China’s appetite for milk has greatly increased in recent years. The country of about 1.4 billion people is now the second largest consumer of dairy products in the world, and imports are trickling across borders, with milk from New Zealand and Germany topping the list of what the Chinese giant demands of milk.
There is an interesting little detail, which is that many people in China, like many in the countries of the continent of Asia, are lactose intolerant.
Babies usually produce an enzyme that allows them to digest milk, and levels of this enzyme often decrease as they get older.
People of European descent often continue to digest dairy products effortlessly even after puberty
In China, a much-cited study estimated that 92 percent of adults had problems absorbing lactose. And recently, the Preventive Medicine Agency in China said that by reaching 11-13 years of age, about 40 percent of them lose the ability to digest lactose.
How exactly did this appetite for milk emerge, and how did China achieve such enjoyment of dairy products?
For most of the twentieth century, interest in milk in China was little, says Thomas Dubois, a professor of humanities at Peking Normal University, who has studied the country’s dairy industry.
There were several small dairy farms in the northeast, with an average of four cows on the farm, and their milk was transported by train to the Russian-influenced city of Harbin, where most of it was converted into butter and cheese.
Eventually, however, larger dairy factories appeared in coastal cities, and high volume production accelerated despite contractions, as a result of various recession factors.
By the 1980s in China, powdered milk was a healthy product and was generally used for infants and the elderly. In the early 1980s there was a race for milk in Beijing, Dubois says, and people were waiting in line all night to get it.
“You had a strict quota of how much you could get for your family,” Dubois says. “Your milk was really valuable and important.”
“Milk was considered food for the elderly, maybe even more than children,” he says. “I know quite a lot of people, who have been telling the same story since this very early time, which is that they sneak into their family’s milk supply and try to taste some of it. For the child or grandmother, but it is okay to taste a little of it, then we say deep down to ourselves: This is the most delicious thing I have tasted in my life.
There was also the white rabbit candy phenomenon. This type of Chinese dessert is made from milk solids, such as chewable white caramel, and one cup of milk is said to be equal to seven sweets.
And when Richard Nixon visited China, he received a white rabbit as a gift.
“If you intend to present this to Nixon in the early 1970s, then that means this is the best thing you can have,” Dubois says.
By the 1990s and early 2000s, it was much easier to get liquid milk in China. Huge dairy factories have been built, some of the largest in the world.
Even the deliberate fraud scandal in 2008 – in which melamine was added to infant formula, to boost its apparent protein content, killing at least six children and sickening thousands – did not affect milk consumption in the long term.
In an article on Chinese dairy products, Dubois writes that sales of the largest Chinese suppliers fell, by 80 percent in the first 10 days after the scandal was exposed, but that they quickly rebounded.
Currently, milk and other dairy products – especially high-temperature processed milk, which can be stored for long periods, and drinkable yogurt – are easily and cheaply available in Chinese cities.
So how did this change, and the lactose intolerance that scientists recorded, changed to all this?
It’s something Dubois has been asking for for years: “When I first started the project, I would walk to strangers who drink milk and ask them how they dealt with digestion problems.”
The answer was consistent, he adds: “If it bothers me, I stop.”
Additionally, people don’t seem to be looking for lactose-free milk, although such products can be found if you do look for them.
One of the reasons behind this may be that a large amount of milk consumed in China is eaten, in the form of sour milk (or yogurt). The fermentation process eliminates most of the lactose, so there’s not much left to bother people.
In addition, the volume of lactose consumed has a significant effect on the gastrointestinal effects If people do not consume more lactose in a cup of milk per day, they generally do not have problems. It’s unlikely that a few dairy products each day will annoy or annoy people.
So, if all this dairy intake is not causing problems for people, will it have an effect on children’s digestion in the long term? Will their enzymes start to last longer?
“I think the real deciding factor is whether younger people may retain the ability to digest lactose,” Dubois says.
“The lack of lactose-free or low-lactose products not attracting the majority of consumers shows that the problem is not significant,” he notes.