Walk into any specialty coffee store or health food store and you’ll be accosted by a dizzying array of plant based ‘mylks’ (read on for an explanation of this spelling). And craft chocolate is increasingly in on the act too (a hat tip to the likes of Solkiki and Forever Cacao whose vegan background inspired this move many moons ago).
What’s extraordinary is why this is only happening NOW: Why has it taken so long for people to discover the delights of alternative, plant based mylks? The answer, is that these plant based mylks aren’t new, and there has been some super smart marketing.
And what is even more extraordinary is why, and how, we ever came to drink animal milk. Only a few adults living in Northern Europe, along with the Masai in Africa, and a few other people in Asia, can comfortably drink animal milk. Most human adults struggle to drink milk for want of the lactase enzyme. And even for adults with this enzyme, for most of recorded history, until pasteurisation was developed, drinking milk was a pretty risky proposition. Indeed, the Romans viewed the way “northern barbarians” drank animal milk as a sign of their depravity and lack of hygiene.
See below for a selection of alternative mylks and animal milks that make for some intriguing comparisons. But please do note that whereas the taste and texture of an oat mylk latte is pretty similar to a latte made with cow’s milk latte, ‘alternative mylk’ chocolate bars aren’t really substitutes for ‘classic milk’ bars. They are more like “inclusion”, bars with distinct flavours and textures.
How did we come to consume so much animal milk?
Quite how humans first stumbled across making yogurt, cheese, etc. isn’t recorded. But we do know that in about 5000BC enterprising farmers in modern day Croatia were making cheese out of goat’s milk. And it’s now thought that various tribes in Northern Europe were drinking milk even earlier (possibly as early as 8000BC). Indeed, it’s even suggested that being able to secure this extra source of nutrition is what enabled these tribes in the North to prosper and survive.
But drinking milk really only took off in the 20th century with the advent of pasteurisation and, ironically, war time rationing. During (and after) World War I and II, both the UK and US governments faced all sorts of other food shortages and realised that drinking milk provided a great source of calcium, protein and vitamins. So drinking milk was actively encouraged; indeed in 1946 both Attlee’s government in the UK and Truman’s in the US made milk available for free in schools (and this continued in the UK up until Mrs Thatcher’s premiership in 1971).
Why did alternative, plant-based milks (re)appear?
Plant based mylks aren’t a new invention. Drinking (and cooking with) coconut milk may well predate Northern Europe’s habits with animal milks. In 14th-century China, a soy milk called ‘doufujian’ was a popular breakfast drink where it was consumed alongside crisp, savoury doughnuts. And published references to almond and soy milk can be found as far back as 1226 and 1365 respectively (and they were clearly being drunk before this).
But it wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st centuries that ‘alternative mylks’ really took off again. In the UK various attempts were made by The Vegan Society to make plant based milks including cabbage (which REALLY didn’t boom) and soya milk (which did a little better) in the 1940s and 1950s.
What really seems to have fuelled the growth of alternative mylks was some smart marketing and genius (re)positioning. For example, in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, soya milk sales boomed after it was packaged in ‘Tetra Paks’ and sold in supermarkets’ refrigerated aisles to be next to cows milk. Although (most) soya milk doesn’t need refrigeration, placing it next to ‘normal’ milk meant that consumers saw it as an alternative for cereals, coffee, etc.
Even more cannily, over the last decade, marketeers have enlisted the support of specialty coffee stores to market a dizzying array of mylks; varying from tiger nut to cashew, pea to hemp, oat to soya. Appealing to customers via baristas is genius; it offers an upsell to valuable consumers, a new means for baristas to demonstrate their skills (it’s hard to steam, and then combine, many plant milks with coffee), highlights environmental concerns and creates ‘vibe’ and ‘buzz’. Indeed, the Swedish behemoth of oat based mylks; Oatly; initially only supplied specialty coffee stores in the US market, and created such demand that they accidentally spawned an underground market where loyal coffee store customers were occasionally allowed to purchase Oatly for home use.
Dairy farmers have not taken this onslaught lightly. They’ve formed various initiatives (including the wonderfully named 2017 bill called the Dairy Pride Act (Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday). And, after extensive lobbying, EU law now prevents dairy alternatives from using the word milk if “it isn’t produced by a lactating mammal“; hence the use of “mylks” and “m!lks” (hat tip to Original Beans).
But despite these efforts, plant based mylks (and “m!lks”) continue to grow. And the same now looks to be happening in chocolate.
Animal and plant-based milks with chocolate.
Chocolate bars owe “lactating animal” based milk chocolate a huge debt. Indeed, without innovations around milk chocolate, we might still be mainly drinking chocolate (up until the mid-nineteenth century, chocolate was always consumed as a drink; mainly with water, but sometimes with milk). But then in the mid nineteenth century a series of technical developments changed all this, culminating in milk chocolate (for more details see here).
Firstly, Bristol based Joseph Fry discovered that if he added cocoa butter while he was grinding roasted cocoa nibs he could create a stable solid chocolate bar. And so, in 1847, he launched what is now described as the world’s first chocolate bar for eating.
And then a a series of inventions by the Swiss during the last few decades of the 19th century turbocharged the transition from ‘drinking’ to ‘eating’ chocolate. Firstly, Rodolpe Lindt accidentally discovered ‘conching‘ and how to create smooth and silky textured bars. Next, and arguably of even great importance, was the creation of milk chocolate bars by Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle. Daniel Peter’s perseverance here was extraordinary. For over twenty years he strived to find a way to add milk to chocolate, despite the fact that chocolate violently, and rapidly, spoils if it comes into contact with any liquid as it’s being ground and conched. The answer was to use Nestle’s dried milk powder and thereby create one of the world’s first ‘bliss point‘ foods that we now know to be irresistible.
One other side note: this propensity of milk to curdle partially explains the difference between American and European preferences in milk chocolate bars. While working out how to create powdered milk, Henri Nestle also worked out how to prevent this dried milk from undergoing lipolysis (i.e., curdling). But when Hershey copied Nestle and Daniel Peter’s milk chocolate, he apparently missed this trick and so his bars acquired a somewhat different aroma. Americans, however, fell in love with these milk chocolates and their ‘tanginess’ (technically this is called ‘butyric’). And even though today American milk doesn’t have any problem with lipolysis, because American consumers enjoy a tanginess in their milk chocolate, butyric acid is added. Consequently, over here in Europe, many of us find the smell a little suspect (Google for more graphic descriptions; and do come to a virtual tasting to find out more).
Unsurprisingly, given their environmental passion, craft chocolate makers are increasingly interested in experimenting with plant based mylks. And they too have run into some interesting labelling laws. For example, Original Beans‘ new ‘Vegan M!lk‘ (note the spelling) made with almonds contains a far higher percentage of chocolate than its milk alternative (Esmereldas Milk) which is made with the same beans. This is because to call this M!lk chocolate “chocolate” it needs to have, under EU rules, at least 14% of “dry non-fat cocoa solids” which in turn means that you need 45% cocoa or more in a bar to be “chocolate”.
Comparing plant based mylk (or m!lk) and animal based bars.
One heads up: Whereas an oat cappuccino isn’t a million miles away from a cappuccino made with full fat milk in terms of texture and taste, an oat, almond, rice or coconut milk chocolate bar is VERY different from a classic or dark milk bar (a dark milk craft chocolate is over 50% cocoa, most classic milk craft chocolates are 38-48%… mass produced bars can be as low as 20% chocolate).
A craft chocolate mylk or m!lk bar is better approached as an inclusion bar. The ‘mylk’ creates distinctive flavours and aromas that are intriguing to savour. Don’t judge them as failing to replicate classic milks; that’s not what they are about.
Health and environmental considerations.
Although the dairy industry has made various attempts to improve its environmental credentials, it’s facing an uphill battle. To summarise from a recent BBC report:
CARBON EMISSIONS (Per Litre Produced)
WATER REQUIRED (Per Litre Produced)
LAND REQUIRED (Per Litre Produced)
Note: It can be claimed that some of these comparisons may not be comparing “apples with apples” in that whereas a pint of milk is a pint of milk, a pint of almond mylk can be as low as 2% almonds (the rest being various additives, emulsifiers and of course water, which is also in cow milk).
And it only gets more complex when you look at the health claims. At the risk of promoting a tonne of furious email responses, I’d like to suggest that some of the health claims for alternative milks may be even more “out there” than some of those made over the years for chocolate. Indeed you can find can find studies arguing that (tick any of the below):
Chocolate / Cashew Milk / Raw Cocoa Nibs / Oat Milk / Tiger Nut Milk / Soya Milk etc.
…can help you with (again tick as you want):
Cleaning your teeth / Improving your mental health / Matching your blood type / Fortifying your bones / etc.
Unwrapping these claims and making sense of them is hard, time consuming, and controversial. It may well be that matching your blood types to different milks may help you feel better (yes, this really is claimed by some mylk marketeers). But it’s hard to get the science sorted and feel comfortable about these assertions.
As ever, the best advice is to check the ingredients. Different soya or almond or oat milks will have radically different ingredients, additives and even use different processes. Repeated studies show that organic milk has less pesticides, antibiotics and added hormones than many supermarket milks. So, as with craft chocolate, read the small print.
And from a health perspective; don’t panic. Take comfort in the expert advice of the great nutritionist Marion Nestle (no relation of Henri):
[while] milk is not essential for health… milk is a food like any other, meaning that its effects depend on everything else people are eating or doing. People who like milk can continue drinking it. Those who don’t like it don’t have to.
And it’s the same with chocolate. We are now (fortunately) increasingly spoilt for choice. Enjoy these milk, mylk and m!lk bars!
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