to five minutes.

Milk and the Vedic Tradition

In preparing this article, I consulted Syamasundara Mahajana (Samika Rsi Dasa), a Pennsylvania physician and long-time supporter of ISKCON's cow protection programs.

Dr. Mahajana told me, "I was in India for twenty-four years before coming to the U.S. to practice medicine. In all that time, I never heard of one case of lactose intolerance. It's hard to say why Americans have so much difficulty with lactose intolerance.

"Partly it may be related to genetic reasons, but it could also be due to the way milk products are consumed here. In India, milk is usually boiled to kill the bacteria, and people drink the milk hot, sweetened with sugar. Boiling the milk breaks down the protein so it is easier to digest. In America the milk is pasteurized but not boiled. It's also homogenized, and people drink it cold. This may be contributing to the problem."

Prabhupada taught devotees to drink milk "sipping hot"—so hot you have to sip it. He said that cold milk loses its nutritional value.

Another devotee I consulted was Bhagavata Dasa, a holistic medical adviser who knows a lot about Ayurveda. (Ayurveda is India's ancient traditional medicine, which comes from the Vedic scriptures.)

He gave me some interesting information from the Ayur Veda Saukhyam of Raja Todaramalla, the minister of health for the Moghul emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. According to the Ayur Veda, I learned, warm milk straight from the cow promotes strength and stimulates the digestion, but cold milk causes rheumatism and arthritis, and (as detected by the researchers at Johns Hopkins) toxic gases.

Hot boiled milk alleviates mucus and won't put fat on the body. It also helps calm the nerves. This helps explain why hot milk is so widespread in many cultures as a bedtime relaxer. Saffron or cardamom added to milk also reduces mucus. Finally, according to the Ayur Veda, the thick skin of cream on milk promotes strength and virility and alleviates bile and gas. (This made me think of Dr. Mahajana's criticism of homogenized milk, which does not contain that thick layer of cream.)

Countless benefits—physical and spiritual—are to be had by drinking properly prepared milk products. So people of all cultures should take advantage of the miracle in milk. As Srila Prabhupada wrote in his commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.16.4): "There is a miracle in milk, for it contains all the necessary vitamins to sustain human physiological conditions for higher achievements. Brahminical culture can advance only when man is educated to develop the quality of goodness, and for this there is a prime necessity of food prepared with milk...."

Hare Krishna Devi Dasi has been an ISKCON devotee since 1978. She spent several years on the Gita Nagari Farm in Pennsylvania.