At the start of the new year, I made my way into a Manhattan coffee shop, the kind of Greenwich Village establishment frequented by women in white shirts (sans any stains) wearing big earrings and red lips as they type away on laptops beneath manicured nails. Beside them are bros in active wear looking superhuman, couples who look normal and the parent of a new baby looking slightly worn out but happy to be there. I clutched a book, making good on my goal of reading more fiction this year and placed my order when – “Sorry, we don’t do whole milk”.

Apparently self-respecting New Yorkers don’t drink cow’s milk and my silence quickly prompted “Almond milk, okay then?”


Sure, sure. Almond milk is fine. What kind of dystopia are we living in where even organically sourced whole dairy milk has become inaccessible? This isn’t quite the brave new world I had in mind. Or is it?
Long before the health concerns and clean eating, the environmental and ethical apprehensions – a push for non-dairy alternatives was spearheaded by Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford) who in 1919 quipped, “The world would be better off without meat. It’s 75 percent ashes, anyway. Milk can be manufactured chemically. Every animal used on the farm these days is a waste of time”.


The truth is that Ford hated horses and hated cows. The former he rightly predicted would soon be replaced by automobiles and tractors, saying that the horse is a “twelve-hundred-pound ‘hay motor’ of one horse power”. In an interview with Wilbur Forrest of the New York Tribune in 1921, Ford said “It’s a simple matter to take the cereals that the cow eat and make them into a milk which is superior to the natural article and much cleaner. The cow is the crudest machine in the world. Our laboratories have already demonstrated that cow’s milk can be done away with and the concentration of the elements of milk can be manufactured into scientific food by machines far cleaner than cows and not subject to tuberculosis”.


The industrialist’s aversion to horses is somewhat understandable in light of his Model-T, but his attack on cows caught the attention of Dr. E. V. McCollum, a then leading authority on food values at Johns Hopkins who said “Henry Ford knows about as much about food as he knew about history when they had him on the witness stand.”

Henry Ford


By the mid 1930s, Ford built a soymilk ‘demonstration plant’ in Dearborn, Michigan that produced a few hundred gallons of soymilk a day, not to be sold commercially but as part of a research effort. In 1939, Ford boldly declared that mutton should be replaced by foods derived from the soybean. This may have gone unnoticed, had it not been for the effect of World War II and the creation of the War Food Administration (WFA) which was set up in 1942, the same year Ford created the George Washington Carver Laboratory and began serving soymilk to patients at the Ford Hospital in Detroit. Former researcher, Bob Rich also began using the plant to produce Delsoy Products which used soymilk in the manufacture of whipped toppings and frostings – products suddenly in high demand due to the ban on the sale of whipping cream and rationing of meats, dairy products, oils and fats.


By the time the US government lifted its restrictions on the sale of dairy products in 1946, another researcher at Ford’s lab, Rex Diamond, had already written a report on a ‘coffee creamer’, a soy creamer that would not curdle in coffee. But Bob Rich’s Rich Products caught the ire of the dairy industry who began a series of ultimately unsuccessful lawsuits seeking to have Rich’s Whip Topping banned. By the mid 1950s, Rich Products teamed up with Diamond to create a new range of whipped toppings, Rich’s Whip Topping – The Diamond Process.


Carnation, a company famous for its evaporated milk [and as the subject of a satirical, rhyme in 1900: Carnation Milk is the best in the land/ Here I sit with a can in my hand/ No tits to pull, no hay to pitch/ You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch] employed food scientists to come up with a successful alternative to Pream, the first commercial coffee creamer made from dehydrated cream, milk and sugar which hit supermarkets in 1952.


The team at Carnation wanted to fix the unpleasant taste of Pream as well as the clumps it made once put in coffee. They soon realized that the real milk and cream was the problem and that the product “tasted better when the butterfat was replaced with vegetable oil, and the clumping was virtually eliminated if most of the milk protein was dumped”. They called it Coffee-Mate and is still one of the most popular coffee creamers in the world, now owned by Nestlé who acquired Carnation for $3 billion in 1984.

But the biggest advance was made, once again, by Ford’s old researchers, Rich and Diamond who launched the world’s first liquid non-dairy coffee whitener called CoffeeRich, in 1961.


All these developments were taking place against the consolidated push for dairy through its inclusion as a separate food group on the dietary pyramid and the federal guidelines of including three servings of dairy per day. This was enforced thanks to the federal subsidies for serving milk in American schools. The sustained campaigns continued well into the twentieth century, most notably by the California Milk Processor Board, a marketing board funded by California dairy processors and administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture who began its Got Milk? campaign in the early 1990s. The iconic pre-internet campaign which targeted milk-drinkers to drink more milk, was famous far outside of the US thanks to its use of celebrities and print adverts in magazines exported across the globe.


It also cannot be denied that popularity and sustained belief in the sanctity of cow’s milk had some legitimacy given the alternatives. The once wildly popular coffee creamers, despite a bevy of enticing flavors came under fire for its high sugar content and trans-fat also known as fully or partially-hydrogenated oils which increase levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, decrease levels of good HDL cholesterol and increase inflammation.


In fact, soymilk itself has gradually fallen out of favor initially through the argument that unfermented soy is not a traditional food and that carrageenan (a highly processed seaweed that is added to most non-dairy milks) used in it causes digestive distress and pain. The synthetic vitamins and controversy around phytoestrogens (plant compounds that look like estrogen to our bodies) and reports by the US Department of Agriculture that 90% of all soy grown in the US is genetically modified to be resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide RoundUp, have only added to the sour taste soy has left in the mouths of those who were once its biggest advocates.


But then we all went nuts. Nut milk had existed on the fringes of North American society since at least the 1970s and remained a niche health food item until the mid 2000s when almond milk began to establish itself as an alternative. In 2011 alone, almond milk sales increased by 79% and has been rapidly increasing in popularity to overtake soymilk as the most popular plant-based milk. But almond milk is not new. Almonds are native to the Middle East, Africa and India and the oldest record of almond milk was found in recipe from a 13th century Baghdadi recipe book and was most commonly used as an ingredient for beverages and desserts prepared in Ramadan, such as the Persian harireh badam.


According to food historian, Ken Alba, almond milk eventually reached Southern Europe via Muslim Spain, and became a nutritious and convenient substitute for milk on days that early Christians were forbidden from consuming animal products as per the Didache, an early religious treatise that designated Wednesdays and Fridays as such. The medieval European nobility continued being enthralled by the exotic nature of almond milk and any recipe made with roses, almonds or almond milk was likely to be labeled as an Arab or exotic dish. The 14th century German beef stew, for example, was known as Bruet of Sarcynesse or “Saracen Stew” because of its use of spices, sugar and almond milk. Then as now, almond milk was accessible only to the wealthy and occasionally to those who were sick.


These days, we have a number of nut milks to choose from in addition to rice milk, oat milk and coconut milk. While much was made of New York City’s 92-year-old Elmhurst Dairy shutting down its plant in 2016 and going on to become a producer of nut milks under the name Elmhurst Milk, there has been little attention given to the link between milk-alternative producers and big dairy.


Late last year HP Hood, the company that produces Almond Breeze, recalled 145 000 half-gallons of Vanilla Almond Breeze for fears that it had been contaminated with real milk. HP Hood, has a revenue of $2.1 billion and is a national branded dairy operator and distributer of milk and other dairy products including Lactaid (producers of cow’s milk with lactose removed and the lactase enzyme added) and Stoneyfield Farm Organic Milk.


Silk, an American brand of dairy substitute products founded in 1978, was acquired by dairy giant Danone in 2016 as part of a $10.4 billion acquisition of WhiteWaveFoods. Danone now also owns Sequel Natural (trading as Vega), So Delicious nut milk and yogurt, International Delight coffee creamer as well as two European plant-based food and beverage producers, Alpro and Provamel.


But there is still plenty of beef between the $35.5 billion US cattle milk industry and the $1.6 billion plant-based milk industry, especially over the right to use the word “milk” prompting the Food and Drug Administration’s “standards of identity” which are legally binding definitions of products to ensure that consumers know what they are getting. Despite the FDA’s Scott Gottlieb declaration that, “An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess”, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in late 2018 dismissed a lawsuit, thus upholding an earlier decision that calling almond milk “milk” is not deceptive.


Yet, the FDA may still be forced to enforce the milk standard of identity through the cleverly named DAIRY PRIDE Act (Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act) introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) in 2017. The protectionist Act would federally outlaw the labeling of nondairy products as any kind of milk and doesn’t acknowledge that people are in fact buying plant-based “milks” precisely because they know it is not milk from a lactating animal.


With Mintel research claiming that plant based milks have grown 61% in the US over 5 years and dairy sales have plummeted by 15% in the same period, it seems that we may have to get used to non-dairy drinks. Euromoitor claims that non-dairy alternatives make up 12% of global milk sales and is on the increase. But what of sustainability of all this? No doubt, little can be as bad as cow farts and poop with all it’s methane gas, but it does not mean that plant based milks are all fab for the environment.


Almond milk is particularly questionable as California now produces 80% of the world’s almonds after being brought from Europe in the 19th century. California has been in a severe drought for most of the past decade and it is estimated that it takes 1 611 gallons (or 6 098 litres) of gallons to produce 1 litre of almond milk. It is has been described as “a situation in which farmers are ripping up relatively biodiverse citrus groves to feed rocketing demand for almonds, creating a monoculture fed by increasingly deep water wells that threaten statewide subsidence issues”.


It seems that ethical food choices are not as simple as we may think and instructive is the ease with which capitalism has accommodated consumer choices and those vegan-gelicals who insist on eradicating all farms. It appears that Henry Ford’s legacy in all this is not just confined to his 100-year-old dream of getting rid of cows and dairy for good as his ideas on mass production and mass consumption have found traction in the world of non-dairy alternatives.


The search for cowless milk has continued albeit for slightly different reasons and intentions. It is also true that perhaps my continued consumption of both cow’s and plant-based milk enables a somewhat bovine attitude, despite health specialists, scientists and moral philosophers making very strong cases for the eradication of dairy altogether. However, piecing together the origins of how we got here is interesting as it is important, for as Aldous Huxley warns us in Brave New World “You all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford’s: History is bunk.”