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Milk: the world's perfect food.

Family dairy farmers in the United States and Europe are in crisis. Since July, 2008, the price paid for milk has decreased by 50%, due mainly to a volatile pricing system controlled by a few large conglomerates. Unregulated prices paid for imported milk substitutes exacerbate the dire situation for farmers; already languishing beneath the burden of recession and natural disasters such as flooding and drought.

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Small farms are losing a monthly average of $200 per cow and many are being forced to sell their herds for meat as a means of survival. While the price paid to farmers for milk has plummeted, the savings is not reflected in the marketplace. The dramatic drop in milk prices was abrupt and severe and if it continues unabated, America runs the risk of losing approximately 20,000 of its 60,000 family-owned dairy farms.

Lands that flow with milk and honey

The earliest depictions of animals being milked--on 7,000 year old Saharan cave paintings in Libya-illustrate our ancestors' appreciation of dairying long before the invention of modern milking machines. Milking was an efficient way for nomadic tribes to sustain themselves and the most productive way to obtain perpetual nourishment from uncultivated land for settled populations. In spite of its benefits, dairying was not practiced in many parts of the world until relatively recently.

Columbus brought the practice of milking animals to the Americas and Mexico in the fifteenth century when he introduced sheep, goats and long horn to the continents. The British instituted cattle dairies in India in the eighteenth century, where milk products are now so integral to the nation's culinary repertoire that the cow is a sacred animal. Milk in its liquid form wasn't widely consumed in Medieval Europe except in Britain, where it was referred to as "white meat" and was so unsanitary during the Victorian era that toxic milk was one of the main culprits of child mortality. Milk was not a popular beverage in ancient Rome unless it was mixed with wine; however, most ancient Mediterranean cultures did have a fondness for cheese. There are many mentions of milk in the Bible--it was considered a luxury product if Canaan's depiction of "a land flowing with milk and honey" is any indication.

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The intolerant among us

Milk consumption is still rare in China, Southeast Asia and many parts of Africa. Much of this unpopularity is attributed to an adult's inability to digest milk's lactose sugar. Milk might be a nutritionally complete for infants but milk-tolerant adults are a minority in the world: 80% of the world's non-white population are lactose intolerant.

Although it may not be natural for one species to consume the milk of another, this has not stopped milk-tolerant adults from doing so--and they do benefit nutritionally from the practice. Milk's composition varies from species to species but it is typically rich in protein, sugar, calcium and vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K. It also contains methyl sulfide, which is responsible for milk's distinctive bovine aroma. Even within the same species, milk's flavor characteristics vary depending upon the animal's lactation stage, diet, age and breed. The milk of any species is primarily water, rounded out by fat, sugar and casein proteins.

Breaking it down

Comprised of 87% water, 5% sugar, 4% fat and 3.5% protein; 89% of the milk consumed by human adults is cow's milk, but humans also make use of many other varieties to fulfill their dietary requirements. Goat's milk is the second most popular milk in the world and can be a good option for adults who have difficulty breaking down cow's milk; the fat molecules in goat's milk are naturally homogenized and easier to digest due to their smaller size. Cow's milk, on the other hand, contains large fat molecules that rise to the surface in the form of cream. Homogenization is a mechanical process that breaks down these molecules to prevent separation. Developed in France in the late nineteenth century, critics of the process claim it mellows milk's flavor and voids it of character.

Raw milk devotees also scrutinize the process of pasteurization developed by the French chemist Louis Pasteur in the nineteenth century. Pasteurization heats milk to a specific temperature and then cools it down quickly in order to destroy the natural bacteria present in its raw state, enabling it to keep for a longer period of time. Because pasteurization does not discriminate between good and bad bacteria--and it is bacteria that primarily defines the flavor profile of milk--critics claim that it strips milk of its distinctive regional characteristics and deprives consumers of raw milk's nuanced flavor.

In addition to homogenization and pasteurization, milk is also commonly evaporated, condensed or transformed into powder. Powdered milk is typically made from skim milk since powdered whole milk quickly turns rancid. Evaporated and condensed milk are heated to evaporate the water; the remaining liquid is either sweetened to preserve it (condensed milk) or heated to sterilize it (evaporated milk).

The milking beasts of the world

By far the most popular milking cow in the United States is the Holstein. This breed produces more milk but far less cream than other varieties such as the Jersey, which many aficionados claim produces the most flavorful milk. In spite of its lackluster product, Holstein milk accounts for 90% of the cow's milk consumed in the United States, and 85% of it in Britain. Holstein milk is primarily mass-produced on an industrial scale with a diet that deprives Holsteins of the fresh grasses and plants responsible for milk's refined flavor.

Cow's milk might be the headliner in the United States and Europe, with goat claiming the second seat, but other animals fulfill much of the world's dairy needs. In Mongolia and Tibet, yak's milk is highly prized and the butter derived from it is a rich, high-calorie staple for much of these nations' nomadic populations. Buffalo milk fulfills about half of India's milk quota and is also favored in China, the Philippines, Africa and Italy (where buffalo mozzarella is a national obsession).

Camel's milk, an extremely sweet milk similar in flavor and viscosity to evaporated milk, is a popular choice for desert cultures throughout Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps the richest milk of all land mammals is reindeer milk. Comprised of 22.5% fat and 10.3% protein, the milk is a nutritional powerhouse that contributes to the robust health of the Laplanders who consume it regularly. Its lack of popularity in the rest of the world might be due to its yield: one reindeer produces a paltry one cup of milk per day. The milk of ocean mammals has an even higher fat content than reindeer's milk with orca's milk containing a bountiful 35% fat.

Mare's milk once fulfilled the majority of the planet's dairy requirements but if has gone out of fashion in many parts of the world. It is still consumed in some northern European nations and in Central Asia, where it is turned into the fermented milk product "kumiss," a traditional drink developed by the Mongols, that is now primarily used as a digestive aid.

In whatever form it takes or from what animal it originates, one thing is certain: milk is nature's perfect food. It is the first food for most babies and in its ability to fulfill every early nutritional requirement,- it has a hand in our ability to grow, thrive and evolve. Dairy farmers have endured the trials of recessions, droughts and floods for decades, but many cite their current predicament as the most dismal they have ever experienced. If more isn't done to support our family dairy farms, we run the risk of turning the dairy industry over to the industrial conglomerates more motivated by profiting from milk than producing a healthy and flavorful product. It is time to support the family farms that produce our purest, most perfect food--a food that has sustained us since [TEXT INCOMPLETE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.]

* DID YOU KNOW? Milk most likely originated 300 million years ago as a skin secretion of birds to nourish their hatchlings.

* DID YOU KNOW?

Industrialization was primarily responsible for the proliferation of milk consumption in Europe and the United States. The advent of railroads enabled milk's expeditious transport into cities. Laws and regulations were also implemented to maintain quality and ensure safety. The invention of milking and churning machines during this era also contributed to milk's rise in popularity.
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Title Annotation:Back to Basics
Publication:Art Culinaire
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Words:1411
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