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Rebranding Milk

Modern milk is a 20th century invention and most ethnicities are lactose intolerant.

Apr 10, 2024 15 mins

Rebranding Milk

Let’s begin somewhere in the middle. In 1983, a US law was passed which forced dairies to pay a slight tax for every pound sold to a fund for generic milk advertising. Subsequently in the 1980s, the tagline for drinking milk was “it does a body good." It didn't really convince many people to drink milk. (There was another campaign during the same period called "Just Say No", with similar results.)

By 1993, it was rebranded. This wasn't the first rebranding of milk, it was the third. Milk went through a complete makeover some 60 years earlier, which no one really talks about. And another one about 60 years before then.

Got Cookies?

In 1993 the National Dairy Board took this advertising money and began running a campaign called “Got Milk?” in which they photographed celebrities with milk mustaches. This campaign ran for more than 20 years in both print and television media. 

To give you an idea of the extent of the star power and the breadth of celebrities, 180 of whom were shot by Annie Leibovitz, they got A-listers Cookie Monster, Kermit the Frog, Lisa and Bart Simpson, Garfield the Cat, and some D-list celebrities like Harrison Ford, Britney Spears, Kate Moss, Pete Sampras, Kristi Yamaguchi, Patrick Ewing, Bill Clinton, Whoopi Goldberg, Pete Sampras, Rachel and Phoebe from "Friends", Angelina Jolie, Tom Brady, Martha Stewart, Austin Powers, Gisele Bündchen, Joan Rivers, Tyra Banks, Alex Trebek, Pete Sampras, Isabella Rossellini… and the list goes on.

Most donated their $25,000 appearance fee to charity. (I'm assuming that Cookie Monster bought cookies with it.)

The campaign began with a now-iconic television commercial directed by Michael Bay (right out of school), which educated the public about Aaron Burr, who later became the antagonist in a musical about Alexander Hamilton.

It was described as education and marketing. It pushed the myth of needing 3 glasses of milk a day. That is all fine. I’m a fan of educational public programming. Like PBS.

Got sales?

Milk campaigns were more than just a public service announcement. There were papers written about optimal ways to maximize sales and revenue because they would see a rapid uptick in sales when they would start a campaign, but the downtick when they would stop would not be as drastic. In order to maximize campaign efficacy, meaning revenues for dairies, they would shift advertising to the times when it would be most profitable for them, like during the summer.

To be clear: Ensuring that people would remember to drink 3 glasses of milk a day was not the campaign objective.

“Got Milk?” was hailed by some as “one of the greatest ad campaigns of all time”. But was it ultimately successful?

Old Milk

In the 1860s, milk was described as the perfect liquid. It's so natural, they said, animals around the world were raised on milk. That is when the myth began. They pushed the narrative, and got nursing mothers to switch to cow’s milk.

Around the same time, breweries in NYC would start using their used grains to feed the milk cows. The cows would produce noxious swill milk, which the enterprising brewers would then doctor the liquid with Plaster of Paris and a bunch of harmful unnatural additives to make it white and sell it as milk for children.

The infant mortality rate skyrocketed. The mortality rate didn't abate to pre-milk numbers, even after the breweries were finally shut down. (Which was a story within itself.) The entire urban process of selling milk was inherently dirty and disease-ridden. It only changed significantly once pasteurization became a widespread practice.

They shifted the milk production to out of NYC and moved it upstate, with trains delivering the milk every other day. It increased the logistics difficulties exponentially. The problem was that small dairies weren’t able to compete, and they began consolidating.

New Milk

Dairies began using homogenization. It was created to ensure that people would receive a cohesive liquid, not one which would separate in the clear glass bottle. There was actually no benefit, besides for allowing a consistent product which stayed longer on the shelf, with questionably increased digestibility.

Previously, as the phrase goes, the cream would rise to the top. Then the milk would arrive split (and need to be mixed by the consumer). For the first time, you didn’t really know how fatty your milk was. Milk became a single homogenous color, unlike any they had seen before.

More over, the process evolved into a completely work of science non-fiction. Since the late 1930s, in the US, they would separate all the milk fat, and then replace the specific percentage that you wanted (with whole milk being a standard 3.25%, 2%, 1% or totally skimmed). The adjusted milk and milk fat liquid did not necessarily come from the same cow or batch. Note that the original fat content of the cow milk may have been as high as 3.8%, but standardization caused that not to matter anymore.

They then fortified the milk with Vitamin D.

Milk’s color and fat content was cohesive and standard for everyone. It was a solid color and consistency, which hadn’t previously exist. In other words, the milk industry reinvented milk with science.

The perception of milk over the previous decades had changed as well. Originally milk was associated with nostalgic imagery of farms and milk maidens. Now, baseball players and boxers were the spokespeople for milk, because milk made them strong.

Golden Butter

This isn’t the first time the dairy industry monkeyed with one of their products. The color of butter historically changed through the year. During the summer it was more golden, and during the winter it was white. People preferred it golden, so, in the 19th century,  they began to dye it with annatto and carotene to ensure the perfect consistent color year round. Everyone knew about golden “June Butter” and now it was available all year. You couldn't tell anymore if you had authentic June Butter or winter butter dyed golden. Soon, no one could remember the difference.

Should this have been illegal? Maybe. But unless people were dying, no one was going to do anything.

The “Other” Yellow Spread

In 1902, there was a US law called the Oleo Act which was passed and raised the tax on colored margarine, and reduced the tax on uncolored margarine. Businesses, like hotels, restaurants, schools, and the like, were not allowed to buy uncolored margarine and dye it. Private homes without boarders were allowed.

Something which was not initially apparent to me during my initial research was that this wasn’t like our margarine. Our modern day margarines are created using vegetable oil products. The original margarines were not.


Oleomargarine was first created for Napoleon III to be a butter replacement, during the French-German war of 1870. It’s invented was a chemist named M. Mege-Mourier, who created it using ox tallow. It was called “Margarine-Mourier” because of the margaric acid, which is the saturated fatty acid found in natural oils and animal fats. 

Margaric acid was discovered by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, during his work on using animal fats to make soaps and candles. Some people call him the founder of modern organic chemistry.

But for us colorphiles, he is a lot more interesting and important than that. Chevreul wrote some of the first modern academic texts on color theory, including “The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors” and “On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors”.

The Paris Health Counsel allowed this new fat to be sold in 1872, provided it would not be called “butter”.

The success of his original formula made it difficult to acquire enough ox tallow to satisfy supply. So Mourier reinvented the process using vegetable oils and other animal fats. It spread across Europe and became a very cheap, albeit highly adulterated, food.

It was generally comprised of clarified animal fats, including Oleo oil from beef fat, neutral lard from pork fat, and a bit of dairy like cream, milk, or even butter. Cheaper versions would use cottonseed oil.  And they’d also color it.

In the US, the recipe of each particular oleomargarine became a trade secret, with the ability to include whatever you wanted. The lower grades of margarine took the place of cooking butter, and table butter was substituted by the higher grades which included some actual butter. The US became a major exporter of Oleo oil, which was a component of oleomargarine.

Oleo Addiction

Between 1888 and 1902, some 400m lbs of Oleomargarine were produced by US companies. This frustrated the dairy industry for two reasons. The first was that it was a cheaper substitute to butter. The second was that it was even often artificially colored in the same hue that butter was artificially colored.

To skirt the increased taxes of the 1902 act, some brands actually sold the golden dye alongside the uncolored product, and people would mix it themselves at home. Within a decade, the annual sales returned to the pre-act numbers.

The manufacturers began using a mix of animal fats and butter which naturally had a yellow color. States began to ban the sale of yellow margarine, whether or not the coloring was artificial or natural. One state even required margarine to be colored pink. Other states required hotels and restaurants to have signs with the words “Substitute for butter used here” in large type.

Remember that at the time this act was passed, almost no other food was being really monitored. For the sake of contextualization: "The Jungle" came after this. As did formaldehyde in meat killing American soldiers.

But the color of margarine was the real problem.

Why Big Dairy Was Rightfully Scared of Little Margarine

The simple reason was because the dairy industry did not want people to confuse their product with this upstart imposter. They were fearful, perhaps rightfully so, of the so-called “Gresham’s Law” which states that if a lower grade imitation comes along, it would usurp the supremacy of the original product.

But there was another issue at hand, which was that all dairy products had a stigma for being made in unsanitary facilities, and would spread disease. Even the “natural” annatto dye was found problematic. So they were fighting their own public relation nightmares, with products that either made people sick or occasionally killed them, while a lower-cost safer alternative was available. 

Laws requiring compulsory pasteurization for all dairy products were still more than a decade away, and even those were met with initial negativity from the dairy industry. Dairy products weren’t actually very safe.

The Pure White Stuff

It was during the intervening decade that Crisco was introduced, by the novel hydrogenation of cottonseed oil. They didn’t use name of the oil, rather “vegetable oil” alone. In their advertisements they would talk about the “pure” nature of Crisco, and also about its “digestibility”, which was a bit of a topic back then. It was sold on the idea that you couldn’t get sick like you would with animal products, because with animal products, there was always a chance for disease to spread or for the products to rot.

An early advertisement in the Philippines for Crisco highlights how clean and pure and clear it was. 

No additives, whiteness, purity—all of these are the properties of Crisco . . . like the whiteness of cotton. Crisco is so pure.

On its own, the advertisement may be taken at face value. But it turns out that American advertising in the Philippines was more than just a little racist.

Racist Advertising

For example, a Filipino ad for an American ice cream showed a young white "Shirley Temple-lookalike" with the following ad copy: 

My complexion cream is none other than delicious Magnolia Ice Cream. Beauty without health is impossible, and I have proved from experience that Magnolia Ice Cream contains so many of the essentials of a well-balanced diet that Health and Beauty come naturally to those who eat it regularly. When you see a lovely girl whose rosy cheeks glow with well-being, and whose eyes sparkle with radiant health—depend on it, she never says ‘no’ to magnolia.

Food Crime

One of my many many many fascinations is with food-labelling related laws and the myriad varieties of food crime.

I understand the Oleo Act of 1902, because companies were wholly misrepresenting what they were selling. While this was still prior to laws about listing ingredients, people still have a right to know what is in their food. There were bad actors selling oleo products as butter. That's basic counterfeiting. We could ask "why target this industry and not another", but the bottom line is that the law was a good thing.

One of the reasons I love food-labelling related laws is because it turns the most common objects into existential debates.

What is chocolate? What is bread? Where can I get a good gluten-free pain au chocolat?

In Germany, for example, chocolate must contain sugar. One is not allowed to refer to a bar of 100% cacao, with no sugar, as “chocolate”.

On the other hand, in the UK, American Milk Chocolate Hershey's is not considered chocolate, because it has too much sugar. In the same vein, the “bread” at the UK franchises of the American sandwich chain Subway contains too much sugar to be legally described as “bread”.

It’s a narrow line to walk. Personally, I disagree with the German ruling in the specific chocolate case, because the brand in question highlighted the facts that they were “sugar-free” and “100% cacao”. The consumer was not being fooled by calling it “chocolate”.

In the British cases, it is quite important to make the distinction, because, especially in the sandwich shop case, people were looking for healthy-ish food. And in the Hershey's case, people were craving real chocolate, and were being criminally misled.

The Word Police

But the global dairy industry is powerful, and even words that it should be legal to use aren’t permitted in various places. Dairy words are protected language more than any other food, as a specially protected class.

With "alternative milks", we see an interesting jigsaw puzzle of global legal descriptions: some places you can legally refer to them as “oat milk” or “almond milk”, but not “plant milk” or “nut milk”. How would you like some "soya drink"?

It's illegal to refer to mixed butter (with margarine) simply as “butter”, but legal to call peanut butter, “peanut butter”. You just don't want to eat peanut butter while answering a question about Alexander Hamilton's death.

The question is: who is being protected in each case? (hint: It’s not always the consumer.) In fact, according to UK law, because brands can’t refer to vegan cheeses as “cheese”, it’s not always clear what the analogous cheese would be. (Meaning, is it a vegan brie, a vegan halloumi, or a vegan muenster?) Would anyone be tricked to buy a vegan cheese instead of a cow-milk cheese? Ultimately, they may use terms like “cheddar” to refer to flavoring without calling it cheese.

It's Really Isn't Butter

There are two different reasons why margarine brand “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” was not legally allowed to be called by that name in the UK. The more simple reason is because one may think it is a butter product. It is a double-negative, after all.

But the UK also had laws against "knocking" or comparative advertising. You could not compare your product to another, even if the other product was not explicitly being referred to negatively.

They flaunted the law with an ad campaign, and the brand won a court case in 1993 and was permitted to use the name, as the definition of comparative became more clarified.

Back to Big Dairy

After pasteurization and homogenization, the US dairy industry became consolidated, but more powerful.  In the US, the dairy industry received a guaranteed minimum that would be purchased, incentivizing them to continue production. Every child would get daily pints of milk at school. All of the dietary charts and graphs would include milk and dairy products as a very important part of the balanced diet. (Europe and the UK would have similar agreements, but it's way too much to include here.)

The USDA had two mandates, one to educate the public and one to support the dairy industry. 

Drinking milk became synonymous with being American. Even though many Americans, like most of the world's ethnicities, were genetically unable to breakdown lactose.

And yet, the milk lobby went out of its way to make sure that milk was critical for everyone to drink. One could get calcium from leafy vegetables, but that was not the suggestion put forward by dietitians. They'd also redefine "lactose intolerance" as one point.

Similarly, when there was a backlash to milk fat and a potential connection to heart disease, there are quotes from industry professionals saying things like “we don’t want people to hear these and get the wrong idea about milk.”

Such actions reminds me of other industries, like the tobacco and oil industries.There too, money is spent on advertising, and on the control over research and laws. 

An aspect of the milk advertising was even meant to focus on masculinity, hence early advertisements with boxers and baseball players. Femininity was returned later with ads by models and actresses talking about fat-free milk and calcium. Similarly, real men would smoke Marlboro Reds and ladies would smoke Virginia Slims.

The overlapping nature of the advertising methodologies, between milk and other vices, is overwhelming, and I could spend a lot more time writing about it. The problem is that milk isn't really a vice. (Though a good gouda may be one, for some people I'm told, and I've heard that burrata is downright sinful.)

Really Really Big Cheese

Big dairy grew and grew, until in 1977, was bailed out by President Carter, who campaigned on helping out the dairy farmers.

Congress passed a law to automatically raise the price of milk every six months.

They also agreed to buy as much cheese as the blessed cheesemakers were willing to sell them at a set price. There was a slight unintended side effect to buying this much, namely causing the the price of milk to rise, because of the way the supply and demand works.

The government ended up buying billions of dollars of cheese, so much so that they started keeping it caves. Apparently there are still more than a billion pounds of cheese in a cave in Missouri that they had nothing to do with.

By the early 1980s, they had so much cheese, and when they couldn't give away enough government cheese, the government began to pay farmers to not produce milk. On the flip side, they began to take an additional tax on every pound from the farmer, and put it into the National Dairy Board which ended up spending millions convincing celebrities like Cookie Monster to convince people to drink milk.

Why Milk?

The question that I am left with, after this, is why? Why do we need so much pro-milk propaganda and dairy industry protectionism? Why is milk so critical to us?

If the answer is because its critical to children’s development, that claim was made, taken as fact, and never quite proven. Children with varied diets can be very healthy and strong.

If milk is such an essential and natural good we’ve consumed for millennia, why did we need to recreate it in a science lab with homogenization? Pasteurization saved lives, I’m not anti-science. I’m not even against homogenization or, necessarily, the addition of Vitamin D.

The Milk Myth

Let’s not pretend that this is just like it always has been, and that it is a critical aspect of the human diet, to the exclusion of many other parts. In fact, proponents of cow milk were the ones who tried to stop the age-old practice of maternal breastfeeding. 

As much as I could try to research, I could not find good independent studies which showed a supremacy of, and necessity for, cow milk in a daily diet. It seems impossible by now to prove.

It was a myth that was created and never really questioned. It points back to the Bible and says “they had milk back then, so it must be crucial for humanity.” But chances are that that milk was a lot closer to a fermented sort of drink like kefir or lassi, and the rabbinic prohibitions against meat and milk were derived from not boiling “a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

I don’t have an anti-dairy crusade. I enjoy many dairy products, including cheeses and butters. I think lassi and kefir are delicious. 

In fact, I began research for this particular newsletter trying to find examples of how have people manipulated the colors of liquids to mimic the natural color of milk, but I came to the conclusion that the color milk itself, as we know it, is not exactly natural.

Some Random, Completely Unrelated, Statistics

Between 1970 - 2010, the amount of per capita annual milk consumption decreased from 28.6 gallons to 20.9 gallons. And between 2000 and 2022 alone it dropped over 40%. Without insinuating that correlation means causation, the average life expectancy between 1970 - 2010 rose from 70.78 years to 78.49 years. Vegans also are reported to have an above average life expectancy, and in many countries, they are not even allowed to call things they drink “milk”.

Why not milk?

I don’t know if regularly drinking milk is harmful or harmless, much in the way that people in the 1940s didn’t really know if smoking cigarettes was harmful or harmless. I don’t mean that they share a conclusion, I’m talking about the ability of the people to ask the question.

When there is an orthodoxy of belief which no one is allowed to question, is when we don’t actually know the extent of the damage caused. Because it would be either ignored, or explained away.

It was unheard of for Sesame Street to allow their actor-muppets to take part in an advertising campaign before this. But getting children to drink more milk was an important public service.

While I may make light of the marketing campaigns, the history of milk propaganda is not completely innocuous. It's more than just examples of adulterated milk products killing children, or the mothers and fathers being made to feel they had to provide milk for their children at any cost.

Children with lactose intolerance were fed milk every day in school for decades until there was any level of research done, and even then, the the question became "how can we get their bodies to accept milk?" and then “how can we make milk that they could drink?” instead of “what would be the healthy thing for them to drink instead?”

How did this affect their quality of life, their studies, their progress? And for what? Is there a greater good here?

How much damage has been done? I have no idea.

The answer is most likely: more than none, less than tobacco.


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