Several years ago, Alissa Hamilton investigated America's love affair with orange juice in her book Squeezed. She uncovered all sorts of misconceptions about the breakfast staple's virtuousness (most of the health claims about orange juice and vitamin C are inflated) and its origins (most OJ actually comes from Brazil, not Florida).
Now Hamilton has trained her sight on another much-loved beverage: milk. In Got Milked? she argues that milk is not the healthy bone-builder governments and the dairy industry have led us to believe. I spoke with her about our big milk misconceptions, how milk became such a pervasive commodity, and whether there are better places to get calcium.
Julia Belluz: First you waged war on the orange juice industry in Squeezed. Now you're suggesting we're getting bilked by the milk industry. Why did you look at milk?
Alissa Hamilton: The book started to take shape when my best friend growing up was visiting in the summer with her mom and two-and-a-half-year-old son. Neither of us grew up in households where milk was essential with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We didn’t have parents who pushed milk on us.JB: What common themes did you find underlie our misconceptions about these beverages?
So I was really surprised when she said, "I haven’t given Oscar milk yet, and he’s two and a half now. What do I do?" She had this uncharacteristic desperation in her voice. When I looked at her funny and reminded her that we didn’t have glasses of milk growing up, she seemed kind of confused. On an academic level, she knows nobody needs milk to be healthy and grow tall and strong. But she seemed to have bought into this idea that if you don’t drink milk, you’re missing something.
AH: Marketing. Both [orange juice and milk] have been marketed as these healthy products that people don’t even really question. With orange juice, it’s [marketed as] an essential part of a balanced breakfast. With milk, it’s an essential part of a balanced diet. We've bought into all of that marketing.JB: How did milk win its staple status in our food universe?
AH: We've had school milk programs and milk in schools since the beginning of the century. During World War II, we needed to boost milk production in order to make processed dairy products to send to soldiers overseas. But farmers weren’t producing enough to meet this demand because they weren’t getting paid enough. So the government decided, "Great, we’ll create demand for milk by giving milk to our kids, and that way we’ll have a demand for the fluid milk and we can make the processed products we need for soldiers."JB: What are our most inaccurate assumptions about milk?
So war was part of it. Convenience is also part of it. As people moved to the city and women started working away from home, cow’s milk became seen as a convenient way to give babies nutrition if women weren’t able to be home breastfeeding all the time. And as the dairy industry grows, farmers have an incentive to try to boost demand with government subsidies of dairy.
I can’t say which one of these many different forces did it, but it’s just a combination that has led to this health halo around milk. I think what’s more troubling is how deeply ingrained the idea has become and how inaccurate many of our assumptions about milk are.
AH: Milk is the only food that makes up an entire food group. If you look at it logically, it doesn’t deserve that special status any more than pumpkin seeds deserve that just because they’re high in magnesium — which is an essential nutrient Americans are low in.
Even the dairy industry recognizes that milk is not essential to health. They can’t counter that fact. Their comeback is that milk and milk products are the most convenient form of calcium. But that argument doesn’t hold anymore.