USA History

The Milk Myth: Government Support and the American Diet

Is drinking milk really as healthy as we've been told? Let's investigate the popular beverage.

The Milk Myth Government Support and the American Diet

For decades, Americans embraced the notion that milk consumption offered myriad health benefits, including weight loss and bone health. The United States government advocated for two to three daily servings, cementing milk’s status as a dietary cornerstone. Wartime saw milk labeled a “Victory Food,” and since the 1940s, it has been mandatory in school lunches. But how valid were these claims, persistently supported by the government and aggressively promoted through 20th-century media?

Milk’s Ancient Origins

Methethi saqqara ancient egypt cow milking painting
Methethi saqqara ancient egypt cow milking painting

Did milk truly contribute to a healthier populace, or was this a narrative engineered to bolster the vast dairy industry? Let’s examine the politics and economics behind America’s most iconic beverage.

Animal milk consumption dates back approximately 9,000 years. Traces of milk fat on ancient Turkish pottery suggest its significance in early settlers’ diets. Studies of dental plaque confirm goat milk consumption in East Africa around 6,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians utilized cow and goat milk for sustenance, reserving donkey milk for medicinal use. During the Bronze Age (approximately 3,000 years ago), residues found in pots indicate cow’s milk was used to feed infants. Milk later became fundamental to the diets of pastoral empires such as the Xiongnu and Mongols.

Humans: A History of Lactose Intolerance

A terra cotta milk bowl from the late Bronze Age, circa 1550–1400 BC. Source: Museum of Archaeology & Biblical History, Albuquerque
A terra cotta milk bowl from the late Bronze Age, circa 1550–1400 BC. Source: Museum of Archaeology & Biblical History, Albuquerque

For much of human history, adults were unable to comfortably consume large quantities of milk. This is due to lactose, a sugar within milk, that requires the enzyme lactase for proper digestion. Infants produce lactase, but most adults historically did not. Over time, genetic mutations led to lactase persistence, where adults continue producing the enzyme. This trait is most prevalent in Northern Europe, where over 90% of the population exhibits lactase persistence, unlike many Asian and African populations.

Historically, milk’s rapid spoilage presented a major challenge. Strategies such as fermentation (yogurt, cheese) were used to extend its useable life. Milk remained a niche product until the mid-19th century when Louis Pasteur developed pasteurization. This process involves heating liquids to a specific temperature, killing harmful microbes while preserving beneficial ones. Applied to dairy, pasteurization drastically improved milk safety and shelf life.

The Rise of the Dairy Industry

Pasteurization’s widespread adoption in the 1920s and 1930s revolutionized the dairy industry, particularly in the United States. Previously, raw milk carried significant risks of Salmonella, E. coli, and other harmful bacteria. Pasteurization dramatically reduced disease risks, improving public health and boosting consumer trust. This led to increased acceptance and demand, along with longer shelf life and standardized quality control, driving the growth of the modern dairy industry.

During World War I, the United States Food Administration actively promoted milk consumption. This campaign aimed to conserve wheat, meat, fats, and sugar for the Allied war effort in Europe. Prior to the widespread adoption of pasteurization, the government had already begun extolling milk’s safety and nutritional value.

Early 20th-century campaigns emphasized milk’s health benefits, positioning it as a complete meal due to its content of fat, sugar, protein, and minerals. World War I propaganda further linked milk consumption to patriotism and national duty.

The Challenge of Post-War Milk Surplus

The war effort spurred a surge in milk production as the U.S. supplied canned and powdered milk to soldiers overseas. Dairy farmers ramped up output, shifting away from other agricultural products and investing in new technologies. After the war, this led to a vast milk surplus with plummeting prices.

The Great Depression worsened the crisis, leading to widespread farmer strikes in the 1930s. Desperate for fair compensation, farmers protested by dumping milk and disrupting deliveries. Distributors countered that consumers would not accept higher prices.

To stabilize the industry, the government implemented programs to artificially stimulate demand. The Federal Milk Program for Schools, established in 1940, provided highly subsidized milk to low-income schools. In 1946, the National School Lunch Act mandated the inclusion of whole milk in all school lunches, aiming to combat childhood malnutrition under the banner of “Building a Stronger America.”

World War II: The Government’s Continued Promotion of Milk

A study in wartime messaging and its impact on American dairy consumption
A study in wartime messaging and its impact on American dairy consumption

During World War II, the United States government continued its earlier strategy of promoting milk consumption, capitalizing on public sentiments of patriotism and health. Advertisements and propaganda materials emphasized milk’s nutritional benefits, portraying it as a vital component of the war effort.

Posters and advertisements frequently depicted soldiers and celebrities enjoying milk, creating a powerful association with wartime support. Nutritional guidelines encouraged two to three daily servings. By 1945, average annual milk consumption per American had surged to nearly 45 gallons, underscoring the propaganda campaign’s effectiveness in shaping dietary habits.

Post-War Surplus and the Cycle of Subsidies

While the government’s wartime messaging successfully elevated milk consumption, its established pattern of bailing out struggling dairy farmers persisted. In the late 1970s, amidst economic downturn and agricultural sector challenges, President Jimmy Carter authorized billions in subsidies and financial aid. This fueled overproduction, once again resulting in vast milk surpluses.

To address the surplus, the government purchased and processed excess milk into cheese, butter, and milk powder. This led to the notorious “Government Cheese” of the 1980s – large, processed blocks distributed through the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program. This starkly contrasted with Europe’s artisanal cheeses and became an enduring symbol of government intervention in the dairy industry.

Lucas Bennett writer on ancient greece
Lucas Bennett
Lucas Bennett focuses on Modern American History. He earned his MA in History from Harvard University. Formerly a public school educator, James now engages in writing historical analyses for various publications.

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