Many people around the world are lactose intolerant because they lack the enzyme lactase, which is necessary to digest the sugar in milk and dairy products (lactose). This is especially true in populations that historically rarely consume dairy, such as countries in Asia (i.e., China, Japan, Korea). In Mexico, approximately 50% of the population is lactose intolerant…and a large percentage are not aware of it. As a result, many Mexicans, who are lactose intolerant, end up having digestive problems such as stomach and intestinal pain, diarrhea, bloating, nausea and excess gas. They end up taking over the counter and prescription medicines that sometimes alleviate the symptoms…without treating the cause.
So, I began wondering why is it that so many Mexicans, including my wife, are lactose intolerant? Why do so many lack the enzyme to properly digest dairy?
THE FIRST GLOBAL FOOD IMPERIALISTS INVADE MEXICO – The Spanish “Conquistadores”
While the study of the conquest of Mexico and Latin America has generally focused on the social, political, and economic changes forced upon Indigenous populations, the matter of food—the very source of survival—is rarely considered. Yet, food was a principal tool of colonization. Arguably, one cannot properly understand colonization without taking into account the issue of food and eating. When Columbus landed in the Americas, he found that, except for dogs, there were almost no tamed animals…no cattle, goats, horses or sheep. The natives did not raise animals for meat or dairy consumption. What small quantity of meat they did eat was from animals in the wild. Nor did indigenous populations consume milk or any dairy products. This was not only true for Mexico but for almost all native Indians throughout the Americas. Without animals like cows, sheep and goats, the Mexica (Aztec) diet was mainly vegetables, fruit and grains. At the top of the list was corn, an ancient and sacred crop that could grow almost anywhere. The early cultivation of corn, thousands of years ago, allowed all great Meso-American civilizations to flourish. However, since the invading Spanish soldiers were accustomed to meat and dairy, which they consumed back home, they considered the indigenous diet inferior and not very appetizing. So, on his second voyage to the “New World”, in 1493, Columbus brought the hoofed animals whose meat would immediately replace the foods that were unacceptable.
What ensued was extraordinary and would fundamentally change the lives of the indigenous people forever. Since the cows, pigs, goats and sheep were new to this world, they had no predators. These imported animals were allowed to roam and graze freely with no threats to their existence. As a result, they reproduced at an astonishing rate. Little by little, the arable land used by the natives was overtaken by the animals and less land was available for the growing of corn, grains, vegetables and fruits. Just as the Spanish settlers found the indigenous food unacceptable, the natives were unable to adapt to the Spanish diet of meat and dairy. Initially, many Indigenous people became malnourished, which consequently weakened their resistance to European diseases. Others literally starved to death as their agricultural plots were trampled, consumed by the animals or appropriated for Spanish crops. In time, many Indigenous people, left with limited options, began to consume European foods in place of the foods that had nourished them for centuries. Just as in Asian countries, where dairy was historically never a part of their diet, the Indians of Mesoamerica also lacked the lactase enzyme. However, as time went by, the Europeans, who were not lactose intolerant, mated with the natives and their offspring, the present day Mexican, has approximately a 50/50 chance of being lactose intolerant.
THE SECOND GLOBAL FOOD IMPERIALISTS ARRIVE IN MEXICO – NAFTA and the Standard American Diet
After doing extensive research in order to find out when and how diets changed for the worse in Mexico…changes that led to tremendous spikes in heart disease, cancer obesity and especially type 2 diabetes, we can return to the end of the 1970s, with the first established Fast Food company from the north…Burger King, in Mexico City. This was followed by McDonalds in 1985. According to an article in the New York Times: “More than a week after the first McDonald’s restaurant opened in Mexico, long lines spilled into the street as people patiently awaited the taste of their first Mexican-made Big Mac. Cars waiting to enter the packed McDonald’s parking lot or pass through the novel drive-through window caused mammoth traffic jams along the Periférico Sur, the most important thoroughfare in southern Mexico City.”
However, the “big blow” to Mexico´s nutrition, happened as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Trade opened up between the 3 countries (The United States, Canada and Mexico) and although some Mexican farmers profited from exporting certain fruits and vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, mangoes, limes, and avocados), because the production of corn was subsidized by the U.S. government, Mexican farmers couldn´t compete with the ridiculously low prices. Eventually more than 2,000,000 corn farmers would be displaced and forced to look for work in large cities and to our northern neighbor. At the same time, corporations in the U.S. that produced highly processed foods, such as…
• Dairy, from saturated fats
• Treats made from refined sugars, salt, oils and conservatives
• Processed meats
• Sugary drinks
• Fried foods
• Refined grains
were now salivating at the opportunity of selling their products to their Southern neighbor. Gradually, these products began to infiltrate the markets and replace the healthier grains, fruits and vegetables that had been the foundation of Mexican cuisine for centuries. This was especially true with regards to packaged junk foods aimed at children.
According to Alyshia Gálvez, a professor of Latin American, Latino, and Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York, in her book published this year (2018) by UC Press, EATING NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico, “Today, Mexico is the largest consumer of carbonated drinks in the world, and the largest consumer of processed foods in Latin America. As has been well-documented, this is one of many causes of a snowballing health crisis. In nearly every country experiencing this sort of economic transition, chronic illnesses including heart disease and diabetes have surpassed communicable diseases.” She goes on to say, “Basically, both countries (United States and Mexico) are experiencing public health crises, but Mexico’s is comparably worse because it exports so much of its produce to the U.S. market. Instead of the tianguis markets where local fruits and vegetables were historically inexpensive and plentiful, the food needs of Mexicans are increasingly met by chains like Walmart, Coca Cola-owned OXXO, and Circle K.”
Although these changes have happened over centuries, because of Food Imperialism, the people of Mexico are now suffering from the chronic diseases that were not so rampant just a few decades ago.
SO, WHAT´S THE FUTURE?
The United States, Canada and Mexico will soon be signing a trade agreement that will replace NAFTA and hopefully this time there will be more control over the corporations that are currently pushing junk foods into Mexico. A positive trade deal, combined with educating the public on whole food nutrition that is based on the foods our ancestors ate (grains, fruits and vegetables), could mean the beginning of a reversal of the incidence of chronic diseases that cause so much suffering as well as premature death. Historically, in trade agreements, it´s usually the technologically advanced nations that get the best of the deal. The challenge is to make sure that this doesn´t happen again and that the next trade agreement is a “win, win” situation for the people in each country.