Milk: How a Household Staple Became the Most Controversial Drink of the 21st Century

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Milk: How a Household Staple Became the Most Controversial Drink of the 21st Century

Milk: the drink that sustains us from birth, the very first thing that touches our infant lips. Not only the human race but mammals around the world would not be able to survive without it.

Why, then, in the 21st century, has milk become a political statement that divides generations? We’re no strangers to headlines fixating on the divide caused over choice of milk—boomers have been known to be firmly in the cow’s milk camp, with most millennials and Gen Zers known to shun anything that comes out of an udder in favor of plant-based alternatives. Perhaps the controversy around people’s choice of dairy beverage isn’t a new thing at all.

Milk originally made the headlines when formula alternatives to breast milk became available in the late 1800s. Whilst there are still plenty of discussions today as to whether “breast is best,” there was an era where women who chose to feed their baby from a bottle were seriously frowned upon and were seen to be damaging their little darlings irreparably. Scientific studies backed up the claim that milk from its original source is better for babies’ development, thus damning a generation of mothers who needed to find ways to feed their children when more women were entering the workplace than ever before. Attitudes have mostly progressed, as formula has turned out not only to produce babies that are—shock—absolutely fine, but has also been a vital way of providing nutrition to children in developing countries.

But milk is far more likely to appear in the news nowadays in relation to the ever more pressing issue of climate change, which has resulted in an increasing number of people turning toward vegetarian and vegan diets, trying to do their bit. The diet change inevitably includes making the switch from cow’s milk to non-dairy alternatives. Whilst omnivores of the recent past had few options available to them, the current non-dairy market is plentiful, and most consumers are familiar with seeing oat, soy, coconut, rice and the most hotly debated in environmental terms—almond—milk stacked on their supermarket shelves or listed on coffee shop blackboards.

Although evidence suggests non-dairy milks may be good for the global environment (as most non-dairy milks produce fewer carbon emissions than the process of making cow’s milk does) as well as for the animals themselves, the repercussions also include a decline in milk sales. Dairy farmers across the world have seen milk sales plummet, which causes a concern for the livelihoods that depend on its consumption. Intriguingly, however, dairy sales, including products like cheese, have not taken the same hit as milk and have actually seen an upshoot in consumption in some areas.

Could this kind of evidence suggest that plant-based milk alternatives are just a fad? As people still consume other animal-based dairy products, why would they turn their back specifically on cow’s milk?

Anecdotally, many of my fellow millennials have admitted they just prefer the taste of plant-based alternatives, and when they’ve tasted cow’s milk after making the switch, they have found the taste unpalatable. Cow’s milk tends to have a more savory, sour taste, whereas plant-based options are known for being sweeter.

Another indicator that suggests that plant-based milk alternatives aren’t going anywhere soon is that they are much more available than they were even a few years ago. Being from London, I’m spoilt for choice for en-vogue food options, but until recently, there were plenty of spots outside of the capital and other big cities where there was no guarantee you would be able to enjoy an oat flat white. That seems to be changing now. Many cafés no longer expect consumers to pay for non-dairy milk in their coffee, suggesting that consumer demand for plant-based options is outweighing or equal to the requests for dairy.

Although it seems like non-dairy drinks are increasingly popular, many recipes from a variety of different cultures rely on cow’s milk as a key ingredient, with plant-based options not quite able to replicate the real thing. Milk dishes can be found around the globe, with sustained popularity in countries like India, where desserts and sweet lassis (the best milkshake you’ve ever had!) often feature cow’s milk as the shining star.

One of Switzerland’s greatest culinary delights is fondue, a molten mixture of cheese, white wine and garlic. The consistency and richness of taste would be unachievable with vegan cheese, known for having a crumbly or stringy texture.

In Turkey and parts of the Middle East and Asia, the popular salted yogurt drink known as Ayran is full of healthy gut bacteria and is rumored to have been in existence since 1000 BC. Would a plant-based version of ayran be capable of replicating the classic?

Ultimately, the milk people choose to drink seems to be something we all love to talk about, but people’s reasons for consuming the milk they choose are complex. Whether we choose milk based on environmental, ethical, health or culinary concerns, having more options at our disposal only serves to make our cuisines richer.