Andrea Wiley's Re-Imagining Milk

Wiley, Andrea S. (2011) Re-imagining Milk. New York: Routledge Press.


“Milk production is part of an overall mammalian reproductive pattern of increased investment in a smaller number of offspring who have greater chances of surviving to reproduce themselves.” – Andrea S. Wiley, Re-Imagining Milk, p. 8


Published in early 2011, Re-Imagining Milk is an accessible investigation of the production and consumption of milk. Author Andrea S. Wiley, Professor of Anthropology and Director of Human Biology at Indiana University, Bloomington, writes this book to explore the many meanings and thoughts behind milk throughout history and the factors that have influenced the varying trends in milk consumption around the world.

Milk is a food with a very complex history that extends to many places, people, and times. It has been marketed to both children and adults using religious, national, and nutritional arguments. Though it is seen as a necessity in our diets, it may be true that we can successfully grow and live without consuming cow’s milk after being weaned. Wiley clears the cobwebs off the “milk” section of our brains, asks questions such as “Why is it considered to be such an important food?” and “What role does milk play in the diet and economies of societies around the world,” and slowly guides us through a maze of information using charts, graphs, advertisements, and photographs.

Wiley begins with a short introduction on the idea of milk as a special food and begins to question this major belief. She lays the foundation for the subsequent chapters by introducing the biological side of cow’s milk in comparison to human’s milk; though babies are typically breastfed for a number of months, cow’s milk has “more protein, minerals, and some B vitamins, and less sugar, Vitamin C, and Vitamin A.” Milk is most commonly promoted as a major source of calcium, a necessary mineral for growth and strong bones. But what if you have trouble digesting milk? In Chapter 2, she discusses the variations in humans’ abilities to properly digest lactose, the sugar present in the milk of most mammals. To digest lactose, an enzyme called lactase must be present. But over time (particularly around the time of weaning), lactase production decreases. She makes the distinction between lactose intolerance (“gastrointestinal symptoms experienced by some individuals who have low levels of lactase”) and lactose maldigestion (“individuals…do not experience gastrointestinal symptoms… so long as their physiological capacity to digest lactose is not exceeded”). The National Dairy Council says that most people do not have lactose intolerance but instead have lactose maldigestion, thus it is still recommended that these people consume milk. But s minorities are tahe typically that struggle with lactose maldigestion, there have been some controversy surrounding the endorsement of milk as a necessary food, especially given some of the white superiority statements attached to milk during the 20th century.

Next, Wiley chronicles the history of milk consumption in both Europe and the United States. She emphasizes how in both European and American cities people had little to no access to fresh milk. In the U.S. in particular, in the mid to late 19th century, there was an explosion of milk in the cities due to rural migrants moving for new jobs, new technologies, and the rise of working-class women seeking employment. This led to the rise of swill milk dairies, in which cows were fed the grains leftover from alcohol production. These cows were housed in unsanitary conditions and the milk was quite deadly. This dangerous milk prompted a major movement in milk reform and a subsequent mass marketing plan to get children to drink milk. In Chapter 4 she explores the common belief that milk makes children grow taller and develop stronger bones. She highlights a number of observational and supplementation experiments to ultimately conclude that, though these studies do highlight a correlation between milk consumption and height, they cannot show that milk causes differences in growth. In the final chapter, Wiley discusses the varying trends in milk production and consumption around the world, particularly comparing the meaning of milk in the U.S., India, and China. While there has been a major decline in milk consumption in the U.S., there has been an increase in both India and China where there has been a general rise in the demand for animal products as a sign of modernity and affluence.

Overall, I found Wiley’s style of writing pleasant and easy to follow. She was very straightforward with all of the information she presented, but did not try to emphasize any one ideology. Though I found some of the biological discussions, especially about how lactose and lactase work, to be confusing for such a public-friendly book, I acknowledge that they were necessary to get a full picture of the issues surrounding milk. Re-Imagining Milk took many of the points that I was already familiar with from the rest of my milk research (race, swill milk, concerns of raw milk, the power of advertising, etc.) and greatly expanded upon them. Wiley’s extensive list of references could prove useful for further reading and assistance in milk research, about which everyone should be at least remotely knowledgeable.