Milk: Meant for You?

A recently posted meme on social media pictured the refrigerator section of some grocery store stocked with every manner of milk substitute. The caption read, “All these plant milk options and y’all still wanna drink an animal’s t**** milk that’s not even meant for you.” To my friend who posted this meme, I responded with several objections. These objections lead to an important conclusion about the world we live in.

Full disclosure: I am an avowed milk-drinker, but have no objection to milk substitutes. In fact, when my wife and I lived in Taiwan, one of our frequent breakfasts came from a street vendor: steamed buns with a meat filling (baozi) and hot peanut-flavored soy milk – really nice on a chilly morning. So, it is not milk substitutes to which I objected, but to several problems with the claim made in the meme.

The first objection comes with an implication of the statement – the meme seems to imply that while you are not meant to drink cow’s milk, you are somehow meant to drink these milk substitutes. The majority of store-bought milk substitutes are highly processed food products which come with added sugars, salt, artificial flavors, various gums and carrageenan to help simulate cow’s milk. All these additives likely offset any health benefit one might claim to gain by using these substitutes. It seems to me substantially less probable that you are meant to consume highly processed foods over naturally sourced foods.

It also appears to me that the meme is guilty of virtue signaling grounded in cultural superiority. Projecting the notion that you are a lesser person if you choose to drink milk from an animal diminishes the millions of people worldwide whose culture is founded on livestock and the milk they produce. Yak milk is an essential component in the diet of Mongol people. India is the largest dairy producing country in the world – a place where milk is an important source of protein for Hindus who are vegetarian according to their faith. The Maasai people of east Africa traditionally subsist almost exclusively on the milk produced by their cattle and goats. In each of these cases, it really is about more than just the milk. There are many aspects of life and culture for these people which could not be substituted with soybean farming.

A young Massai boy leads his herd of cattle to a watering hole.

My greatest objection, though, is the incoherent and unwarranted claim made by the meme: the reason for not drinking cow’s milk (and therefore drinking a milk substitute) is that we were not meant to drink it.  The idea is that the milk from the cow was meant for its calf to drink, and not intended for other animals to drink. This statement borders on making a moral claim – if you drink milk, you have in some way robbed a poor calf that should have had that milk. It fails as a moral claim, though, because a dairy cow has been bred to produce more milk than its calf needs.

The problem really circles around the use of the word “meant”. This word indicates an intended use or purpose for an object or an action. If this is the determiner for what we should eat or drink, then we are in big trouble. Think about the oats, soybeans or almonds which are used to make milk substitutes. These are reproductive structures of their respective plants – they are seeds which were meant to continue the species, and not meant for animals to eat them, let alone turn them into a milk substitute.

This claim seems to rely upon nature to make its case, but if so, this claim quickly runs aground. Ecosystems operate primarily on the principle of exploitation. All consumers and even some plants take advantage of resources procured by other organisms. Plants produce seeds in order to reproduce, but these are eaten by consumers like voles to get the nutrients they need to live and reproduce. The mother vole who gives birth to her kits did not do so with the intent of providing dinner for a fox or a bobcat, yet this is where many of those babies will meet their end.

Soy bean pods

So, under the purview of nature, there should be no objection to humans drinking milk – it is a resource to be exploited like any other. Granted, if you, like a high percentage of the human population, are lactose intolerant, then it certainly is nice to have some options if you would like to have a glass of “milk”. But if you are fortunate, like me, to be genetically wired to have lactase persistence – the continued production of the enzyme needed for digesting lactose beyond infancy – then you should feel free to imbibe in milk with impunity. In either case, it can’t be said we were meant (or not meant) to drink them.

So, is there any way in which we could say there are foods which we are meant to eat or drink? Consider this: A young boy walks into his grandmother’s kitchen and spies a plate of cookies. Turning to his grandmother, she says, “I baked those just for you!” In this case it could be said that the boy was meant to eat the cookies. Why? Because the maker of the cookies said so. We are unable to say which items in nature (like the milk to go with the cookies) were meant to eat because we did not make them. This determination comes from outside of ourselves. We may attempt to ascribe some purpose for things in nature based on our observations, but this is nothing more than description. The determination for true intent and purpose is something that can only be performed by the Maker.

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