There is some debate over when and where humans developed the ability to digest lactose by the natural production of the enzyme lactase, and begin consuming the milk from other mammals, especially cows, goats and sheep. Recent research suggests, however, that this influential evolutionary development first became prevalent around 5,500 B.C.E. in Neolithic Central Europe, and from there spread to other parts of Europe.
The majority of the world still suffers from some form of lactose intolerance following infancy, meaning insufficient or nonexistent production of the enzyme lactase to synthesize the sugar lactose found in mammalian milk. Research has shown that nearly 100% of Native Americans (both North and South), more than 90% of Asians, and upwards of 80% of Latinos and those of African descent, have some level of lactase deficiency, and are therefore lactose intolerant. This is in comparison to only 15% of people of Northern European descent who can be classified as lactose intolerant.
Lactose intolerance can range from mild to severe, and there is some evidence that those with mild genetic intolerance to lactose may even be able to build up their tolerance to lactose through repeated ingestion. Whether there is good medical reason to do so is still up for debate, as there may be harmful effects associated with consistent milk consumption, especially for those with negative genetic predispositions towards its consumption.
There’s little question that early Neolithic European milk drinkers gained a significant biological advantage over their contemporaries by being able to digest this protein and nutrient-rich food source. This was especially true for Northern Europeans who got a boost in vitamin D from consuming milk while living at latitudes where sunlight, the most abundant and natural source of vitamin D for us earthlings, was infrequent. But in the modern world, it is still up for debate just how beneficial consuming milk is with so many other available sources of whole-food nutrition, and the rising epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes, associated with overconsumption of processed and energy-dense foods.
There are also many alternatives to standard animal milk nowadays, such as almond milk, soy milk and flaxseed milk, with a range of flavor profiles, protein content, creaminess and nutritional value. It is also possible to purchase processed forms of milk that have had the lactose removed for those that are lactose-intolerant, but this maneuver takes away a lot of the other potential nutritional benefits of consuming whole milk, including several vitamins and minerals. In general, it is best to stay clear of all heavily processed foods.
Resources and Further Reading
A more in-depth look at lactose intolerance:
A history of milk consumption and the first humans able to digest lactase:
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