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Biology 103
2005 Second Paper
On Serendip

Lactose Intolerance

Magdalena Michalak

Lactose Intolerance


Magdalena Michalak


            Embarking on this web paper has been an almost wholly selfish endeavour on my part, and one which I'm rather surprised I hadn't already ventured into on a more informal basis earlier on.  However, I'm quite pleased to know that my findings will be published online, as non-scientific as they are, because more lactose intolerant people could benefit from understanding precisely why they can't tolerate milk products and what they can do about this.

            The key question for this paper developed when I was roughly seventeen years old and first realized that I was having problems with milk products.  I was used to drinking three or four glasses of full milk every day as I had since I was a child (my father was born in a village, and both eggs and milk were staple daily food items, obtained fresh from the back yard or the neighbour's dairy), and here I was noticing that after drinking milk it'd "sit" in my stomach for a while.  Enough of this and I finally just gave up my milk-drinking habits and turned more to other sources of dairy products, but even cheese bothered me after a while.  It really took me some time to put two and two together as to lactose intolerance since at this time, as throughout my life, I was traveling constantly and these milk issues weren't consistent—it took me even longer to notice that I only had milk-related digestive issues in the US.  Why was I only having issues in the US?  What was different about milk "there"—the rest of the world—from milk here?

            I have always been skeptical of the modern American farming institution.  At this point, it really isn't about farms and farmers; it's business, pure and simple, and as in any large-scale corporation, quality is lost in the search for quantity.  It doesn't surprise me, then, that the milk situation in the states is at the same state as that of tomatoes: large quantities of visually appealing, pesticide-laden product that resembles its predecessor not one bit, can last for weeks on shelves, and is sterile of both taste and nutritional value.  In the case of milk, the product not only loses almost all of its nutritional value, it also makes it impossible for a good portion of individuals to digest in the first place.

            Pasteurization (1) was a process invented in France in 1862 as an alternative to sterilization.  In 1886, it was applied to milk, and by the 1920s or thereabouts became the standard treatment for raw milk in the US.  Around this time, illnesses contractible through contaminated milk (most notably tuberculosis) were widespread and, instead of tackling the root of the problem—namely, increasing sanitation standards and enforcing them more harshly—it was decided that pasteurization would be instated.  This way even "dirty" (2) milk that had been contaminated along the way could be purified enough for human consumption.  Presto, the beginning of an industry which focused on the end product rather than the steps required to make it.  Grass-fed cows kept in small herds were replaced by huge herds kept in cement bunkers and fed processed feed products pumped full of antibiotics (not to mention other cows, which led to the rise of bovine spongiform encephalopathy).  While there were other factors involved in this mass-commodification of the small dairy farm, the end results have been the same.  Today's store-bought milk is stripped of natural nutrients, full of chemicals, and difficult to digest.

            What does this have to do with lactose intolerance?  It's precisely that stripping of nutrients which causes almost all lactose intolerance (as opposed to a true lactose allergy, which is a subject for another paper) since this intolerance is caused by a lack of the enzyme lactase in large enough quantities within the human digestive system to break down lactose, a fairly complex disaccharide found in milk.  Raw milk contains harmless bacteria which produce lactase which, in turn, enables the human body to break down and absorb lactose.  Pasteurized milk has had all of these bacteria killed off and is therefore lactase-free, but still contains lactose, causing problems for many people who try to drink it.

            Why should this be a concern in the US in particular?  Clearly other countries pasteurize milk, as well, but the type of pasteurization (4) process used varies widely from country to country, with both temperatures and exposure times subject to individual government regulations.  In the majority of the world, raw milk products are not illegal (in the US, selling domestic raw milk products is legal in 28 central states but not widespread by any means because of store regulations which essentially make it impossible) and the pasteurization process permits many more microorganisms to remain in the milk.  A good test for this, for example, is the sour milk test.  Milk which has had beneficial bacteria killed off will, if left out in the open, spoil/decompose; bacteria flourish and the milk takes on a putrid odour.  Milk which has only been gently pasteurized will instead sour; its consistency will thicken as bacteria produce more acids, and yeasts in the milk will turn it into first sour milk (a beverage which sounds unpalatable to Americans but is delicious, healthy, refreshing, and a wonderful digestive aide to a heavy meal), then sour cream.  Most countries aside from the US, England, and Italy do not pasteurize their milk to the point of killing off these beneficial microorganisms.

            The sources I cite below can offer more thorough, academic findings which demonstrate how little nutritional value is left in pasteurized milk and how healthy low-pasteurized or unpasteurized milk products really are.  There are studies (3) dating well back into the 1930s which show how much healthier children raised on raw milk products were, and studies tying pasteurized milk products to decreased bone density, weakened tooth enamel, vision problems (from vitamin B6 insufficiency), and a large increase in asthma.  It's not surprising, then, that these problems are mostly American problems—there has been no sharp rise in asthma in most parts of the world, and most parts of the world have worse pollution problems than the US.  The Diagnose-Me site even gives percentages based on ethnic origin of populations in the US of people with lactose intolerance.  I would really like to know how this would correlate to the ethnic distribution in the US; my guess would be that in the Midwest, where there are more dairy farms and easier access to raw milk products and where the population is almost wholly white, there are much fewer occurrences of lactose intolerance, therefore tipping the Caucasian percentages.

            Thanks to the media highlighting the dangers of bacteria, yeast spores, and viruses, the US public is paranoid of anything that might be "dirty" or not sterilized past the point of recognition.  Raw products of any sort are highly controlled by the government, but one has to wonder why.  As one source (5) states, people were around and alive long before pasteurization.  There is also as startling lack of awareness of this issue in the media; rather than producing drugs which artificially introduce lactase back into the human body, shouldn't we be focusing on tackling the root of the problem—overpasteurized milk?  If more people took matters into their own hands and sought out raw milk products, as well as contacting their local representatives about easing the legislation for these products, the health benefits for the entire nation could be phenomenal.









The raw milk movement:



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