The Socio-Cultural Syndrome of Milk

The following article, by anthropologist H. Leon Abrams, Jr., was published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition, Volume 27, Number 4, Winter, 1975. It is particularly valuable in its description of blindness caused by the consumption of nonfat milk powder, leading to vitamin A depletion. At “Wise Traditions 2005,” we learned from Dr. Noel Solomons that documents describing these effects had actually been classified as “Top Secret” and filed away from the eyes of the public! The dangers of a high-protein diet, from the consumption of lean meat, skim milk, protein powders and egg whites without the yolks, is an important theme at the Weston A. Price Foundation.Professor Abrams also discusses problems of lactose intolerance that manifest in non-milk-drinking cultures where milk is introduced as a new food. It should be noted that this milk is highly processed industrial milk (pasteurized, powdered or condensed) and that the problems that arise may be due to a number of factors besides lactose intolerance. In Nutrition and Phystical Degeneration, Dr. Price describes excellent health among native Americans living on a reservation who had a dairy herd. The milk they were drinking without problem was presumably raw.

Milk, “nature’s most perfect food,” has been an aphorism in many societies that is taken for granted; this adage, upon close scrutiny, is found to be a non sequitur. However, in any given culture where bovine milk is a major part of the staple diet, it is found that the total complex of milk production has a major interdependent function within the total ecosystem, and thus there is a significant relationship among nutrients and environmental factors which are manifest within the context of the socio-economic structure. The data available clearly indicate that these types of inextricable relationships are clearly present in all cultures, be they primitive, agrarian, or industrialized. Conversely, the lack of milk as a focus upon a culture’s topography can be compared with milk-using societies.
Considered from a chronological perspective, the means in which the production, distribution, and consumption of milk have changed as the society moved from an agrarian economy to the present industrialized society is exemplified in the United States; India can be given as an example of an agrarian society, while the Nuer, Kazaks, and Todas will suffice as prime examples of primitive societies. Numerous examples may be given, but these few are adequate for illustrating the hypothesis.


Among the pastoral Nuer of the upper Nile, milk is the staple food throughout the year, and cattle are the most cherished possessions of these people. In addition to milk, the animals supply meat and blood; skins for bags, beds, trays, cord, drums and shields; and their bones and horns are made into a number of items, but, as important as these items are, milk is the prime factor which leads to cattle being the dominant element in the total economy, and as such it interacts upon the total cultural configurations of the society. Status depends upon the number of cattle a man owns, while the bride price must be made in cattle. Evans Pritchard made the following comment: “They are always talking about their beasts. I used sometimes to despair that I never discussed anything with the young men but livestock and girls, and even the subject of girls led inevitably to that of cattle.”

The same type of interdependence within the total social structure is also noted among the Todas of Southern India who subsist solely on dairy products derived from their buffalo, and from vegetable products. Other examples are the Nama Hottentots and Kazaks of central Asia. Each of these people has a distinct culture, yet the synchronic data when analyzed from both the qualitative and quantitative foci, suggest that milk is perhaps the dominant, or one of the most significant, loci on the specific culture’s functional topography.

The introduction of milk into a given culture can be accounted for in terms of indigenous development, acculturation, or diffusion, and perhaps the particular orientation that it takes within a given social structure may be a combination of the three. Once milk becomes a dominant focus upon a culture’s topography, then it also becomes a part of the total ecosystem as well.


The relationship of milk as a dominant ethos among the milk-oriented primitive societies is more apparent than in the industrial societies in which milk is a major food item. In North America, for example, milk is an essential part of the diet in one form or another–as a beverage, for coffee, an ingredient of many foods, and dairy products of all types, and as such, the production, distribution, and consumption of milk demonstrate the importance it has within the socio-economic system. Attitudes concerning milk are formed, and although most of these attitudes are taken for granted, let there be a milk strike, and the entire community becomes alarmed because it is assumed that milk is a necessity for children and that there is no adequate substitute. When it was discovered that cow’s milk could be substituted for human milk for infants when it was made into a proper formula, the importance of cow’s milk again increased. Some adults seem to be so dependent upon the ingestion of milk that they become upset when deprived of this beverage; their syndrome is often one of vague complaints of fatigue and the like which may be entirely psychosomatic, but even so they are still manifested in general physiological symptoms.

So important is milk in North America that ersatz milk is now being developed that will be cheaper and, hopefully, though doubtfully, an improvement over the genuine product. Already pseudo-dairy products in the form of substitute coffee cream, butter, sour cream and whipped cream are common on the market. The introduction of these substitutes, and the continued efforts to develop further substitutes, illustrates the trend taking place with respect to milk and dairy products in general as the country moves into the technological age. Also, some of these substitutes reflect the desire of affluent America, where the taste has been conditioned for milk products, to enjoy the same flavor and texture minus the calories that milk ordinarily provides.

Milk can also be given as an example of the physiological relationship in which the ecosystem consists of the metabolic environment of man and the manner in which it interacts with the external environment through the constant ingestion of food and drink.


The ability to utilize milk as a source of food depends upon the organism’s ability to metabolize lactose. A large portion of the world’s population lacks this ability, especially the Southeastern Asians, American Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and many Black cultures of Africa. Robert McCracken believes this deficiency is one of a genetic origin; the ability of populations to metabolize lactose, or the inability to do so, is due to natural selection. It is noted that where milk is not a major part of the diet the incidence of lactose intolerance is very high. Specific examples would be the Baganda, who have a low tolerance (their diet is mainly bananas), and the Bahima tribe, who use from two to seven pints of milk daily and little else, whose lactose intolerance is very low. A.E. Davis and T.D. Bolin think that the differences in ability to metabolize lactose is an acquired, rather than a genetic defect.

The Chinese regard the use of milk with disgust and aversion; a comparable attitude is that of the Americans with regard to the use of blood as a food or beverage. With reference to milk, the Chinese attitude may be due to the fact that it makes them sick due to their inability to metabolize lactose, and therefore it has a physiological basis, although generally attitudes toward foods are entirely culturally determined.


Another aspect of the physiological effects of introducing milk to a population who are suffering from kwashiorkor [severe protein deficiency malnutrition] or marasmus [progressive emaciation] has been reported by G. Edwin Bunce. In this case it is one of the complex relationship between deficiencies of vitamin A. If [nonfat] milk is given where there is a vitamin A deficiency, it can aggravate the situation and cause a number of harmful defects ending in partial or total blindness. This happened in Northeast Brazil, an area where the population is so deficient in vitamin A that it can be described as almost epidemic. When powdered [nonfat] milk was introduced to alleviate the starvation, the immediate introduction of this protein into the area resulted in the individual experiencing growth which then caused a depletion of the minimum supplies of vitamin A that were removed from the liver as a protein complex. This resulted in outbreaks of night blindness, xerophthalmia (the drying of the conjunctiva and aupa-ocular glands in the eye), keratomalacia (softening of the cornea), and irreversible blindness.

Dr. Bunce states that these types of complex nutrient interactions are not unusual but are the rule, and he further says that any attempt to improve the dietary composition in the undeveloped countries, most of which suffer from protein deficiencies, must be considered as possibly disruptive of normal metabolic functions. He emphasizes that studies must be undertaken to predict and evaluate the results of introducing new foods to areas where they have been of no previous ecological importance.

Davis and Bolin state that the clinical evidence clearly shows that not even milk, a seemingly harmless item, can be assumed to be safe for introduction into the underdeveloped countries. The introduction of milk into those areas where the population has a low lactose tolerance or where a starving condition exists, can be cited as an example of cultural imperialism and ethnocentrism by dominant cultures that assume that milk is the answer to the protein deficiency problem.

In conclusion, the data seem to suggest and clearly illustrate that when milk is a major part of the diet of any given culture, it then becomes a significant locus upon that society’s functional topography and the ecosystem and as such is manifested to a greater or lesser degree within the total cultural matrix–economy, social structure, literature, value system attitude, and, symbolically, as expressed in metaphors, poetry, and perhaps even religion–all of which has a psychological effect upon the individual as he is a product of the culture. The absence or rejection of milk by a culture suggests that there may be a physiological basis for such rejection.


  1. Bunce, G. Edwin, “Milk and Blindness in Brazil,” Natural History, Feb. 1969.
  2. Davis, A.E. and Bolin, T.D., “Milk Intolerance in Southeast Asia,” Natural History, Feb. 1969.
  3. Evans Pritchard, E.E., The Nuer, Oxford, 1940.
  4. Murdock, George Peter, Our Primitive Contemporaries, 1934.
  5. Page, Melvin E., and Abrams, H. Leon, Jr., Health versus Disease, Page Foundation, 1960.
  6. Rivers, W.H.R., The Todas, London, 1906.
  7. Schapera, I., The Kohoisan Peoples of South Africa, London, 1930.
  8. Thruston, E., “Anthropology of the Todas and Kotas of the Nilgiri Hills,” Madras Government Museum Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 4, Madras, 1986.

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2006.

H. Leon Abrams, Jr., MA, EDS is Associate Professor Emeritus of Anthropology E.G.C., University System of Georgia. His areas of specialization in anthropology are Mesoamerica and nutritional anthropology. He has written seven books and 170 articles and reviews. He is an honorary board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

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