Anne Mendelson’s new book Spoiled is subtitled The Myth of Milk as Superfood, and at its core argues that while there’s nothing wrong with fresh milk, at least for those who can digest it as adults, the belief that you cannot have enough of a good thing has created a monstrous industry. Dairy farmers have always had the short end of the stick, because fresh milk is inevitably a buyers’ market. Cows have been manipulated to divorce them from any kind of natural life. And milk drinkers are being fobbed off with a tasteless white liquid reconstituted from its constituent parts and with no hedonic value. And for what?
Mendelson places the start of the rot with George Cheyne, a Scottish physician whom she considers the original celebrity doctor. Partly as a result of avid personal networking, Cheyne became grossly obese. He was also often depressed, declaring that those “whose Genius is most keen and penetrating were most prone to such disorders”. Someone, Cheyne does not say who, told him about a Dr Taylor of Croydon, who had cured himself of epilepsy by a total milk diet. Cheyne visited Taylor, learned about the diet, and dedicated himself to it. He did lose weight, which he regained as soon as he loosened his dedication to milk, and in Bath and London hawked his diet to elite patients, who suffered “nervous complaints” that seldom troubled the lower orders.
It was the first fad diet, complete with celebrity fans and anecdotal miracle cures of nebulous ailments, and its core belief dominated subsequent expert ideas on nutrition and paediatrics. In our chat, we explored the wide range of effects triggered by the belief in milk as a superfood.
- Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood contains a lot more on Cheyne and how his influential patients helped promote the virtues of fresh milk.
- I was staggered by the claim that Chinese scientsts are engineering cows that do not produce lactose. I found one paper by Russian scientists, which seems not to have been cited by anyone. Yet. Also a vague connection to Boyalife, a Chinese biotechnology company, but no more.
- The transcript is here.
- Banner image a detail from Landscape with a Milk Maid and a Beau by Paul Sandby. Cover photo by me, taken at the Wellcome Museum’s exhibit on milk which is on in London till 13 September. I loved it.