Like most people, I used to drink cow's milk. Why wouldn't I? Since the late 19th century, consumers have been weaned on countless advertising campaigns spruiking the myriad benefits of all things lacto. Got milk? Milk Life. Legendairy. Smiling assassins with lustrous milk mustaches advocated the wonders of 'nature's gift', and the public lapped it up. Even for those not partial to the taste, how could one refuse... the cows on those milk cartons just look so damn happy, it seems an affront to them not to partake.
Milk, at least that which comes from our mother, is clearly a nutritional behemoth. Packed with the nutrients and antibodies we require as infants, its virtues remain undisputed. So far, so good. But where things become murky is when toddlers the world over duly trade in their mother's milk for a daily dose of the bovine variety. At a time when milk consumption would normally cease for us as mammals, we instead compel a surrogate of another species to continue lactating for us. Why is this so?
According to the omniscient milk mustachios, among which have featured prominent actors, supermodels, athletes and even a US president, cow's milk is indispensable to our health. Apart from containing a robust assortment of vitamins and minerals, it supposedly spares our bones from the scourge that is osteoporosis, as well as a host of other calcium-deficient afflictions.
But in our collective rush for this Kool-Aid of the white variety, it seems we never stopped to ask some simple questions. Like how it is that humans managed in the days before we domesticated animals and were able to drink their milk. Or why it is that we depend upon cows (and to a lesser extent goats and sheep) for their milk, but would shrink at the thought of drinking milk from other mammals like pigs, horses or dogs.
From an evolutionary perspective, it is a preposterous notion that we evolved to require the milk from but a few species of other mammals. In fact, most humans cease producing significant amounts of lactase, the enzyme response for properly metabolising lactose, between the ages of two and five. So rather than evolving to need milk well past our formative years, nature has designed us, and indeed most mammals, to stop producing the relevant enzymes needed to digest and metabolise milk after we have been weaned.
So what then are we to make of the almost universally accepted narrative that our bones will deteriorate and shatter if we dare to reject the dairy status quo? Unsurprisingly, it turns out that this myth has been resoundingly debunked by science. Innumerable studies published in esteemed medical journals indicate the extent to which we've been duped by the dairy industry.
One study on osteoporotic hip fractures in postmenopausal women demonstrated that while vitamin D reduces the incidence of such fractures, milk (and a high-calcium diet) fails to do so. In fact, it appears that countries with the lowest rates of dairy and calcium consumption (many African and Asian nations) have the lowest incidence of osteoporosis.
And worryingly, there is compelling scientific evidence indicating a potential link between a higher dairy intake and an increased risk of prostate cancer in men, while for women, an elevated intake of lactose has been associated with an increased risk of epithelial ovarian cancer.
But enough with the academia. I acknowledge that studies will emerge on both sides of the debate, though one does wonder how many studies advocating the wonders of dairy were funded by an industry powerful enough to have Bill Clinton endorse its product, pre his conversion to veganism of course.
I stopped eating meat a number of years ago. And yet I continued to consume dairy. To me it was a no brainer; eating meat required the killing of animals, consuming dairy did not. Superficially, this made for a solid ethical argument. But then I realised there is something far worse than death.
That something is the exploitation a dairy cow must endure before her untimely demise. While I'm no fan of the meat industry, there is something particularly sinister, if not taunting, about what we do to dairy cows. To forcibly impregnate an animal year after year, to create and manipulate life like some malevolent puppeteer, only to rob that animal of its young shortly after birth, and siphon the contents of its udders off to supermarket shelves, is an act of calculated rapacity.
The environment too pays a heavy toll for our milk mania. Methane emission, deforestation, water and soil pollution, land and water depletion... it's a veritable smorgasbord of environmental depredation, and all for what amounts to an indulgence of the taste buds rather than a nutritional imperative.
But with an abundance of milk alternatives now on offer, surely it's time we cut the bovine umbilical cord and wean ourselves off the stuff. Maybe then those cartoon cows grinning wildly from the front of milk cartons won't be quite the spurious parody they currently are.