The Milk of Life

No matter what your diet’s like today, we all likely started life eating the same thing: breast milk, formula milk, or a bit of both. But both of these products aren’t always easy to come by. Breastfeeding can be difficult or impossible for some parents, and formula milk isn’t always safe, affordable, or even available — as we’re seeing in the US, where formula milk is currently 70 percent out-of-stock. This episode, we tell the story of how we got here, and we explore what we should we do to make feeding babies easier in the future. Along the way, we find out what makes human milk—or "white blood," as it perhaps should be known—so unique, as well as why Parisian attitudes to feeding infants in the 1800s made it known as a city with no children. We've also got the story of when formula was first invented, the dirty tricks used to market it, and the competing pressures and changing advice that have swung the pendulum from "breast is best" to formula and back again. Listen in for the story behind the news: the tale of our first and most essential food.

An advertisement for "Humanised Trufood," a formula marketed in the early 1900s. (Image courtesy of University College Dublin digital library.) 

Episode Notes

Carla Cevasco

Carla Cevasco is a historian studying food, gender, culture, and race at Rutgers University. Her first book, Violent Appetites, covered the history of hunger in colonial America, and she's working on an upcoming book about feeding infants and children in early America.

Cecilia Tomori

Cecilia Tomori is the director of Global Public Health and Community Health at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing , as well as an anthropologist and public health scholar with expertise in breastfeeding, infant sleep, and maternal child health. Her books include Nighttime Breastfeeding: An American Cultural DilemmaBreastfeeding: New Anthropological Approaches, and the Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and Reproduction.

Lawrence Weaver

Lawrence Weaver is a pediatrician and the author of White Blood: A History of Human Milk. He is an emeritus professor of child health and honorary senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow School of Medicine.

A formula advertisement that went viral during the formula shortage in the US. Doctors today don't recommend such homemade formulas as safe for growing babies.

Amy Bentley

Amy Bentley is a professor in the department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, and author of Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet. You can also hear her talking about what babies eat after human milk in our earlier episode, First Foods: Learning to Eat.

Veronica Mak

Veronica Mak is a professor at Hong Kong Shue Yan University whose research encompasses medical anthropology, food, family and culture. She is the author of Milk Craze: Body, Science, and Hope in China.


Click here for a transcript of the show. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

Special Supporters' Newsletter

Thanks to our friends at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, for this episode, we’re able to share an issue of our special supporters’ newsletter, crammed full of extras, with you all! The coverage of the formula shortage might make it sound like there are only two options for feeding babies: breastfeeding or mixing up formula. Historically, of course, there was a third option: a wet nurse. Today, there’s a new spin on that old solution: milk banks, or organized centers that collect human milk from donors. In this special newsletter, read on for the story of the modern history and science of sharing milk, plus the strange underground market for breast milk among not just pumping moms—but people who pump iron, too! (And, if you like what you read, get on the list for future newsletters by supporting Gastropod. We rely on listener generosity to make Gastropod—thank you!)