“What’s in a Name?” – (Re)Defining ‘Milk’

by Anastassia Biedersteadt

During the last years, there have been continuing debates surrounding the labeling of plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk as ‘milk.’ Perhaps, the relationships between dairy products and their plant-based alternatives disclose more than concerns about misguided customers. 

Being something all mammals consume as their first food and, thus, deeply embedded in a variety of human cultures, milk provides a multifaceted domain of research. In addition to its material properties and culinary uses, milk can beviewed as a product of human discourse, culturally constructed and shaped by its economic, historical and geopolitical contexts.

The representations of (usually cow’s) milk, especially in popular culture, portray it as a healthy beverage for everyone – from children to masculine heroes. These representations participate in the creation of the linguistic sign ‘milk.’ According to Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of linguistic signs, a linguistic sign consists of a “sensory signifier and the intelligible signified” (qtd. in Preminger et al. 1993, 1139). Hence, the material object – a glass of milk – belongs to the signified being denoted by the sensory signifier ‘milk.’

Milk has its own great stories by Anonymous, May 28, 2016.

If signs are used to assign and convey meaning, their interaction goes deeper than mere description of what some might call “the world out there,” for the meaning is tied to networks of mental concepts rather than purely material things. These networks, however, are seldom neutral, since they are intimately connected to the cultural context of language that acts as “a medium, which sustains a hierarchical structure of power and in which the concepts of ‘truth’, ‘order’, and ‘reality’ become established” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 2002, 7).
To exemplify this, the following two images shall be considered:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is milk-2474993_960_720-500x333.jpg
A glass of milk by Ilona Couleur, July 4, 2017

A cow with a calf by David Monniaux, 2005

Even if both images are contextual representations of milk, it is likely that the first image that comes to mind is one of a nourishing liquid in its human rather than in its bovine context. Its bovine origin is obscured under the mammalian denominator ‘milk,’ leading to its transformation into a nature-culture hybrid. This transformation depends not just on an availability of lactating cows; rather, today’s fluid milk undergoes a series of culturalizing technological processes that customize it into a packaged, fortified liquid with a fixed fat content safe for human consumption (e.g., by pasteurization). This process of ‘translation’ is not unilateral: it “result[s] in a new kind of association between human agent and technological artefact such that neither is mere passive instrument of theother, but together they build a hybrid entity” (Belliger and Krieger 2014, 36). Cows and humans are thus co-influencing each other as humans form culinary traditions around bovine milk, being dependent on cows for a steady supply ofthis liquid constructed as ‘basic food,’ whereas cows are domesticated into full dependence on humans – from access to food to reproduction via artificial insemination.

In the USA, cow’s milk is institutionalized as a regular part of the typical American diet. It is “featured in food-based dietary guidelines such as MyPlate, where dairy constitutes a unique ‘foodgroup,’” and it is “privileged in U.S. government feeding programs such as public school breakfast and lunch programs” where “milk purchases are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture” (Wiley 2016, 2-3). If this is the result of a long-standing, complex relationship between two species and technology, if cow’s milk succeeds in becoming synonymous with ‘milk,’ then it is interesting to consider this as a result of institutionalization. Rehberg characterizes the symbolic achievement of the institutional (Symbolisierungsleistung des Institutionellen) as expressed in a dominant idea (Leitidee) which is defined as a designation of a thing in question that is perceived as valid or proper; he emphasizes that usually, it is a plurality of contested ideas (Rehberg 2014, 86). For Rehberg, what constitutes a Leitidee is its (temporary) distinction from a complex of competing and often times incompatible options of orientation (ibid.). Just the ability to think of cow’s milk as regular, somehow normal milk for daily consumption by humans of all ages hints at a complex process of institutionalization. Its hegemony as proper milk is further evident in the curious assessment of newly discovered liquids of non-mammalian species that can be functionally defined as ‘milk’ for the species in question. For instance, the milk-like liquid of Toxeus magnus, a jumping spider, contains “about four times as much protein as cow’s milk” (Ye 2018, n. p.) which serves as a norm against which new and unfamiliar milks are measured.

Examining milk as a (cultural) function does not necessarily require looking at only milk varieties derived from animals; many non-dairy types of milk are rooted in several human cultures. According to Aoyagi and Shurtleff, the first documented mention of non-dairy milk (almond) appears in Kitab al-tabik (A Baghdad Cookery Book) in 1226; the first English reference to almond milk occurs in1390 in The Forme of Cury, where it is used during Lent; the first mention of soy milk in English can be attributed to Domingo Fernandez Navarrete in his book A Collection of Voyages and Travels (1704) (Aoyagi and Shurtleff 2013, 5). Especially the consumption of almond milk as a substitute for animal milk during Lent due to religious reasons shows the ambiguous relationship between humans and non-humans, where appropriateness depends on cultural context. Animal milks and their plant-based counterparts can be considered a version of Rehberg’s aggregate of competing and often times incompatible options. It is their temporality that, depending on context (for example, affluence, want, piety, mindfulness, digestive abilities) allows them to become the ‘better’ or ‘proper’ type of milk, even if some of them are framed as somehow more ‘natural’ than others.

Here, the idea of ‘functional equivalence’ as outlined by Belliger and Krieger comes into play: “What matters for a system is how something functions and that the functions of an element arise from the internal relations among the elements,” or simply: any element of a system can be replaced by something else (Belliger and Krieger 2014, 73). In order to be able to function as milk in any social situation, the liquid is merely required to fulfill certain characteristics of ‘milk;’ its substance or origin seems to be of a minor importance – at least from the perspective of those who consume and produce it as ‘milk.’ If the liquid appears in a container typical for ‘milk,’ if it is used in eating and drinking situations that require ‘milk’ as an ingredient, then it becomes ‘milk’ in terms of its cultural function. Its cultural identity arises from its relations to other members of the network that constructs milk– be they dairy companies, consumers or legal frameworks. And here, things tend to get as complicated as they are fascinating to observe, because not all milks are created equal, and not every participant agrees on what shall be named what at a given point in time or in a given society. In contrast to the United States, where soy milk, almond milk and any other sort of plant-based milk are currently allowed to carry the word ‘milk’ as part of its name, the European Union requires whatever liquid labeled as ‘milk’ to be of animal origin, a few exceptions to this rule not withstanding (beck-aktuell 2017).

The versatility of soy beans has been explored in an article in Fortune as early as 1930: they can be used as glue, milk, cheese, sauce, varnish, axle grease, fertilizer, soap, soup,buttons, artificial leather, or enamel, and soy bean milk has been praised for having “more proteins than cow milk and little danger of contamination” even though its “chemical ingredients make it a food, more interesting, perhaps, than palatable […] it has generally to be drunk sweetened with sugar” (Aoyagi and Shurtleff 2013, 318). Just eight years later, a USDA Leaflet remarked: “Soybean ‘milk,’ though not the equal of cow’s milk in food value, may be used like it as a beverage or in cooking. It is of value in diets for persons allergic to cow’s milk” (Aoyagi and Shurtleff 2013, 445). However, opinions concerning soy milk compared to cow’s milk diverged even back then. The Eagle editor William Allen concluded that “Soy bean milk is fine” after visiting Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace:

When we had disposed of our milk, the Secretary grinned and asked us, ‘Did you like it?’ We said ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I thought you would. I drink it every day. It isn’t milk at all. It’s a milk substitute made of soy beans and is much richer for my purposes in nourishing qualities than milk itself

(Aoyagi and Shurtleff 2013, 445)

In that article, this episode is used to convince grocers to sell soy milk as soy rather than as cheap canned milk which would imply cow’s milk:

Of course this advertising is false advertising and the dealers are subject to arrest… How much better it would be if they would frankly advertise their product as soy bean milk. Those who consume this fake milk because it is cheap are fooled but they are not swindled. They are getting a good pure product. They know now that it is better milk than the real milk. They will buy it advertised for what it is


The lesson of the article was: “Soy milk branded as soy milk will have its place in the commercial world. But branded as a cow-milk product it will have tribulation” (ibid.). These are interesting early examples of the reception of a plant-based alternative and its perception of a more or less viable functional equivalent to cow’s milk for those who, for whatever reason, might prefer or need it. 

The continuing trouble with dairy surpluses caused a shift in tone in the following decades. In the Journal of Milk and Food Technology from June 1968, Frank V. Kosikowski warned in an article titled The problems of milk and imitation milk of “imitation milk” that he defined as “a beverage made to resemble milk but containing no dairy product,” describing it as “destined to be the dairy farmer’s greatest future adversary” (Aoyagi and Shurtleff 2013, 769). It is almost ironic that, although overproduction is noted as a cause of despair and hardships among dairy farmers, milk substitutes are framed as “imitation” (which carries negative connotations) and potential danger long before plant-based alternatives became widely used. Only now, plant-based alternatives constitute 10 percent of the milk market with sales of almond milk alone having risen by 250 percent between 2011 and 2016, while consumption of dairy milk continued to fall (37 percent since the 1970s) (Gustin 2018). 

The presence of substitutes and milk varieties already undermines the claim of one particular milk being universally valid and desirable as part of the daily diet, as implied by the concept of basic food. The National Milk Producers Federation’s framingof plant-based alternatives as “exploiting the ‘nutritional halo’ of dairymilk” reveals the status struggle that continues. Indeed, those producers are running “a campaign supporting legislation that requires regulators to enforce a standard that would prevent non-dairy milks from being called milk at all” (Gustin 2018). However, plant-based alternatives do not uniformly trigger opposition from dairy companies. Some companies, seeing the rise in consumption of these alternatives and thus potential profits, choose the path of adaptation, trying to leave the trap of overproduction: Elmhurst, one of the biggest dairy companies in NYC, decided to switch to nut milks in 2016, developing “its own process of making the nut milks, which it calls ‘milking’” (Garfield 2017).

Given this recent development, Wiley’s conclusion that drinking cow’s milk is “more of a historical interlude than an accurate representation of the ‘normal’ American diet, spurred on by the novelty of easily available and safe milk” seems plausible (2016, 68). However, it remains to be seen how ‘milk’ and its many contested ideas will be transformed and in turn will transform the participants of their networks. Moldaschl and Diefenbach state that actors use existing options to either sustain or change the existing system, making any institution a perpetual work in progress; an institution can always become something else even if not randomly (2003, 149). Will dairy producers succeed in protecting cow’s milk from its plant-based rivals? Will more dairy producers switch to plants as resources for a more profitable product?  One thing is certain: with questions like these, milk remains an interesting topic.

About the Author:

A participant in both the Ph.D. in American Studies Program of the HCA and the research group Human Geography of North America, Anastassia Biederstaedt is writing an interdisciplinary dissertation with the working title “Animal Milk in Human Culture: A Critical Study of U.S. Milk Advertisements in the 20th Century,” drawing from a broad variety of theoretical discourses for her project.
Anastassia Biederstaedt received her bachelor’s degree in English philology and art history from the University of Stuttgart and her M.A. in English philology with distinction at the same university. Anastassia is highly interested in posthumanism and theoretical questions which arise at the interfaces of human & animal and human & machine.

Get in touch: Ruehl@stud.uni-heidelberg.de


Aoyagi, Akiko and William Shurtleff. 2013. History of Soymilk and Other Non-Dairy Milks (1226-2013): Including Infant Formulas, Calf Milk Replacers, Soy Creamers, Soy Shakes, Soy Smoothies, Almond Milk, Coconut Milk, Peanut Milk, Rice Milk, Sesame Milk, etc. Lafayette: Soyinfo Center.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. 2002.The Empire Writes Back. 2nded. New York: Routledge.

beck-aktuell. 2017. “EuGH: Rein pflanzliche Produkte dürfen nicht “Tofubutter” oder “Pflanzenkäse” heißen.” beck-aktuell, July 16, 2017. <https://rsw.beck.de/aktuell/meldung/eugh-rein-pflanzliche-produkte-duerfen-nicht-tofubutter-oder-pflanzenkaese-heissen>

Belliger, Andréa and David J. Krieger. 2014. Interpreting Networks – Hermeneutics, Actor-Network Theory & New Media. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

Garfield, Leanna. 2017. “A major dairy producer collapsed — now it’s making nut milks and business is booming.” BusinessInsider. April 22, 2017. <https://www.businessinsider.de/dairy-farm-nut-milks-elmhurst-2017-4?fbclid=IwAR2nV4oQSI2ZS6729mRHY__tC5FihfinvtW4MhYjmlFifzYZ2LZTWbeez3w&r=US&IR=T>

Gustin, Georgina. 2018. “Cows vs. Nuts: Who Gets to Be Called Milk, and Are They Climate Friendly?” Inside Climate News. January 24, 2018. <https://insideclimatenews.org/news/24012018/almond-soy-milk-non-dairy-climate-change-impact?fbclid=IwAR2V0AhSOqlcAJhsmGxZ5IuHO3PsCGTV7C6krvqv0LQ3flHgYrCHUbhtK0E>

Moldaschl, Manfred and Thomas Diefenbach. 2003. “Regeln und Ressourcen – Zum Verhältnis von Institutionen- und Ressourcentheorien.” Ökonomischer und soziologischer Institutionalismus – Interdisziplinäre Beiträge und Perspektiven der Institutionentheorie und -analyse. Eds. Michael Schmid and Andrea Maurer. 139-62. Marburg: Metropolis Verlag.

Preminger, Alex et al. Eds. 1993. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Rehberg, Karl-Siegbert. 2014. Symbolische Ordnungen – Beiträge zu einer soziologischen Theorie der Institutionen. Eds. Hans Vorländer and Dietrich Herrmann. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.

Wiley, Andrea S. 2016. Re-Imagining Milk – Cultural and Biological Perspectives. 2nd ed. Routledge.

Ye, Yvaine. 2018. “Some spiders produce milk – and it’s more nutritious than cow’s milk.” New Scientist, November 29, 2018. <https://www.newscientist.com/article/2186972-some-spiders-produce-milk-and-its-more-nutritious-than-cows-milk/>


Milk has its own great stories” by Anonymous, May 28, 2016.
Source: 9GAG 

A glass of milk” by Ilona Couleur, July 4, 2017. Source: Pixabay

A cow with a calf” by David Monniaux, 2005. Source: Wikimedia Commons

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search