Udder-ly astounding stories about milk

Not everyone drinks it and some of us have a major intolerance to it - but the white stuff is still a big part of everyday life.

Even if you just use milk to turn your tea or coffee a paler shade of beige, you’re still splashing some of the 14 billion litres produced annually in the UK into your mugs.

Here are a few more surprising facts about the old cow juice (or its equivalent from other species).

Did Al Capone stop milk going off across America?

It has never been established if this story is 100% hard fact, but it still bears telling . There's a rumour that the infamous American gangster campaigned for expiry dates to be clearly printed on milk bottles, allegedly due to one of his relatives becoming ill after drinking sour milk without realising it had turned.

Another theory linked to Capone’s involvement with expiry dates is far less altruistic. He controlled all of the equipment capable of printing the use-by date on each bottle and was set to make a decent, and honest, wage out of the entire enterprise if it came to pass.

The reason why Capone had the means to put this date on milk bottles? He already had a rather impressive outfit for bottling liquids set up during the Prohibition era (1920-1933), when alcohol was banned in the US, and his mafia outfit filled the gap in the market with its own boozey set-up. With Prohibition coming to an end, he needed something else to keep those bottling plants busy.

Al Capone could be the surprising reason why hardly anyone drinks sour milk these days.

If you liked it then you should have put a frog in it

There's an old myth that, in pre-refrigeration times, Russian people had their own way of keeping milk fresh: plonking a frog in it.

Want to preserve your milk? Stick a frog in it (or perhaps not).

Some have even claimed that this old story in rooted in science. The Russian brown frog secretes a surprising amount of chemicals through its outer layer, including peptides. If they sound familiar, that's because they’re regularly found in anti-ageing creams due to their ability to protect against harmful bacteria.

While these chemicals would be of interest to scientists, the notion of putting a frog in milk to keep it fresh has been given short shrift by today’s scientists. We don't even want to think about what the frog could, errr, drop in that milk.

The creature that sweats the dairy stuff

The vast majority of animals feed their young through milk that can be accessed via the teat, udder or nipple. An exception to this is the platypus.

This baby platypus will have an unusual way of getting milk from its mum.

A native of Australia, the platypus is what’s known as a monotreme, a mammal that lays eggs. Just like other mammals, it produces milk for its young - but has no nipples.

Therefore, when they produce milk, they collect it in their skin so that any of their baby platypuses in need of a drink can suck it up through the fur.

Don’t tell the cows - they’ll get the hump

Commercial milk production isn’t restricted to cows and goats. In Saudi Arabia in 1986, a new dairy was opened which was tailored to processing the milk from camels.

Camels are milked by hand as they don’t respond well to machine milking.

This is also known as a dromedary dairy (dromedary is another word for the Arabian camel). The camels had to be milked by hand, since using machines would not guarantee the right result, as camels will not lactate if they feel scared or frustrated.

It was worth the effort, though. Camel milk contains twice as much vitamin C as the cow equivalent, and it is said that anyone can live on drinking two litres of the stuff each day. In 1986, camel milk was a rather pricey £1.20 a litre (not far off £3 in 2019 prices). There are now camel dairies open in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia has also joined in.

Pigeons are doing it for themselves

Anyone who knows their science lessons from school will tell you that only mammals are capable of producing milk, but that’s not quite the case.

Pigeons produce a fluid for their young which is very like milk.

There are other species capable of producing some form of nutrients for their young which, while not officially ‘milk’, bears some similarities. These include certain cockroaches, the discus fish - and pigeons.

Both male and female pigeons (they are birds renowned for sharing the parental workload) produce a liquid called crop milk, which is found in the crop, a sac at the base of their necks. Around two days before pigeon eggs hatch, the crop fills with a fluid full of good stuff to pass on to the squabs, as baby pigeons are called. It’s what their young live on for the first few days of their life and it makes for a very healthy start. When chickens were fed with crop milk as an experiment, their growth rate shot up by almost 40%.

If you want to know more about milk playing its part in a balanced diet, check out our Bitesize guide here.

How do animals digest food?
How do plants get energy and food to grow?
A potted history of the toilet