The Lactose Insanity of Yoghurt


Russian biologist sells the dream of curdled milk to the intolerant

There was a time, before the first world war, when yoghurt didn’t exist. A time where the simple dream of drinking milk without being violently and physically sick, preoccupied the thoughts of many dairy intolerant people. A time when the world never once wondered if naturally fermenting milk could be turned into a promotional food for the healthy.

And so it came to pass.
Milk that had turned sour and rotten and no good for even the hungriest of pussy to lap up, was transformed into an all-that-is-holy for the lifestyle culture of the fit and healthy. Ilya Illyich Mechnikov was the man who had a dream. All he saw was the wasted pile of curd building up believing there had to be a use for it.

Ilya’s dream
Ilya developed a theory. He watched as the Bulgar nomads wandered the plains of central Asia carrying their milk in goatskin bags.
Dipping a finger into the tangy lactic acid soup that stank the bag out, he couldn’t help but ponder on the ‘what-ifs’. What if the natural bacteria fermented the milk and turned it’s lactose sugar into lactic acid? What if that acid caused the milk proteins to then bulk up into a curd? And what if you were able to eat that curd? What if that curd then increased the lifespan of the Bulgars? What if the high proportion of ‘friendly’ lactobacillus bacteria contributed to the Bulgars physical wellbeing?

If only he had a catchy name.

Enter the money-maker
Many years later, Isaac Carasso took Ilya’s dream and turned it into a mass-produced commercial success. Isaac opened the first yoghurt plant in Barcelona in 1919 and the world rejoiced in a healthier glow.

His initial interest in the yoghurt came about after he noticed that many young children suffered from digestive and intestinal problems. Inspired by the work of Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, who had popularized sour milk as a health food, and recalling that such health conditions were treated with yoghurt in the Balkans, Isaac began importing the yoghurt to sell through his pharmacy as medicine.

Sales took off. Children were getting healthy. Isaac saw a gap in the market. It is believed that the word “yogurt” comes from the Turkish word “yoğurmak,” which means to thicken, coagulate, or curdle. It’s as old as time and recorded in use from many cultures.

Modern creamy love
Nobody believed yoghurt would be a success. No one actually cared for the curdled offspring of milk.

The British added a flavor, strawberry, to make it more user-friendly to the kiddies. They even expanded the range to the delicately delightful ‘Fruits of the Forest’, ‘Peach Melba’ and the fresh-rush of ‘Ski Black Cherry’.

They were simpler times until the yuppies showed up. Prime Minister Thatcher then decided to deregulate the milk industry, stealing milk bottles from the tiny hands of children across the country. 1979 became a watershed for the yoghurt industry in the UK. One of the first state-owned institutions to be abolished and sold off to the private sector. Schoolchildren could no longer weep over spilt milk or dip their biscuits until the soggy factor ruined the crunch.

The yuppies, resplendent in their shoulder padded suits waving their filo-faxes, couldn’t get enough of the super-food. The 80s were a wild rollercoaster ride of taste sensations in the yoghurt market. The hedonistic crowd of uber-consumers dared to be different. They wanted fresh. They wanted unique. They wanted to swig down bucket loads of curdled milk laced in continental flavor combinations that would be the envy of all their other yuppie friends. Pioneering combinations such as ‘Apricot and Leather’, ‘Magnesium and Banana’, ‘Almond and Eggs Benedict’ and the ever popular ‘Spotted Dick and Aspirin’, would soon appear on the supermarket shelves.

Fermented milk products were everywhere. It was almost impossible to just buy plain or natural yoghurt. Yakult then showed up promising a ‘live’ yoghurt drink. Cultures that would wiggle and squirm down your throat in a desperate attempt to evolve past the food stage.

The yoghurt global market is now estimated at $163 billion. The demand for a ‘healthy’ treat for lactose-intolerant dairy products is huge. Marketed as a food that won’t make you fat, people can’t get enough.

Untainted by commercial success
Meanwhile, Ilya went on to win the noble prize in Physiology or Medicine 1908. Not for his enthusiasm of curdled bacteria or for his work proving that syphilis can be transmitted to monkeys. Neither proved popular with the judges.

He would die in 1916 as the result of several heart-attacks. By the time of his death, he had ironically become a figurehead for a healthier lifestyle. His study of the flora of the human intestine would be the basis of his theory that senility is due to poisoning of the body by the products of certain of bacteria. To prevent the multiplication of these organisms he proposed a diet containing milk fermented by bacilli which produced large amounts of lactic acid, and for a time, this diet became widely popular.

Isaac Carasso opened his yoghurt making plant three years after Ilya had died.

Thus Isaac became the first person to industrialize the process thanks to Ilya’s scientific cred.

And the world became a slightly healthier place.


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