Behind the U.S. and India, China is now the third-largest producer of cow’s milk in the world by weight. In 2012, China produced 37 million tonnes of the stuff.
In the U.S., milk is mostly seen as an incredibly wholesome drink. It’s a good source of calcium and other nutrients that growing kids need, and it’s especially good for women who are prone to osteoporosis later in life. But all that changes if you’re lactose intolerant.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that over 90% of East Asians are lactose intolerant, while a study published in the journal Human Genetics estimates that 92.3% of Chinese people specifically are “lactose malabsorbers.”
Meanwhile, UC Davis’ Center of Excellence for Nutritional Genomics calculates a 98% incidence of hypolactasia (lactose intolerance) in Southeast Asians, with a 90% incidence in Asian Americans.
Food Safety News notes that the country’s diet is changing, and the Chinese are embrace more Western foods. Other reasons China wants more milk: rising middle-class incomes and milk’s enduring health halo. Guardian columnist Xinran, who wrote the book What The Chinese Don’t Eat, told the BBC:
Until China opened up, Chinese people had no idea about international standards. This is why people in the 1980s believed McDonald’s was the best Western food.
They believe that Westerners had a better life based on meat and milk. They think white people or black people [in the West] are physically stronger.
China made headlines last year for its uptick in milk consumption, particularly because milk imports have risen dramatically ever since China’s 2008 tainted milk scandal. Since that time, Quartz reports that Chinese importing of liquid dairy milk (as opposed to powdered) rose 78% in 2014 alone.
It’s worth noting that although China imports a lot of dairy milk from other countries, and although it simultaneously keeps raising its own milk production, it only exports a small amount of milk to Hong Kong. Other than that, no Chinese-produced milk actually leaves the country.
It’s not clear what amount of this milk consumption is of the lactose-free variety, or whether lactase supplements (like Lactaid) play a role in China’s ever-increasing thirst for milk.