Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Putting the anthropology into parenting: Milk


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As a second generation Korean-American, I have had a hate-love relationship with milk. My own parents, especially my pediatrician mother, prescribed it to the three of us kids so that we would have strong bones and, in particular, be tall like other American kids. However, my parents could not stomach it particularly well, not to mention that they did not especially care for its taste. The same on both counts for me, too. I regularly balked at having to take my dose unless it was laced liberally with sugar or Quik. Yet, none of us ever questioned the importance and necessity of drinking milk for our health and growth. Now, as a parent, I sometimes catch myself repeating the same mantras to my own kids, for whom we regularly pour a glass of milk to have at breakfast and / or dinner.

So, when a friend shared this link on Facebook, it caught my eye. It reports on a movement to block FDA approval to allow milk producers to use anysafe and suitable sweetener as an optional ingredient” in (cow’s) milk and other dairy products.

The idea apparently is to add sweeteners like aspartame to milk – on the one hand, to encourage its consumption in U.S. schools, where children are opting for juice or water over milk, and on the other hand, to use sweeteners that will add no or low calories, which is a concern when Americans are only too aware of the problem of obesity.

This has placed nutritionists in the interesting position of defending the sugar in chocolate and strawberry milk, which they say not only does not contribute to obesity, but seems to encourage more consumption of milk.

The NPR notes that a group opposing the milk producers calls them out on "turn[ing] the wholesome drink (milk) into another artificial flavor-laden sweet snack."

All of which got this parent thinking like an anthropologist.

Milk is as much a product of culture as of nature, and the conditions in which it is consumed (as well as the effects and consequences for human biology) might best be understood in biocultural perspective, as medical anthropologist Andrea S. Wiley has demonstrated. Wiley has conducted studies on cow’s milk consumption, documenting how it might be linked with differences in height and BMI and age at menarche.

In her 2007 article, “Transforming Milk in a Global Economy,” Wiley asks the question that I think we might be asking ourselves now: “[H]ow has milk, often viewed as the most ‘natural’ of foods, been technologically transformed to take on new roles, reflecting other social, cultural, and economic trends” (666-667).

Leaving aside the questions one might have about the safety of the sweeteners, why the milk producers have sparked ire and outrage seems to be rooted in our perception that they are committing adulteration on at least two fronts. First, the addition of artificial substances to natural substances, especially milk, with its association as pure nourishment, looks to us like pollution. (Note that one of the consistent refrains about aspartame is that it is a natural sweetener.)

Second, the transformation of milk into a sweet snack contaminates what has been understood popularly to be a wholesome drink with the taste of the market. In fact, milk long has been a commodity and its production an industry that has been not only regulated by government, but also promoted, supported, and subsidized by it. In recent years, milk consumption in the U.S. has been in decline, so there is no doubt that milk producers would be interested in remaking milk to compete with other beverages in the market.

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