“Drink Milk for Fitness”: The Cultural Politics of Human Biological Variation and Milk Consumption in the United States



Cow's milk is accorded a high cultural value in the contemporary United States. Its white color, association with the maternal and the pastoral, and repeated mention in the Bible add positive symbolic weight to this major national agricultural commodity. Thus, it comes as no surprise that influential policy-making institutions in the United States recommend milk consumption for all U.S. groups. This is despite variation in adult populations' abilities to digest milk, which has been documented by biological anthropologists. This article assesses various U.S. “stories” about milk consumption and its relationship to biological variation against the biological anthropological explanation of variation in lactase activity/lactose tolerance. Many of these serve as normalizing discourses that ultimately pathologize biological difference and may undermine the dietary traditions of some ethnic groups. In particular, the close relationship between government and the dairy industry leads to policies that fail to seriously consider variation in digestive physiology among the diverse U.S. populations.