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Few dispute that growing children should drink milk, but what about adults?  Some recent research suggests that drinking milk as an adult may not have a lot of health value, and in some cases might even do harm. Nevertheless, USDA guidelines call for all Americans to drink three cups of milk every day from age nine onwards. Why are the guidelines so milk-heavy, when the science is ambiguous at best? Do we really need to drink so much milk?

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Writing in American Anthropologist, Andrea Wiley explains the origins of adult milk consumption. The genetic ability to tolerate milk evolved only a few thousand years ago in very specific populations, mostly in Northern Europe. Farmers in these and a few other areas domesticated hoofed animals and adopted a pastoral culture. Suddenly a new source of calories and protein was available to exploit in the form of milk and milk products. Populations that never adopted herding as a lifestyle—East Asians, for example—consequently never needed the ability to drink milk and didn’t develop the ability.

As a diverse nation made up of immigrants from all over the world, it makes little sense to produce “one-size fits-all guidelines.” According to Wiley, this approach to nutritional counseling stems from the dual role of the USDA, which is tasked with promoting both nutrition and consumption of American agricultural products. As a result, whenever the guidelines were revised, industry representatives were not far behind. Wiley notes that by the 1990s the overlap between government and the dairy industry was so blatant that senior government officials actually appeared in milk advertisements.

Based on Wiley’s theories, the relentless touting of milk could be interpreted as form of cultural hegemony; Our nation was founded by Northern European milk drinkers, and their bias has persisted. According to Wiley, milk has a special place in Western cultural heritage that does not exist for other groups. Medical literature often refers to lactose intolerance as a “disorder,” when it is really a natural state of being for many people. It is true that milk is a source of calcium, but it is by no means the only source. Tofu, fish, collard greens, cereals, molasses are all sources of calcium as well. So is milk bad for adults? Probably not. However, as evidenced by millions of healthy lactose intolerant adults around the world, is it likely not necessary for optimum health.


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American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 106, No. 3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 506-517
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association