Let Them Drink Water

I’m 12 years old, scooted up to my dad’s octagonal dining table, the backs of my thighs sticking unpleasantly to the vinyl kitchen chair on a sweltering August day. Stepmom Debbie has prepared her specialty, Swedish sausage, a gray tube of meat-like substance that looks a lot like the photo my health teacher Ms. Nick recently displayed of a large intestine. And then there’s the tall glass of two percent milk resting heavily before me, beads of sweat running down its exterior, thick and disgusting white fluid within. Before leaving the table, I will be forced to swallow the milk, all of it, no matter how much I gag in the process. I will have to swallow it because, insists my dad, it’s good for me. Against this truism I, a scrawny kid with chronic earaches and poor appetite, am defenseless.

If only I’d had access then to today’s impressive and growing body of research that threatens our sacrosanct belief in milk as the epitome of wholesome food. Critics now point past the dangers associated with the sins of factory farming— growth hormones, antibiotics, and infectious secretions from unhealthy animals—to the most shattering question of all: whether clean, pure cow’s milk is fit for humans to drink in the first place.

“Ask yourself this question,” coaxes Robert Cohen, author of Milk, The Deadliest Poison, and founder of Notmilk.com, “Does organic human breast milk sound like a delicious drink for an adult human? Instinctively, most people know that there are substances in breast milk that are not intended for their adult bodies. Same goes for pig’s milk and dog’s milk. Same for cow’s milk.”

Seems logical to me, especially when coupled with the real horror stories behind mass production of dairy products. That’s why I tried so hard back in the late 90s to replace dairy in my own and my children’s diets with alternatives, mostly soy based, such as soy milk for pouring on cereal, Tofutti instead of ice cream, and the unpalatable, unmeltable, and dare I say inedible soy cheese products of that era (if they’ve improved, I wouldn’t know, having given up on them for good). Being dairy-free wasn’t easy. After six months of strict veganism, I broke down and bit into a warm, gooey slice of cheese pizza. I haven’t gotten back on the wagon since.

Little did I know that with my foray into dairy alternatives I was buying right into a decade-long marketing campaign to gain consumer acceptance of tofu, soy milk, soy ice cream, soy cheese, soy sausage, and soy derivatives. It coincided with a U.S. Food and Drug Administration decision, announced on October 25, 1999, to allow a health claim for products “low in saturated fat and cholesterol” that contain 6.25 grams of soy protein per serving. Cereals, baked products, convenience food, and other items could now be marketed as promoting cardiovascular health, as long as they contained one teaspoon of soy protein per 100-gram serving.

It was a weak will, not health concerns, that brought me back to Pizza Hut, but given my demonstrated history of swinging with the dairy-soy pendulum, it was probably no coincidence that my personal roundabout dovetailed exactly with the millennial tide turning against soy consumption. As it turned out, shrieked the critics, I—along with the rest of the unsuspecting health-conscious masses—had been bamboozled by the soy industry. Soy protesters began waving fistfuls of anti-soy studies. There are links between soy and fertility problems in certain animals! Soy contains a natural chemical that mimics estrogen, and it alters sexual development! Two glasses of soy milk a day, over the course of a month, contain enough of this chemical to run my menstrual cycle amok! And if that’s not bad enough, soy also promises to disturb my digestion, give me breast cancer, and shrink my brain. Of course, all of this is disputed heatedly by those who claim soy is a healthy, low-cost, versatile food for a new generation, but the debate in itself is enough to turn some consumers back toward the milking pail.

So maybe humans are the only mammals that drink the milk of another mammal. What we drink is hardly the most significant distinction between humans and our animal brethren. So the newest purists believe that raw milk, in its most natural, unadulterated state, is the dairy product most fit for humans. But to get it, they’ve got to form a relationship with an organic farmer willing to bypass wholesalers and market his or her raw, unpasteurized milk directly to consumers.

For years, when my family lived in the country, I bought raw goat milk from a friend down the road, and my children appeared to me just like Heidi and Klara on the Alm, growing strong and rosy on the herb-rich milk of Schwaanli and Baarli. They got used to the thick, salty flavor of the goat milk, and I appreciated the simplicity of it, the fact that we were drinking it practically straight from the goat. It felt right and good, and we only drifted away from it after moving back to the Twin Cities.

Of course I knew raw milk could cause illness, even if I didn’t know that an estimated 100 Americans each year get sick from unpasteurized dairy products, and that some critics claim that figure is far too low since food-borne illness is often misdiagnosed as “flu” or viral illness. Indeed, outbreaks of raw-milk related illnesses occur every year in Minnesota, and in one 1992 incident 50 people got sick after ingesting raw milk at a church picnic. Raw milk can apparently harbor a variety of dangerous micro–organisms including campy-lobacter, salmonella, staphylococci, E. coli, and even rabies. Symptoms can range from mild stomach cramps to coma and death.

It’s a hard world. Risk lurks everywhere. From terrorism to traffic, our lives are at stake with every polluted breath we take. I’m all for eating well, supporting organics, keeping hope alive. But I’ve given up the notion that every sip I allow to pass through my children’s lips is going to make the difference between health and disease. The hysteria, if anything, is bound to make us sick. That harmless looking soybean, that creamy glass of goatmilk that got Klara up on her own two feet, that once-revered carton of two percent in the cooler at the corner store—they’ve got their problems. But are they going to kill you? Probably not (immediately).

Jeannie Ouellette is Associate Editor of The Rake.