Milking history: five millennia of plant-based milks
22 August 2023
Contrary to popular belief, plant-based milk is neither a recent innovation nor a fad, and its origins precede industrially produced cow’s milk by thousands of years. While it’s true that plant-based milk alternatives have gained widespread recognition over the last few decades, their history stretches back millennia, painting a fascinating narrative that spans continents and cultures.
- Coconut Milk: More than 5,000 years ago, ancient cultures in Madagascar, Southeast Asia, and the Oceanic islands pioneered the production of coconut milk, which had blossomed into a culinary cornerstone across Southeast Asia and India by 1 BC.
- Soya Milk: The earliest mentions of soya milk date back to the first century, where it appeared on Chinese stone slabs. It became a popular drink in the form of a tofu broth, called doufujiang. In 1910, soya milk hit the emerging global markets, when the first soya-milk factory was opened in Paris, by Li Yu-Ying, a Chinese biologist and engineer.
- Almond Milk: Almond milk’s history can be traced back to the Middle East in the thirteenth century, where it became popular as a creamy and nutritious alternative to cow’s milk during fasting periods.
- Rice Milk: Rice milk first originated in China, around 1000 BC, and was traditionally made by boiling rice and water and then straining the mixture. Over the centuries, commercial production techniques were developed, eventually leading to the widespread availability of packaged rice milk around the world.
- Oat Milk: A relatively recent member of the plant-milk family, oak milk first emerged in Sweden in the 1990s, when Rickard Öste, a food scientist, was looking to create an alternative to cow’s milk for people who are lactose intolerant. Harnessing the abundance of oats, he used enzymes and oils to create a milk-like drink, eventually leading to the formation of Oatly, which is now one of the world’s largest plant-milk manufacturers.
From the ancient elixir of coconut milk to the recent innovation of making milk from oats, the story of plant-based milk continues to evolve across cultures and time. No doubt, we’ll see even more kinds of plant-based milk in the coming years as the global food system continues to transform.
Whether choosing plant milk for nutritional value, animal-welfare reasons, lower environmental impact, or to avoid lactose or allergens, there are many great options. ProVeg presents the 10 best plant milks.