Dairy: White Lies
By Pax Ahimsa Gethen
What if I told you that a substance that more than half of the world’s human population cannot digest properly was being marketed as necessary for human health?
What if I told you that the more people consumed this substance, the sicker they became?
What if I told you that people who became sick from eating this substance were told they had a “disorder” that needed to be fixed, rather than counseled to eat different foods that did not sicken them?
That substance, friends, is baby calf food — otherwise known as milk.
A white person who doesn’t have many non-white friends or acquaintances might find it difficult to understand or believe that lactose intolerance is a natural condition; but in fact, the majority of people on Earth—most of whom are people of color—lose the ability to digest lactose after weaning from their mother’s breast milk. Those who have retained this ability are primarily of Northern European descent. As Andrea Freeman pointed out in the study The Unbearable Whiteness of Milk: Food Oppression and the USDA, “It would be therefore more appropriate to label people who retain the enzyme as ‘lactose persistent,’ instead of pathologizing the lack of the enzyme.” So strong is the dairy lobby’s power to make people believe that it is normal to drink the milk of another species that a study actually promoted gene therapy to treat the "disease" of lactose intolerance.
This pathologizing has led to the marketing of pills and expensive lactose-reduced milk to people of color, who are disproportionately low-income. My mother, who is black, has this milk on her cereal every morning. She can afford it now, but it would have been cost-prohibitive in the low-income community where she grew up. I tried to convince her to use non-dairy milk instead. I also explained to her that she didn't need cow's milk for the calcium, since there is plenty of calcium in green vegetables, including the broccoli that she often has for dinner. She joked, “No baby nursed at a broccoli breast.”
My grandmother also believed that she needed dairy products for the calcium, and ate ice cream at bedtime every night for quite some time. She became ill and gained a lot of weight, which most people would attribute to the sugar; but sugar, while certainly not a health food, is far less a contributor to obesity, diabetes and other health conditions than animal fat. The scapegoating of sugar has led to the introduction of regressive taxes such as the soda taxes recently proposed in the San Francisco Bay Area (the measure in San Francisco failed, while the one in Berkeley passed). These tax proposals specifically exempted milk products.
Wayne Hsiung’s excellent series on performing whiteness made me think about how pressured people of color are to fit in when it comes to eating foods that hurt our bodies. Before I went fully vegan, I once stayed in a hotel room where they put the traditional chocolate mints on the pillows. A Chinese friend came to visit, and I offered him one of these mints. He took out a tablet, apologetically explaining that he needed to take this before he could eat the mint — which contained dairy. I felt terrible about both encouraging him to eat something that I already felt conflicted about eating myself, and his obvious sense of obligation to accept the offered food. I lamented that he felt he had to take a drug that would enable him to eat it, rather than simply refuse it.
It isn’t only people of color that feel the pressure to conform. I once had a white coworker with a toddler who had ear infections so severe that he opted to have shunts put in the child’s ears. I asked my friend if he had tried giving the child non-dairy milk, as cow's milk can be a cause of childhood ear infections. He said yes, for a while; but he didn’t want the boy to be different from the other children. I was horrified that he would subject a child to a surgical operation rather than have him drink a different beverage that didn’t hurt him. Being child-free by choice, however, I didn’t want to risk offense by offering parenting advice.
While I never suffered severe distress from eating dairy products, my own childhood was marked by very frequent colds; I missed up to twenty days of school per year. I grew up in the 1970s, where the “four food groups” taught me that milk was an essential food. In elementary school, I sold tickets to students to exchange for pints of milk at the cafeteria; every child was expected to drink it. They still are. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been doing a good job trying to get kids and adults more mindful of healthy food choices, but his campaign to remove flavored milk from schools is more scapegoating of sugar while leaving untouched and un-criticized a substance that no human child needs.
Study after study has shown that consumption of cow’s milk does not help reduce bone fractures and may otherwise be detrimental to health; yet we still insist that baby calf food, consumed by no other non-bovine species, should be consumed by humans. Even the doctor who wrote the New York Times article referenced in this paragraph concludes “...almost everything is perfectly good in moderation, milk included. What else would you put on cereal?”
Why is it that Westerners and those who adopt Western diets think pouring a white liquid over a bowl of dried, sweetened grains is a normal way to start the day? A traditional Japanese breakfast includes steamed rice and miso soup. A traditional Costa Rican breakfast contains rice and beans. Cooked dishes are certainly more labor-intensive than cereal and milk; but for those who cannot access dairy substitutes, fruit juice is another option. Apple juice poured over cold cereal is surprisingly delicious. Fresh fruit alone is also a great breakfast choice.
Cheese is another food that Americans, including many vegans who promote non-dairy cheeses, seem to think is a necessary food group. Why is a congealed glob of fat considered a normal thing to eat? The fat and salt appeal to our primitive taste buds, and the casomorphins in dairy have addictive properties, to be sure. Even lactose-intolerant people can often eat cheese and other cultured milk products.
I believe vegans do both human and non-human animals a disservice by focusing on “vegan cheeses”. Someone who cannot find or afford non-dairy cheeses should not feel that is an impediment to going vegan. Someone who doesn’t like the taste of non-dairy cheeses should not feel that is an excuse to continue exploiting animals. The production of dairy—including on so-called "humane farms"—involves slavery, rape, theft, and murder. No food should taste good enough to overlook the impact on the victims of animal agriculture.
Marketing milk to humans as a wholesome, nutritious food is racism and child abuse. Our children suffer avoidable ailments and indoctrination into a lifetime of unhealthy choices that perpetuate violence against animals. Their children — the calves and kids born to cows and goats in the dairy industry — suffer loss of their mothers, loss of their food, and loss of their lives. Ounce for ounce, consuming dairy is just as cruel as eating flesh, if not more so. Don’t buy the animal industry’s white lies.