‘The Swiss Army Knife of foods’: Untangling the truth and lies around milk

Milk's reputation has seen plenty of ups and downs in recent years, but the farmer, chef and writer Matthew Evans is trying to put the record straight. Scottish farmer — and regular Country Life columnist — Jamie Blackett takes a look at Evans's new book, 'Milk: The truth, the lies and the unbelievable story of the original superfood'.

I should declare a slight acquaintance with Australian author Matthew Evans, who visited my farm when researching Milk. My team of hardened dairy-farming fanatics were sceptical about meeting Mr Evans, who farms 70 acres in Tasmania where he milks between one and three Jersey cows, as well as rearing pigs, ‘chooks’, bees and goats and running a market garden, heritage orchard and olive grove. It all sounded a bit good lifey.

Large-scale farmers tend to look down on smallholders, whom they dismiss as ‘hobby farmers’, but Mr Evans could teach us a thing or two about farming profitability. From his 70 acres (40% of which is reserved for wildlife) he produces enough food for 10,000 meals per year. Roughly half of them feed his family and friends, the remaining half he sells in his on-farm restaurant — where he was the head chef — turning over about £580,000 per annum, providing 10 full-time jobs and a fair proportion of profit. Somehow, he was finding time to write books and host a television programme — humbling.

It turns out that he can also teach us a huge amount about our product. As a biologist, farmer and chef, there is probably no one better to unravel milk in all its complexities than Mr Evans, perhaps the best food writer in the world today. What a complex thing it is. Until recently, it appears that we knew more about the galaxy — galaxias in Greek, derived from gala, the word for milk — than the properties of milk itself.

“Cows’ milk has sustained us for at least the past 8,500 years as ‘a mobile tap for high-quality protein, along with just about all the other nutrients that a human needs to survive'”

The book brims with serendipity. We learn that Romulus and Remus could not have been suckled by a wolf as the nutrient overload would have killed them; what Mrs Beeton recommended for feeding the wet nurse (half a pint of stout and a biscuit for elevenses); and of poor, dying Mary Wollstonecraft being encouraged to suckle puppies as a doomed strategy for curing infection from a retained placenta.

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Infant mortality was high until well into the 20th century because of a failure to understand nutrition and hygiene. Thanks to the wonders of modern science, we now know more about the importance of breast milk. Nature has endowed mothers with the ability to absorb any infections afflicting their babies by kissing their heads so that they can use their own immune systems to produce milk that is ‘a cocktail of readymade immunity, tailored to the child’s needs that day’. Who knew?

Once weaned from our mothers, however, it is herbivores’ — and particularly cows’ — milk that has sustained us for at least the past 8,500 years as ‘a mobile tap for high-quality protein, along with just about all the other nutrients that a human needs to survive’. Mr Evans traces the milking of cows through to the world’s biggest dairy farm in China, which is 22.5 million acres — about the size of Portugal — and has 100,000 cows that never go outside.

In the western world, we now drink less milk, partly, Mr Evans reckons, because 70 years ago the processors decided that, rather than dumping waste ‘hog slop’, they would market skimmed milk as a healthier alternative (erroneously) to full fat. We have also been turned off milk by drinking an inferior product. It comes as no surprise to learn that the health-giving qualities of milk depend on what your cow ate — grass-fed milk is much better for you, although it may be some time before the food industry stops keeping us in the dark about how it has been produced.

Vegans may be disappointed to learn that, after a rigorous examination by the author, plant-based ‘milks’ don’t match up. We are only beginning to understand the benefits of the highly complex proteins in cow’s milk for human health — 4,654 of them discovered so far, against a handful in plant ‘milks’. As Mr Evans writes: ‘Milk has been a blessing for humanity, embellishing culture… raising the gastronomic stakes and nourishing three-quarters of the world’s population. It’s the Swiss army knife of foods that has transformed our diets, and our genetic code… while bringing pleasure to billions. And for that we should be grateful.’ Highly recommended.