Milk might be history's most controversial food, says author

Milk has been the topic of all sorts of debate, from health benefits to pasteurization. Author Mark Kurlansky looks at the most primal nutrient and the food fights its caused throughout the ages.

Dairy was once thought to be dangerous yet alluring, says Mark Kurlansky

The debate between raw and pasteurized milk is misunderstood, according to Mark Kurlansky. Pasteurization advocates don't argue raw milk isn't healthy or more nutritious, they just look at it from a public health standpoint, he says. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
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No food has been the subject of more controversial arguments and debates than the humble glass of milk, says author Mark Kurlansky.

Whether it's debating the health benefits of dairy, or the merits of breast versus bottle feeding, controversy hasn't drowned out the allure for milk, according to Kurlansky, author of the book Milk! A 10,000 Year Food Fracas.

"Up until the age of pasteurisation, people were getting sick and dying a lot from milk, so it was a hard sell that milk was healthy — and yet, people did believe that," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"The issue was: Should it be animal milk or should it be human milk?"

The beef about raw milk

The sale and distribution of raw milk is prohibited in Canada. Kurlansky writes that Canadians have found a way around this law by buying shares of the total milk produced by a herd, in an agreement known as a herdshare.

"[Raw] milk is good to drink and people could argue that it's actually better than pasteurized milk because pasteurization kills a lot of good stuff," he said.

Kurlansky writes that scientific analysis in the 19th century led to the development of formula that was more like breast milk. Before that, flour or sugar had been added to animal milk. (Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Raw milk, he argued, is not bad for you as long as you take proper care of it. 

In order to monitor the production of milk on a large scale, however, pasteurization was the most practical and convenient way to prevent public health problems from developing.

Breastfeeding vs. bottles

It's not just animal milk that's been controversial for centuries. Debates about breast milk and breastfeeding have persisted for just as long.

According to Kurlansky, breastfeeding was once something poor people did because it was the most inexpensive way of getting milk. But now a high percentage of women feed their babies this way.

"Breastfeeding is probably more popular than it's ever been in history because breast pumps have gotten so good, and Obamacare covers them," he said.

The breastfeeding pendulum has swung again, with more North American upper and middle class women doing it, and working class women more often feeding their babies by bottle. (Jaime Reina/AFP/Getty Images)

In history, tables were turned. Wet nurses were available to those who could afford them and feeding by bottle was often for poor families. Women often couldn't produce their own milk due to a lack of food.

"Interestingly there was always this idea that the personality, the character of a wet nurse would affect the child who was drinking her milk," Kurlansky said.

Theories even included how hair colour determined the qualification of the wet nurse.

"Everybody seemed to agree that red-headed nurses were to be avoided."

'Dairies of delight'

Women played a big role in dairy production through history.

"In all societies. I mean not just European, in Tibet, in India, everywhere it was the women who milked the animals and provided the milk and originally were the cheesemakers," he said.

A dairy maid with her cow and a bucket during the Dairy Show at the Agricultural Hall. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The work was tough, but the public image of the milkmaid was idealized.

"You go back and you look at pictures and images of milkmaids and they were always very healthy looking and almost sexual … the wholesome fleshy milkmaid."

In France, special miniature dairies were built for wealthy women where they could milk cows, churn butter and make cheese for fun. They were sometimes called "dairies of delight," said Kurlansky.

"Wealthy people who never did a day's labour in their life found it amusing as a hobby," he explained.

"Everything in them was beautiful and they'd use beautiful porcelain. The princess could go to her dairy and milk some cows."

The rise of industrialization changed all this, said Kurlansky, because industry was considered a man's domain.

A dairy of delight was under construction to be used by Marie Antoinette, but she was executed before its completion. (Wikimedia/Kaho Mitsuki)

The future for milk

Kurlansky predicts the next looming controversy of milk involves the increasing use of robotics in dairies.

Dairy farmers around the world have told him they can't get people to work in dairies any more.

"It doesn't pay well and it's really hard work and they can't get enough help and so they're turning to robotics in the future," Kurlansky told Tremonti.

"I imagine that there will be this big controversy and there will be people who will pay extra money to have a human-produced milk."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.

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