Lactose Intolerant? You’re Normal

A recent page 1 WSJ article reports on China’s efforts to expand its domestic milk production capacity. But the article has a gaping hole. Reportedly, some 95 percent of Asians above the age of five are lactose intolerant (lactose intolerance doesn’t begin until around that age). So that begs the question: Where is all this demand for milk in China coming from?

Is it coming from the 5 percent? The five-and-under crowd? Is the lactose being removed during the production process? Are people drinking milk despite their lactose intolerance, and suffering the consequences? Is it just a myth that 95 percent of Asians are lactose intolerant? Questions like these needed to be answered in the article.

At any rate, the subject of lactose tolerance is most interesting. It’s evolution in action.

To be lactose intolerant isn’t an abnormality or aberration. It’s more of an aberration to be lactose tolerant. Humans weren’t designed to drink milk beyond the toddler years.

Lactose tolerance is said to have arisen in cattle-raising societies: in Europe around 6,000 or 7,000 years ago, and in East Africa around 4,500 years ago.

A gene mutation gave some people the ability to drink cow milk without getting diarrhoea, stomach aches and other symptoms associated with lactose intolerance. Observe the following advantages of milk amid harsh living conditions:

Milk is uncontaminated by parasites, unlike stream water, making it a safer drink. Also, if those that were intolerant of lactose tried to drink the milk, they would develop diarrhoea and vomiting – this could be lethal in difficult living conditions and they could therefore die of dehydration in the most extreme cases. Another suggestion is the benefit of having a continuous supply of milk as opposed to seasonal crops – cows will give milk all year round whereas crops can only thrive at certain times in the year. Also, milk has many nourishing properties – it is high in fat and calcium, amongst other nutrients. All in all, the ability to drink milk gave some early Europeans and East Africans a big survival advantage.

That was in Europe. Some 90 percent of Danes and Swedes are lactose tolerant. The farther south you go in in Europe, the less lactose tolerance. About 50 percent of Spanish and French are said to be lactose tolerant. And according to this same source, in non-pastoral societies such as China only 1 per cent of the population are lactose tolerant.

So if you’re lactose intolerant, don’t sweat it. You’re normal. Some 60 percent of adults fall into that category. If you’re lactose tolerant, you have your cattle-raising ancestors to thank.

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