Milk, a dietary staple for nearly 9,000 years, now faces scrutiny for its potential threats to both health and ethics in modern society. In this review, we explore Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood by Anne Mendelson, a book that tackles these pressing issues. Mendelson’s work delves into the history, science, and cultural aspects of milk consumption, shedding light on the biological realities, ethical dilemmas, and emerging alternatives challenging its traditional status.
Anne Mendelson is an American food writer and culinary historian. She credits the diverse array of ethnic cuisines in her local community and her recollections of growing up in rural Pennsylvania as influential sources of inspiration for her literary work.
What is the book about?
Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood by Anne Mendelson challenges the widely held belief in the nutritional superiority of drinking milk, particularly cow’s milk. The book explores the history, science, and cultural aspects of milk consumption, shedding light on its complexities and debunking the myth of milk as a superfood.
Structured into 11 chapters, the book covers the following topics:
The difficulties and costs of getting milk from its source to the consumer’s table.
The historical importance of milk in different cultures.
The scientific characteristics of milk and its nutritional value.
Problems with digesting milk due to lactose intolerance and how it challenges the idea that everyone can easily digest it.
Genes that determine if people can digest lactose and how common this ability is in different groups.
Discomfort experienced by nonwhite people when they drink fresh milk and the idea that everyone should drink it.
Sustainability and economic challenges faced by the drinking milk industry, including issues related to milk’s perishability and the struggles of small-scale dairy farmers.
Table of contents
- 1. Milk: Some Scientific Ins and Outs
- 2. From the Cradle of Dairying to the English Manor
- 3. The Rise of Drinking-Milk
- 4. Setting the Stage for Pasteurization
- 5. Pasteurization: The Game-Changing Years and Nathan Straus
- 6. Sour milk, Briefly Rethought
- 7. Milk for the Masses: The Price to be Paid
- 8. Technology in Overdrive I: The Animals
- 9. Technology in Overdrive I: The Milk
- 10. Reviving the Raw Milk Cause
- 11. The Future
- Select Bibliography
Three key takeaways from Spoiled
1Biological realities and lactose intolerance
Mendelson’s exploration of lactose intolerance’s biological realities effectively dismantles the prevailing myth of milk as a universally beneficial superfood. She highlights the substantial portion of the global population that experiences digestive discomfort from cow’s milk due to lactose intolerance. Mendelson delves into the intricate science behind milk’s fermentation process and the biochemistry of dairy, revealing the complexities that challenge the notion of milk as a one-size-fits-all dietary solution.
In this context, Mendelson introduces the story of Dr. George Cheyne, a charismatic advocate of milk consumption as a remedy for nervous disorders during the 18th century. However, her narrative also underscores that not everyone tolerated milk well, resulting in a range of health outcomes, some of which were adverse.
2Ethical dimensions of milk production
In the pursuit of higher milk production, the dairy industry has subjected cows, particularly Holsteins, to a horrifying decline in life expectancy. From artificial insemination to genetically modified hormones, the industry has pushed these animals to their biological limits. The ethical implications of this relentless quest for efficiency have raised concerns about the well-being of dairy cows.
Moreover, the industry’s emphasis on monoculture breeds like Holsteins has led to genetic bottlenecks and a loss of biodiversity. As mega-dairies continue to dominate, these issues persist, and the global push for milk production often disregards the welfare of both cows and the environment. Ultimately, it’s a stark reminder of the ethical and environmental costs associated with dairy production, as thousands of lives are sacrificed for the pursuit of more milk.
3Diversity in milk consumption
The book highlights the changing landscape of dairy consumption, with increasing competition from various plant-based milk products challenging the hegemony of cow’s milk. These alternatives, driven by cultural preferences, offer a fresh perspective on what milk should entail, steering away from standardised, featureless cow’s milk. Moreover, concerns about the treatment of dairy animals, the dysfunctional government price-support system, and the overselling of drinking milk’s nutritional benefits contribute to questioning the status quo.
In this context, the book advocates for more realistic and global perspectives on milk consumption. It suggests that rather than promoting an ethnocentric view of milk consumption, we should embrace learning opportunities from cultures that have never consumed unfermented milk. The book acknowledges the changing demographics of the United States, where adult lactase persistence is becoming a minority condition due to increased immigration from regions where it’s less prevalent.
Strengths and weaknesses, according to readers’ reviews
Provides an in-depth exploration of the origins and consumption of milk, offering a wealth of information for readers interested in a thorough examination of the topic.
Offers a critical perspective on the dairy industry, including discussions on the questionable health claims associated with milk consumption and the historical context of these claims.
The book is well-written and entertaining, making it engaging for readers who may not have an existing interest in the subject.
Some readers may find the book overwhelming due to its excessive amount of detail and information, potentially making it difficult to digest and leading to a feeling of information overload.
Best quotes from Spoiled
“The rise of pediatrics as a specialty occurred just as most nations of the industrialized West were noting a steep decline in breastfeeding. This puzzling phenomenon cut across class lines and was anxiously discussed in conjunction with another source of bafflement, a general decrease in birth rates. The still-disputed reasons for the joint decreases are outside the scope of this book. What is certain is that fewer and fewer women nursed their babies. Working mothers – a mounting and generally hard-up category in cities – did not have the time to do so. Poor and well-off women alike often reported having insufficient breast milk. In another significant shift, it became common to wean children at six months or even younger, rather than a year or more.”
“Public health authorities were thus appalled to realize that untrained dealers were eagerly importing Danish pasteurizers and processing milk through them with the aim of getting sloppily handled or aging milk to pass as raw before it could go bad – i.e., sour. (Others held off souring with such additives as borax, salicylic acid, and formaldehyde.) In a retrospective several decades later, the eminent public health officer Charles E. North wrote that this unauthorized hocussing had been ‘practised in secret and the milk marketed without any label” to record that it had been done because of “the strong sentiment against pasteurization by the dealer.’”
“From the agricultural college witnesses’ estimates, the committee concluded that in ten-cow herds the cost to the farmer of producing one quart of milk from a cow capable of only 4,500 pounds a year was 7.02 cents. That figure fell to 4.74 cents for a cow who could yield at least 7,500 pounds. Unfortunately, most New York State farm producers still ignored cow testing. They also disregarded the experts’ arguments that small herds of seven or ten cows were far less efficient than large ones of fifty or sixty. The committee calculated the difference at almost 2 cents a quart.”
Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood by Anne Mendelson is a thought-provoking exploration of the complexities surrounding milk consumption. It challenges conventional beliefs about milk’s nutritional benefits, shedding light on the biological realities of lactose intolerance and the ethical dimensions of milk production. This book is a must-read for those seeking a deep dive into the history, science, and cultural aspects of milk consumption, as well as anyone interested in the ethical and environmental considerations associated with the dairy industry.
Where to buy
You may purchase Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood on Amazon at the best price. It is available in hardcover and Kindle versions, so you may choose an option that appeals to you the most.
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