How a wholesome drink became a villain.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

America’s international reputation is as the land of milk and money. Here, milk has long been thought of as not just another nutritious beverage but as purity, even patriotism, in a glass. The title of a recent chronicle of the rise of milk-drinking in America reflects the national view of the beverage: Nature’s Perfect Food. “In the U.S., milk is virtually the national emblem (apple pie, in comparison, is an also-ran),” London’s Guardian pronounced last year. If pollsters asked such questions, for most of the 20th century milk’s favorability ratings would probably have exceeded even water’s. In the 1980s, milk was so venerated that a sociologist in the New York Times linked a decrease in its consumption to the declining public faith in all institutions, from the church to the academy to the press to government.

Since then, America’s belief in the goodness of milk has taken a darker turn. Milk has turned from a symbol of true-blue Americana into a token of everything that’s wrong with the country. As with most cultural changes, the transformation began with extremists, but it has crept into mainstream discourse. Like Hulk Hogan suddenly becoming a wrestling villain, the symbol of saying your prayers and taking your vitamins, of right-thinking Americanness, has now become the bad guy.

These days, milk’s chief sin is its cost. In May, the price of dairy products shot up by nearly 7 percent, the largest monthly increase in almost 60 years. Nationally, a gallon of milk runs around $3, and in some places you’ll pay nearly $5. Local papers everywhere are running stories bemoaning the high price of milk. West Virginia’s Sunday Gazette-Mail listed ways that local residents are stretching their milk dollars: One couple canceled the Sunday paper and switched their long-distance service. One area woman is limiting the amount of milk her children can pour into their cereal. Another pours orange juice over her breakfast. Another woman is buying milk in bulk and freezing the extra. And still another is buying 2 percent milk and adding water to it to turn it into skim milk, though she hasn’t confessed the crime to her family. The malaise is obvious. What next, milk lines?

But before milk was too expensive, it was too cheap. Milk was attacked as government-subsidized pork, propped up by economic Stalinism. It’s committed other offenses, too. In our health-conscious times, the once-wholesome drink is fingered for fattening kids and clogging arteries. Or is it, as others would have it, corporate poison inserted into the food supply by rapacious Big Business? Or Frankenfood engineered by egomaniacal scientists? Does hormone-altered milk fuel teenage sexuality by causing early puberty in girls? Because Northern Europeans (and Saharan nomads) are about the only people in the world who can digest milk as adults, is it racist?

There’s a national frenzy for milk reform. Some think whole milk and 2 percent milk should be banned from schools. The Congressional Black Caucus has blamed the USDA food pyramid for institutionalizing milk in the national diet. Others have sued the federal school-lunch program for racial discrimination for refusing to subsidize nondairy beverages without a note from a doctor. Animal-rights advocates attack dairy farmers for keeping cows in a state of permanent pregnancy and then selling off the calves for veal. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals once put Rudy Giuliani on a billboard with the tag line, “Got prostate cancer?” The author of a book called Milk: The Deadly Poison blamed milk for the death of Florence Griffith Joyner. Even “Got Milk?” is under attack. Some dairy farmers claim that the mandatory payments they must make to fund government-supervised industry advertising is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

These reform movements are reversing a long national tradition. Milk reform began as soon as milk drinking became an entrenched American habit—during the mid-1800s, as Americans moved to cities. But the early reformers wanted Americans to drink more milk, not less. (Milk-drinking is an industrial, urban activity, not a rural one. Before pasteurization, most milk was too dangerous to drink.) As E. Melanie DuPuis, a University of California-Santa Cruz sociologist, details in Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, the early reformers blamed rising infant mortality on city life: The new cities, they argued, caused women to become morally degenerate and physically weak, and they transmitted those ailments to the infants they breast-fed. The solution: Feed babies cleaner, purer cow’s milk.

For the next 100 years, reformers tried to make milk-drinking more healthful. In the early 20th century, the phrase “the milk question” was shorthand for the dilemma the beverage posed: Americans needed to drink it to improve their health, but because milk carried bacteria and diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid, it was dangerous to imbibe.

Milk’s reputation has suffered not because milk is worse today—if anything, it’s safer—but because we’ve changed our attitudes toward other things. We used to like Big Government for protecting public health; now it’s robbing our pocketbooks. Before industrial farming raped the countryside, it created a bountiful food supply. And before milk was contemptibly Eurocentric and racist, it was admirably Eurocentric and racist. DuPuis cites a 1920s National Dairy Council publication in which a nutritionist declares, “The people who have achieved, who have become large, strong, vigorous people, who have reduced their infant mortality, who have the best trades in the world, who have an appreciation for art, literature and music, who are progressive in science and every activity of the human intellect are the people who have used liberal amounts of milk and its products.” A 1933 history of New York agriculture asserted, “A casual look at the races of people seems to show that those using much milk are the strongest physically and mentally, and the most enduring peoples of the world. Of all races, the Aryans seem have been the heaviest drinkers of milk and the greatest users of butter and cheese, a fact that may in part account for the quick and high development of this division of human beings.”

You can’t blame milk for being confused. It’s getting attacked for exactly the same reasons it was once celebrated. But perhaps the milk skeptics are right—justice may finally be catching up to this innocent-seeming beverage. After all, on the Fourth of July in 1850, President Zachary Taylor dedicated the Washington Monument and spent the day eating cherries and milk. He fell sick. Five days later, he died. For 150 years, milk’s gotten away with murder. Isn’t that long enough?