A few nights ago, I taught a cheesemaking class and some of the conversations during the class got my mind spinning…
I know there is a lot of controversy over whether or not humans should be consuming dairy as adults. And, frankly, it is an absurd debate. Any dispute focused on what our digestive tracts are designed to do is doomed for failure. I’ll let you in on a secret – our digestive tracts are not designed to eat almost anything we humans consume! However, the irony is that our bodies are built on diets containing nutrition from these very foods we have no business eating.
Critics of the dairy industry rightly claim:
- It is unnatural to consume dairy products as adults,
- Humans are the only animals that drink milk as adults,
- We are the only animals that drink the milk from other animals,
- 68% of the world’s population experience some level of lactose intolerance,
And, it is within this context that we ask ourselves, “Are humans designed to consume dairy as adults?”
The answer . . . ABSOLUTELY NOT . . . but, it’s a ridiculous question in the first place.
The answer to it does nothing to answer the real question we are all really trying to answer which is, ”Can dairy be a safe and nourishing part of our human diets?”
Now that’s a good question to ask and answering it requires a completely different approach.
Why? Because we are humans.
What’s the difference with us?
Why can’t we humans answer both questions in the same way? Well, it is simple. We began to outgrow our digestive tracts almost 3.5 million years ago! Beginning with stone tools and later innovative developments such as fire, hunting, fermentation and a long list of other technologies and cultural/behavioral approaches to food we were able to transcend our physical limitations. We were no longer restricted to only eating foods that we could access with our hands not limited to accessing the nutrients from those foods with our incredibly inefficient digestive tracts. We humans rely upon technologies that we have developed over millions of years to PROCESS FOOD OUTSIDE OF OUR BODIES BEFORE IT GOES INTO OUR MOUTHS!
These food processing technologies do three things:
- Make food safe
- Make food nutrient dense
- Make food bioavailable
In the past, it all started with stone tools and rubbing two sticks together and today continues as the magic we make in our kitchens when we use our steel knives, blenders, food processors, stoves, juicers, sous vides, and dehydrators. If we are using these tools and technologies correctly we are not just making food that looks, tastes and smells good, but also continuing a 3.5 million year long tradition that began with our Australopithecine chef ancestors who were transforming food in ways that then, in turn, transformed us!
If we ask the question, “How can we transform dairy in the safest, most nutrient dense and bioavailable food possible for my adult human body?” the answer is . . . fermentation.
And, to learn to overcome our physical limitations as adult humans we can take important lessons from ourselves when we were infants and possessed everything we needed to safely derive the maximum amount of nutrition from the milk we drank from our mothers.
When infant mammals (including humans) drink milk from their mothers it travels to their stomachs where it is impacted by three enzymes that work to maximize the safety of nourishing capabilities of the milk. The enzyme lipase helps to digest the fat in the milk. The enzyme lactase works to bread down the sugar, lactose, in the milk. And, the enzyme chymosin coagulates the milk to slow down its travel through the digestive tract. Since the milk is no longer a liquid it remains longer in the stomach providing time for the lactobacillus bacteria to ferment and chemically and physically transform the milk into a state that safely provides nourishment more easily to the infant’s body. As soon as the infant mammals begin to consume solid food they begin to cease the production of chymosin and, in the case of most of us humans we suppress the production of lactase as we get older. This is a recipe for disaster for many adult humans when we try to drink a glass of milk.
The real question we should be asking is
”Can dairy be a safe and nourishing part of our human diets?” and, if so, “HOW?”
Before we consume dairy we must overcome our physical limitations by transforming it in the ways that we naturally did inside of our bodies as infants. By fermenting dairy we rely on the same lactobacillus bacteria to chemically and physically transform the milk. And, do you know what the lactobacillus bacteria feed on? Yup, you guessed it, lactose! In addition to all of the nutritional benefits, the process of fermentation also produces an end product that contains little or no lactose whatsoever! This completely changes the argument surrounding lactose intolerance… And, if we want to fully mimicked what happened in our stomachs when we were babies we could add the enzyme chymosin to the milk (also known as rennet) and coagulate the milk and make cheese!
Yes! That’s right. Infant mammals make cheese in their stomachs when they are infants. And, when we make real fermented dairy products such as clabber, kefir, yogurt, fermented butter, creme fraiche, and even cheese we are transforming something that can be argued we have no business eating as adults into a food that not only provides safe nourishment but an amazing eating experience that delivers incredible flavors, aromas, textures and cultural messages.