A 10,000-Year History of Milk

History of Milk

You might drink milk every day or use it in cooking different foods or desserts. But, how much do you know about the history of milk?
Human beings have started consuming milk 10,000 years ago, and it DOES still make great sense for us to drink it! Many people in different nations are now used to having this nutritious drink or other products made from it in their refrigerators at all times. But, believe it or not, humankind has not been able to drink milk for most of its existence on earth! So let’s talk about the great history of milk!

Lactose, the sugar in milk, cannot get along very well with our body organs. That is why if any of our poor ancestors before seven thousand years ago ever drank milk in large quantities, he would end up undergoing so much pain due to physical reactions. But what happened exactly? How come many nations are now adapted to drinking the cow’s milk? What is the exact history of milk consumption by the human species?
Read on to find out more about this refreshing drink. 

The History of Milk

The origins of cow domestication go back to 8,000 BC. Unfortunately, cows have not always been so gentle to us!
At that time, Aurochs, the former ancestors of modern cows, were mainly living in groups across Asia, North Africa, and Europe. Human beings first started to domesticate this animal around 10,000 years ago, which resulted in two types of cattle; Bos Indicus (humped Zebu), and the humpless cattle (Bos Taurus).
Archeological discoveries have shown that British and Northern European farmers were the first nations to start milking cows.

Lactose is different from sugars found in fruits or other foods. When we are born, our body has the capability of producing the lactase enzyme that digests the lactose present in our mother’s milk. However, by the age of six or seven,  lactase production ceases in many individuals. Consequently, if adults would drink a lot of milk, they could experience painful cramps and diarrhea. And that’s what happened to European adults at that time!

With that in mind, it is believed that drinking milk began between 5,000 to 4,000 BC. During that time, genetic mutations took place that let grown-up human beings keep the lactase enzyme, and therefore, digest milk. The trait of being lactase persistent has become widely common among populations in different corners of the world. For instance, most of the northern Europeans have this enzyme, whereas many Africans and Asians don’t.

We can’t figure out why people favored drinking milk. Even people who don’t have the enzyme can drink small amounts of milk without a problem. Humankind started to reduce the enzyme of milk by processing it into cheese and yogurt. Apparently, people invented cheese way faster than the lactase persistence trait and used milk in this way.

Little by little, generations learned more about keeping this mammal and using its milk. For example, they found out that in order to milk the cows in a more profitable and workable way, their calves should be taken away after getting born. Or else, the newborns have the tendency to drink all of the mothers’ milk, even during the months that the mother is at its highest capacity of productivity.  Also, they could see that the calves who were taken away from their mother became fond of humans much more.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, drinking milk became more fashionable between Europeans and Americans. This popularity encouraged mothers to turn away from breastfeeding their babies, and instead, use the milk of cows for artificial feeding. This trend left the big cities such as Boston, New York, London, and Paris in disaster!

The rate of death increased shockingly, especially in Manhattan, where the breweries were adjacent to dairy-making places. People used the leftovers of the beer-making process to feed the cows, which in turn, resulted in their death in that city in infancy.

With further studies on the reason for this calamity, Louis Pasteur discovered the “Germ Theory.” He suggested everyone heat the milk before using it. Even though he proved the benefits of his methodology in killing the harmful microbes of milk, it was no sooner than 1895 until the public recognized commercial pasteurization. We are all now aware of the pasteurization process that has turned into an international standard.

Before the industrial revolution, families used to produce the milk they needed by keeping cows in their barns or stables. But things changed during the 19th century, and mass production of milk with standards became globally accepted by industries.

Why Did the First Human Ever Want to Milk a Cow?

The exact reason behind testing the milk of cows is not apparent in the history of milk. However, now that we know where cow’s milk comes from, we can answer this question better.
Starvation is the most probable cause of this behavior. Many believe that hungry people who observed the calves suckling milk from the cows’ teat were encouraged to do the same and try it. Therefore, starvation and desperation are the two factors that drove people to the mammals’ milk. Milk production turned into a quick source of nourishment for people, which in turn resulted in making other products such as cheese and butter.
According to scientific findings, cow’s milk is not the ideal milk for our body. However, the reason why it has ended up in the dairy products we consume compared to other mammals is that cows have long been more productive and more comfortable to work with.

Interestingly, the Holstein breed of cows with black and white colors is the standard type in most countries. But, their milk is proved to be of lower quality compared to its other counterparts. It’s interesting to know that the milk of Buffalo has more fat than the cows’ milk but with less cholesterol. People in India and the Philippines use buffalo’s milk as a drink, and Italian people make Mozzarella Cheese out of it.

The Dairy Industry

Anna Baldwin is the first creator of the milking machine who patented a mechanical device with rubber cups in 1879. Her process, despite its shortcomings, ignited the light for automated milking, which led to turning dairying into a significant industry.
Thanks to technological advancements, an AMS (Automatic Milking System) can milk a herd of cows without any interaction with humans. The mechanism consists of movement scanners, sensors, and robotic movements. Once a cow steps into an enclosed station of milking, sensors identify its exact position and move the robotic arms in the most accurate way to apply teat cups.
Automation and computer monitoring have also made it possible for farmers to check everything directly from their phones without having to attend the farm at all times. However, the extra automation makes the conditions for cows worse since there is no one around to make things more livable for them.
According to reports, most of the cows nowadays are fed with GMO corn and soy. Cows are not evolved to be able to eat these plants, and therefore, it causes health problems for both cows and human beings as the final consumer of milk.

The Healthfulness of Milk

Over the past decades, many consumers of milk products have been asking about the degree of their healthiness. The debates have led to the emergence of topics such as GMOs, organic milk, and grass-fed cows. Each of these qualities entails economic considerations.
Farmers generally believe that milk is exceptionally cheap. Many claim their milk is grass-fed and wholly organic and want to charge a higher price for their product. Yet, it’s not that easy.
Grass-feeding is the traditional and cheapest way of feeding cows, but it results in less productive cows. On the other hand, for instance, in the US, the regulations related to qualifying for organic milk can charge people a lot of money.
That’s why only the large corporations go after it. Similarly, GMO-free feed is too costly as well and is not possible for many farmers.

Benefits of Milk

As the history of milk shows, milk is an excellent source of protein, fat, sugar, vitamin D, vitamin B12, phosphorus, selenium, and calcium. The chains of whey protein contain beneficial elements to our health, such as amino acids and isoleucine. Several studies have proved that drinking milk decreases the chances of muscle loss in older people.
We have heard it so many times in our life that we can strengthen our bones by drinking milk. Since 99% percent of the calcium in our body is stored in our bones and teeth, drinking milk on a regular basis will help them keep in better conditions. The whole milk has been proved in scientific research to lower the chances of obesity in people, too.

Childhood obesity has been proved to happen less in children who consume high-fat milk.
About diets, we can add milk as a versatile ingredient to our recipes and make tasty foods, drinks, desserts, and so on. Even if you are not a fan of milk, you can use unsweetened yogurt instead and let your body have the same amount of protein, phosphorus, and calcium.
Aside from the nutrition available in cheese, the history of milk shows that drinking milk can bring other advantages as well. Those who keep livestock, such as cows and horses, are more exposed to diseases associated with them. Among them, we can mention Cryptosporidiosis and Anthrax. The protective characteristic of milk leaves a great effect on providing antibodies against these illnesses.
Moreover, during the 18th century, people realized that those who milked cows every day had better body immunity against Smallpox. Further investigations showed that consistent exposure to cow’s udders had brought Cowpox to the dairymaids, which had protected their bodies from Smallpox. Scientists consider Cowpox as a weaker version of Smallpox.

This accidental immunity helped Edward Jenner develop a vaccine. His experiment included the recovery of a sample from a woman and using it as an infection inside a boy’s body. Later on, Jenner exposed the boy to Smallpox, and as expected, he did not contract it. The procedure was repeated on other applicants as well, and finally, the Cowpox vaccination was introduced to both Europe and the United States.
Furthermore, nobody used skim milk until the 1930s, and farmers often discarded it.
A decade before that, it was believed to be so useless that companies dumped skim milk into the rivers. This condition brought a bad smell and caused some sort of pollution to the surrounding areas and nature. Around 1930, the American and Italian scientists who were studying skim milk found out about Casein. They discovered that they could use this substance to produce fibers.

Later on, countries used skim milk during World War II as a packaged dry product. Yet, the Casein plastic was increasingly more beneficial during that time. The molecules of Casein are monomers, and their chain forms up a polymer. As a result, Casein plastic can be molded into different shapes and put into use for various purposes.

The Global Consumption of Milk

Statistics show a significant increase in the production of milk across the globe from 1998 to 2018. For instance, in 2017, countries produced more than 860 million tons of milk around the world. According to a report published by the  ifcndairy.org website, by the year 2030, the demand for milk will become three times more than the level of current production.

two glasses of milk


Another study in 2015 found out that older people drank the most amount of milk in 187 countries. While it suggests lower popularity of milk among youngsters, the consumption of other milk products such as cheese was not covered in the report.

Different Types of Milk

1. Skim Milk

Skim or fat-free milk is a popular choice among weight watchers and health-conscious people. It contains zero amount of fat, and it will make it a thinner type of milk. Skim can be used to cut calories/fat but receive the same nutrients as whole milk. The skimming process refers to the removal of cream from the milk that will give it a watery taste.

2. Whole Milk

Whole milk or regular milk consists of about 3.5% fat content. This milk is called whole because it is much purer than most other types of milk. The whole milk has a thick and creamy texture and pairs nicely with many cooking and baking foods. It can be a perfect tenderizer and moisturizer, too.

3. 2% Milk

The reduced-fat milk or 2% milk has a fat content of 2%. It doesn’t have a very thick texture and tastes mild. It is an excellent source of calcium, vitamins, and other beneficial nutrients. Through the milking process, the fat will be removed. Adding this milk to coffee, tea, or other drinks will provide a smooth texture and rich taste.

4. Low-Fat Milk

Low-fat milk is sometimes confused with reduced-fat milk, but they are different from each other. Low-fat milk contains 2% milk fat; reduced-fat milk has one percent of fat content. This milk is a perfect choice for those who need to watch their fat intake due to its ideal fat content.

Low-fat milk is often mixed with skim milk powder to boost its creamy taste, protein, and calcium content. Under the process of centrifugation, the creamy fat layer will be removed. Low-fat milk can be used in many drinks and food recipes like puddings, desserts, cakes, milkshakes, pasta, omelets, and many others.

5. Lactose-Free Milk

Lactose-free milk is the product that its lactose content is removed. This milk is a fantastic product for those suffering from lactose intolerance. Scientifically, lactose is the natural sugar in the milk that some people are unable to digest. So consuming milk will trigger digestive problems like vomiting, bloating, pain, and diarrhea. 

To produce lactose-free milk, an enzyme called lactase would be added to the cow’s milk. It helps break down lactose in the human body. This process does not affect milk’s taste, nutritional content, or texture at all. Lactose-free milk contains the same substance as regular milk, like calcium, protein, and vitamin D.

6. Organic Milk

Organic milk is produced from the milk of animals that are not given supplemental hormones and only use organic pesticides and fertilizers. This milk comes from the cows that get about thirty percent of their pasture diets. They are not given any antibiotics, and they are not fed reproduction/growth hormones. The nutritional content of this milk is the same as regular milk. This milk is produced under strict standards and government regulations like any other type of milk.

7. Flavored Milk

Flavored milk is a top-rated product worldwide, and kids and toddlers especially desire it. It is a sweetened dairy drink consisting of milk, sugar, specific flavor, and natural/artificial food colorings. Some of the most famous flavored kinds of milk are date milk, chocolate milk, strawberry-flavored milk, coffee milk, and banana-flavored milk. This milk is enriched with calcium, potassium, and vitamin D. Flavored milk goes under the Ultra Heat Treatment (UHT) process, which gives it longer shelf life. Other examples include Honey Milk and Coconut Flavored milk.

8. Plant-based Milk

Plant-based kinds of milk have filled up our supermarket shelves and it seems, today people show more interest in buying and tasting these vegan, dairy-free, and lactose-free products than ever. almond, oat, and soy milk have been around for a while and there are newcomers such as hemp and pea to the market, too. What encourages individuals to opt for plant-based versions of milk are mostly their environmental or ethical concerns regarding dairy industry. but the third group chooses them over cow’s milk for keeping a healthy, weight-loss diet in perspective.

There are some points to consider when going for almond, hazelnut, soy, oat, pea, rice, or any other plant-based milk of your choice. If they are organic, then do not expect them to have minerals and vitamins you would otherwise find in cow’s milk. You can choose non-organic versions which are fortified with necessary vitamins and minerals. Some versions might have added ingredients like sugar, salt, oils, and the like. Certainly, choose the unsweetened one which will be better for your health.

To Wrap Up

For many of us, milk is delicious and nourishing food, and for those who can not consume milk, the other milk products play the same role. Scientists now advise people to use dairy products from an early age to maintain a healthy weight and stay immune to many health problems.
The history of milk and the evolution behind using milk have made it possible for us today to enjoy dairy products in different forms. Just imagine how tough life would get if there were no ice creams, no kinds of butter, yogurts, and cheeses! So keep in mind to use dairy products regularly with your diets and benefit from their amazing advantages. 

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