Famine and Formaldehyde: The Long and Occasionally Gross History of Milk

When you think about it, it's pretty gross that we're all going around slurping bovine breastmilk down with our Frappuccinos and bubble tea.
Famine and Formaldehyde: The Long and Occasionally Gross History of Milk

Not to get all Upton Sinclair on you, but like most of animal agriculture, it’s pretty gross that we’re all going around slurping bovine breastmilk down with our Frappuccinos and bubble tea. Why are we doing that? Who was the first guy who looked at a swollen udder and said, “Gonna suck that, bet it tastes great”? We may not have the answer to that specific question, but we know a whole lot about the ancient and unseemly history of moo boob juice.

When Did We Start Drinking Milk?

Barren landscape


Non-human milk as a human beverage goes back at least 6,000 years, when it was still considered baby food and all non-baby humans were your friend who has to down a handful of Lactaid with their milkshake. It was still food, though, and famine was a thing, so in desperate times, it was better to get the toots than to die of starvation.

Lactose Tolerance

Ice cream

(Courtney Cook/Unsplash)

Around the same time, genetic mutations that allowed adults to digest lactose started proliferating like the crops were not around famine-prone areas like Northern Europe, since it let them live long enough to breed. Today, about 35% of humans can eat as much ice cream as they want, and the other 65% can suck it.

Why Cow’s Milk?


(Ryan Song/Unsplash)

Any hippie with a pet named Goatis Redding will tell you that cow’s milk is far from the best tasting, but after groping our way through the different species, we found that cows simply produce the most milk. They’re also a lot less likely to kick you in the face while you’re molesting them.

Alcoholic Horse Milk

That doesn’t mean cows were always everyone’s favorite source of dairy. In the days of Genghis Khan, Mongolians drank easily accessible horse milk, which is also highly nutritious, that they fermented to chill out the lactose. It didn’t hurt that the process turned it slightly alcoholic as well. It was like a really weak White Russian.

Plant Milk: Older Than You Think


(سجايا 16.6s/Unsplash)

It took a millennium to appear on Starbucks menus, mostly while waiting for Starbucks to be invented, but soy milk was the beverage of choice for the lactose intolerant in third-century China, while almond milk goes back to the eighth century in the Middle East and soon became popular in Europe as a Lent-time dairy replacement. Jesus wants you to go plant-based.

Chocolate Milk


(Charisse Kenion/Unsplash)

Before we made milk safe, we made it chocolatey. In the late 1600s, Irish doctor Sir Hans Sloane visited Jamaica, where he was served a mixture of water and cocoa that he found too bitter because everyone knows you have to make hot chocolate with milk. Do not listen to the instructions on the packet. Anyway, he added milk and sugar, came back to Europe, and sold it as medicine, because Europeans didn’t allow themselves to have anything good unless someone told them it killed typhoid.

Industrial-Age Milk

Speaking of deadly disease, before the 19th century, dairy enthusiasts had three choices: 1) Turn milk into cheese, yogurt, or butter, which could stand up better to some leaving around, 2) drink it straight out the udder, or 3) experience the situation currently only faced when we don’t pay enough attention to the expiration date. Then electricity, refrigeration, and general industrialization happened, and suddenly, you didn’t have to live on a farm to chug some sweet, sweet moo goo.

The Raw Milk Era

After all that, milk became the avocado toast of the 19th century, to the point that the most fashionable women abandoned breastfeeding in favor of bottles of milk. That would still be bad today -- it’s called “formula” for a reason -- but it was even worse back then, because just because the milk wasn’t spoiled didn’t mean it didn’t contain tons of deadly bacteria. By the 1840s, almost half of all babies born in Manhattan died before they could actually appreciate a nice glass of diphtheria.

The Swill Milk Scandal


(Dim Hou/Unsplash)

That was due in part to the “swill milk scandal,” when it was revealed that American dairy farmers had been using garbage from nearby breweries as cow feed and sprucing up their corner-cutting supply with everything from formaldehyde to brains. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot they could do about it -- in fact, some food scientists recommended embalming the bottles even further -- until ol’ Pasteur McPasteurface did his thing.



(James.folsom/Wikimedia Commons)

Even Louis Pasteur didn’t give a shit about milk -- he was just trying to improve wine. It was German chemist Franz von Soxhlet who first had the idea of applying the process to milk to stop it from killing everyone, who all hated him for it. Consumers complained that pasteurized milk is flavorless and farmers complained that it cost money not to kill people, so the freaking Surgeon General had to be like, “Do it or deal with dry-ass cookies.”

Powdered Milk

The 1800s were a big time for dairy innovation. In the mid 19th century, scientists perfected the process for powdered milk, which didn’t require refrigeration and was light enough to ship in vast quantities to people experiencing famine. Of course, it tasted like burnt chalk, but that tastes better than food poisoning.

Condensed Milk

Sweetened condensed milk took off around the same time, but not for making delicious cheesecakes. It initially became popular as an army ration during the Civil War, not only because it was shelf stable but because even the toughest of soldiers were apparently little babies who demanded added sugars in their babas.

The Depression and World War II

School lunch

(Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

Like most curiosities of the American diet, milk really took off because of the Depression and the war. In response to childhood malnutrition, the government created the school lunch program, which included milk because a whole bunch of complicated economic factors had resulted in a massive surplus. Later, during World War II, milk wasn’t rationed, also because of this surplus, so everyone got on board the moo moo train.

Got Milk?

Got Milk?

(Mike Mozart/Flickr)

That was apparently not good enough for dairy farmers, who launched the Got Milk? advertising campaign in the ‘90s with weird Michael Bay commercials that turned into those billboards of celebrities with milk mustaches urging us to strengthen our bones. Nevermind the fact that milk might not actually do that. Let the dairy farmers have this!

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