Cover Image: Spoiled


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Member Reviews

After years of polarized debate, *Spoiled* takes on the issue of whether or not milk is healthy in a balanced way supported by scientific and historical research. Unlike many vegan publications which claim that drinking milk is an evil, exploitative practice that is the product of modern capitalism or inherent human evil, this book argues not that milk is inherently bad, but that it is healthier to drink in its fermented format after being obtained sustainably. The focus on traditional practices in farming communities is particularly interesting and covers the uses of fermented milk in many different cultures.

This book is very heavy on history and science, going into detail on how milk is obtained, pasteurized and put on tables, as well as the history behind modern views on milk. The history of the relatively-recent development of the genes that even allow people to digest unfermented milk is investigated as well, including the bias inherent in suggesting that fresh milk is healthy and beneficial for people of all ethnicities when it is more commonly drinkable by those with Northern European ancestry. Animal welfare is also a key topic in the book, and suggestions of how to obtain milk in more sustainable ways that are not harmful to milk-producing animals are discussed.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in food history, the politics of nutrition, the benefits of fermented food, the intersections of health and social justice, and the complex science behind milk. This book was compellingly readable and finally made me understand and appreciate the kefir phase my family went through when I was a teenager. It has also inspired me to look into making my own yogurt and kefir because that process sounds very interesting to me as a chemist. Overall, it’s a relatively easy and approachable read on a controversial and contentious subject.
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Great read about the origins of milk and how it's currently consumed. It's seen as a superfood that's needed for healthy growth, but if you really think about it, it's weird we drink another mammal's breast milk. I don't drink milk myself, but I really learned a lot about it from this book. It's quite extensive, no casual read. But it's well written and entertaining.
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Milk is one of the most ubiquitous of foodstuffs. It’s the very food that all mammals grow up drinking - the colostrum vital to their healthy development. There’s a delicate balance of nutrients and microbes, along with a rich flavor that all are familiar with. In spite of drinking it as an infant, the bulk of the human population cannot properly digest it in its unfermented form upon reaching puberty. Why, then, is it still so prominently touted as a vital part of the diet? Why is China one of the largest producers and consumers of it, when the bulk of the country’s population can’t easily digest it at all?

These questions, along with the legal battles being fought over the selling of raw milk, riveted culinary historian Anne Mendelson and formed the basis of her book Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood (Columbia University Press, 2023). Milk is often purported by scientists and doctors to be as vital to the human diet as water, but it is something that many people can easily live without. How did it come to be viewed in such a way? 

Mendelson thoroughly examines these questions in Spoiled. The book takes the reader on a journey through history, examining how milk was primarily consumed in sour and fermented forms - both easier for adults unable to digest lactose properly to consume. She shows how the recent debates over whether or not raw milk should be able to be sold are nothing new, resembling arguments over pasteurization, and even whether or not milk should be able to be given to children. 

The book is wide-ranging in its scope and thorough in its analysis of the question of whether or not the milk that is currently being consumed is necessarily a good thing. Mendelson argues convincingly for the need for better conservation of fast disappearing foodways, as the Western habit of pasteurized, homogenized milk continues to overtake the globe. She describes fermented milk delicacies of Asia and Africa, and the wide variety of cow breeds that Holsteins are fast replacing due to either admixture or wholesale adoption of Holsteins for their large milk output in places often unsuited for them to be raised.

Mendelson’s book is a compelling read and a more thorough survey of milk production and consumption than has yet been written. The widespread adoption of milk in its current form is startling, when one realizes it has only existed this way since the 1950s. Mendelson’s book, hopefully, is not the siren song for older foodways, but rather a call to begin to better appreciate them for a more diverse, healthier, and less environmentally-damaging way of living. Through the conservation of older foodways and more sustainable agriculture, we can safely enjoy more varied and interesting foods without the stress on the ecosystem modern milk manufacturing produces.
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Surely has to be one of the greatest milk based books ever written.

A truly mooving experience about a uniquely mythologized drink.
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Really excellent book covering the history of the dairy industry’s hold on American culture, the science behind the type of milk we commonly are told to drink in this country, and the reasons why it doesn’t make much sense. 
As a lactose intolerant adult, this read was validating of something I’ve long thought but didn’t have the stats to back up. Now I do!
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A good story lost in too many facts. I now know more about the fight over milk than anyone should know and that's not a good thing. Ms. Mendelson dives deep, too deep, in her attempt to prove that drinking unfermented, raw milk was not only introduced to a purely white, western European audience but the health claims involved were not true. I found myself trying to digest (pun intended) all of the policy decisions and laws involved that I became lactose intolerant to this book. A more concise history would have better served her ideas and i hope that before publication some edits are made that, while still highlighting the history, do not make the reader feel as though they are gassy from too much Dairy-knowledge.
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I honestly never knew how much I didn't know about milk. This was a lot more intense than I expected. As a millennial who grew up in the "got milk?" era, I've always been interested in Big Milk and who decided it was so good for us to have 3 glasses a day.

If you want to learn everything about milk, condensed(pun intended) into one book, this is for you! 

My stomach grumbles just thinking about all that milk.
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This is an angry book. 

I'm not saying that's a bad thing, or that the anger is unjustified. Just that Mendelson doesn't make much effort to hide the fact that a lot about Big Dairy in America makes her angry, and that the appalling lack of science around the claims for milk make her angry, and that the fact drinking milk is pushed as some mighty panacea when actually the ability to digest cow's milk as an adult human is largely restricted to humans descended from north-west Europeans... that makes her angry, too. 

Some of the most crucial sentences for understanding the point of the book comes early on: "... the founders of modern Western medicine had no way of understanding the genetic fluke that allowed them... to digest lactose from babyhood to old age... That lack turned the one form of milk that is most fragile, perishable, difficult to produce on a commercial scale, and economically pitfall-strewn into a supposed daily necessity for children and, to a lesser extent, adults."


The section I most enjoyed for itself was the first part, where Mendelson looks at the long history of dairying, and  in particular points out that drinking "fresh" milk (which is a whole other discussion of terminology, given what happens to milk in most Western countries today) wasn't something early herders did. Instead, they were using fermented milk - naturally fermented, from being left out in the heat. She goes through the science of what's actually happening in this fermentation, discussing why the bacteria in the milk doing all of this doesn't poison human consumers of such milk. There's also a really interesting discussion about the archaeology and other evidence for dairying of various forms in numerous locations. 

Science is a fairly big part of the book, which I also enjoyed. There's a lot about what's in milk of various types, and why, as well as how that's connected to the digestive system of the various animals that humans choose to milk. Plus the discussion about how limited the ability to actually properly digest full-lactose drinking-milk is, among the adult human population. If you can digest milk as an adult, it's you that's the genetic mutation, not everyone else. Doesn't that make all the soy milk etc-haters look like numpties. 

The angry-making bit really starts when the discussion turns to the 18th century in Europe, and the way that 'drinking fresh milk' suddenly became imperative for children, in particular, and the idea that if children were denied all the milk they could possibly consume then somehow society was failing them. All of which is nonsense since... see above. And then, of course, it gets into how the industry makes claims, and medical types get on board, and honestly it just makes me really sad and horrified to see how outlandish claims based on 'science' (sometimes) that has now been superseded, or sometimes just based on a desire to make money, is still having a massive impact on how we think and act today. 

Also? this insistence on drinking-milk all came as a) more people were living in towns and b) before good refrigeration and c) before adequate food-safety measures like pasteurisation (which gets a whole section here, because of the raw food movement) were in place. All of which meant a bunch of kids, in particular, actually got sick and many of them died because of the milk they were told they needed to consume in order to be healthy. 

One of the reasons for the angry nature of the book is its focus on the modern American dairy industry. I'm not going to claim that the Australian industry is immensely better, because I don't know all that much about it, but I do know that we do things a bit differently. And then there's the way in which drinking-milk is still being pushed as necessary... to populations that are, overwhelmingly, unable to digest full-lactose milk as adults. I think that's just appalling. 

Don't read this as a fun history or science of milk. Do read it if you're interested in how drinking-milk got to be the thing it is today - which is genuinely fascinating, as well as infuriating. There's discussion of Kellogg's, and milk-drinking cults, and the furore around pasteurisation and homogenisation, and the raw milk fad as well...
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