To Milk or Not to Milk

American coffee drinkers are often looked down upon because of their proclivity for adulterating their coffee drinks with a healthy dose of milk. Sometimes attributed to the fact that the coffee itself is inferior to coffee you might find in, say, Italy, the practice actually extends throughout northern Europe as well.

So why do you find heavily dairy-dependent drinks in France, Austria or Switzerland and virtually  none in Italy or Turkey? It might not actually be due to the coffee itself, but more related to evolutionary genetics.

It has been measured that lactose intolerance is high among Mediterranean peoples, specifically Italians, who have centered most of their dairy intake around mature cheeses — a process which virtually removes the offending sugar, lactose. At birth and through the first years of our life, we produce an enzyme called lactase, which helps break down and metabolize this sugar in our digestive system. Theoretically, through sustained non-human milk drinking well into adulthood generation after generation, a genetic mutation developed which resulted in the continued production of lactase as adults. There are several different regions around the world that exhibit this type of mutation, and each of them have documented cultural drivers that would have required them to ingest raw or unprocessed non-human milk as an important part of their caloric intake as adults.

If a latte or cafe au lait is your caffeinated drink of choice, don’t let anyone make you think your preference is the result of an undeveloped palette. Your taste may instead be the result of thousands of years of evolution, so drink up!

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