Milk: Nature's perfect food or deadly poison?

UC Santa Cruz sociologist's new book reveals the forces that made milk a staple of the American diet

Hollywood stars don milk mustaches to ask the ubiquitous question, "Got milk?," while vegan activists decry cow's milk as unhealthy and tainted by antibiotic residues, hormones, and genetically modified organisms.

Like it or not, milk is a staple of the American diet and, more than any other food, milk has become a symbol of wholesome goodness and pastoral purity. With all the forces of Madison Avenue arrayed against them, how can milk's dissenters take on "nature's perfect food"?

"For years, milk has been championed as the perfect food, and now it is being demonized as a symbol of the degradation of modern society," said sociologist E. Melanie DuPuis, author of the new book Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Drink (New York, N.Y.: New York University Press, 2002). "The fact is that we need to get beyond the idea that milk is either perfect or it's poison."

In her research, DuPuis has found that social reformers--from Temperance workers to today's critics of genetically modified foods--have used milk as an organizing tool. "Because it represents purity and the goodness of nature, milk has been a lightning rod for social reformers for more than 150 years," she said.

As ironic as it seems to compare today's activists to the leaders of the Temperance movement, DuPuis concludes that both movements reflect the unique status of milk. "Using milk as the focal point of a campaign against genetic engineering hits people on a deeper level than would a campaign about soybeans," she said. "Americans care more deeply about milk than anything else they consume, precisely because of all it has come to represent."

Nutrition and food safety are complex issues that warrant serious attention, asserted DuPuis. "To depict milk as perfect or poison does everyone a disservice," she said. "Consumers are not dupes. They deserve a full debate, and they will seek it out if it's not given to them."

Milk has not always held the central place on the American table, however. In fact, until the early 1800s, most milk peddled by milkmaids through city streets was buttermilk, a byproduct of the on-farm buttermaking industry. But it was not a common beverage, and most buttermilk was fed to hogs, said DuPuis. By the 1850s, however, a significant drop in breastfeeding gave rise to the use of cow's milk for human consumption.

DuPuis's book reveals the step-by-step transformation of the dairy industry in the United States and illuminates, for the first time, the role of social reformers whose own calls to action were responsible for the many changes that have brought us to today's model of large-scale factory farming. "That's what's so fascinating about milk," said DuPuis. "It turns out that milk has been intrinsic to every social movement in the United States since about 1850."

DuPuis writes that the growing demand for cow's milk launched the fledgling dairy industry, which Temperance leaders embraced in their effort to shut down New York City's distilleries. The distilleries disposed of the grain used in fermentation by feeding the leftover "slop" to cows in what became known as "swill dairies." The poorly nourished animals produced a low-quality milk, and Temperance boosters lobbied to have dairy operations moved outside of the city "for the well-being of city children," said DuPuis. A political cartoon from the era depicts a dying cow, too weak even to stand, being milked as it is suspended from rafters. This early city-made milk was called "white poison" due to problems caused by poor sanitation and the lack of refrigeration.

By the late 1800s, social activists focused on public health and sanitation, calling for the pasteurization of milk and the inspection of dairy farms as part of their vision of a perfect society. Progressive-era reformers sought efficient, large-scale, milk production on intensive dairies and a state-of-the-art transportation system to link rural dairies with populous urban areas. The demand for milk soared during World War I (condensed milk was used to fight malnutrition among European conscripts), and American milk drinking rose steadily until World War II, except during the

Depression when consumption fell dramatically, triggering strikes that contributed to milk-related New Deal legislation. Today, Americans drink less fluid milk but eat increasingly larger amounts of manufactured milk products like cheese and ice cream.

By documenting the historical connections between social activists and the dairy industry, DuPuis sheds light on the dynamics of today's debate over milk safety and its nutritional value.

"Going back to the 1850s, the bucolic cow grazing in the lush pasture has been a powerful organizing symbol," said DuPuis. "Today, consumer health has reemerged as a rallying cry among food activists--and as a marketing angle among organic milk producers."


Note to journalists: Melanie DuPuis can be reached via e-mail at or at (831) 459-5376.