It’s Cringe That We Care So Much About “Real” Milk
Sign me up for Wood Milk—and other ways dairy milk is missing the point
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As a former barista, I often tell people I’ve worked with significantly more milk than coffee. Nearly every drink I made featured steamed milk. The most visible sign of a properly made coffee beverage had nothing to do with the coffee, but rather with the texture and beauty of the milk.
When I started working as a barista in 2010, the only alternative we offered non-dairy drinkers was soy milk, and even then, we were lucky to go through a carton a week while blasting through dozens and dozens of gallons of dairy milk a day. Now, 40% of all milk sold is plant-based, and politicians have been attempting to crack down on the “real” definition of milk, limiting the word to dairy-based products.
Then, on April 20th, “White Lotus” star Aubrey Plaza appeared in a parody commercial for Wood Milk, an alternative milk made of—you guessed it—wood. The minute-long ad features Plaza poking fun at hipster tropes: She’s in the forest, wearing flannel, taking pictures of trees with a point-and-shoot camera, all to promote a new kind of milk made from wood. Plaza plays a fictionalized version of herself as the co-founder of Wood Milk, but the end of the ad reveals that it’s actually a campaign for Got Milk? and the California Milk Processor Board. The second-to-last frame reads, “Is Your Milk Real?”
If dairy milk’s plea to be the only product deserving of the “milk” moniker feels desperate, that’s because it is. Big Dairy’s use of a zeitgeisty celebrity to scold young people about their consumption habits—the New York Times reports that last year, Gen Z purchased 20% less dairy milk than the national average—makes it even more cringe, like when parents try to use contemporary slang to relate to their kids. Plaza proclaims that Wood Milk can’t be real because “only real milk is real,” ignoring not only prevailing trends but centuries of history and science.
Milking It For All Its Worth
In the opening frame of the video, Plaza asks: “Have you ever looked at a tree and thought, ‘Can I drink this?’”
I haven’t looked at trees and thought to milk them, but I have turned almost everything in my kitchen that can be milked into milk. Once, I received a farm box with 20 acorn squashes, so I made an acorn squash milk (tasted fine, not worth the time and labor).
People have milked vegetables, plants, seeds, and grains for centuries. The phrase “almond milk” can be found in cookbooks and texts from the 1400s, soy milk was being produced since at least the 1300s in China, and the word “lettuce” comes from the Latin word for lactate, “alluding to the milky sap that exudes from the plant’s cut stem.” The historical use of “milk” more commonly describes the end product or the sensation a product evokes (something can be described as “milky” in texture without being made from milk) than the ingredients used to make it, even though the word has more recently evolved to primarily refer to dairy-based products.
The argument for reserving the word “milk” for dairy feels ahistorical, although those lobbying for such restrictions argue that the proliferation of “milk” is misleading to consumers, who might pick up a pint of oat milk and expect it to have the same nutritional value as dairy. The fight to strip non-dairy milk of the right to call itself milk is led by Tammy Baldwin, a senator from Wisconsin. Baldwin is the sponsor of the Dairy Pride Act, a bill that “would amend the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prohibit the sale of any food using the market name of a dairy product, is not the milk of a hooved animal, is not derived from such milk and doesn’t contain such milk as a primary ingredient.”
But consumers aren’t confused: Three-quarters of them can correctly identify the difference between dairy and non-dairy products. And we interact with myriad food products that share terminology with other goods. “Who is being confused that oat milk is coming from a cow?” said Indiana State Rep. Justin Moed. “Is peanut butter coming from a cow? Valvoline could be mad ‘olive oil’ is called ‘oil.’ Who’s to say what ‘oil’ is? I don’t know where this ends.”
In the video, Plaza takes a sip of Wood Milk, which is chunky and viscous and meant to look unappetizing. But frankly, I found myself wondering—and not even for the sake of the pun—would Wood Milk taste good? Ali Frances writes in Bon Appetit that the ad might have had the opposite of its intended effect: “It’s kinda embarrassing to put in that much effort into an ad just to learn that oat’s still winning. The dairy industry seems in denial about the state of things, but here’s the truth: Gen Z probably would, in fact, want to try Wood Milk.”
While Gen Z’s 20% dip in milk consumption might be concerning to Big Dairy, it’s important to note two things: One, dairy consumption has been in decline since 1945, and two, people are still buying enormous volumes of dairy products.
According to the USDA, milk consumption peaked during World War II because milk products weren’t rationed. “Fluid milk consumption shot up from 34 gallons per person in 1941 to a peak of 45 gallons per person in 1945,” which seems like an absurd amount of dairy by today’s standards and indicates that dairy consumption has been on the decline for much longer than plant milk has been a thorn in Big Dairy’s side. “Since 1945, however, milk consumption has fallen steadily, reaching a record low of just under 23 gallons per person in 2001.”
As mentioned above, plant milk of all types has been around for centuries. It's unclear when its existence became a threat to dairy producers—if I had to base this entirely on anecdotal evidence and the thought of that lonely little soy milk carton in our fridge, is that this is a recent worry, and the growth in popularity of non-dairy milks seems to support that: one article from The Guardian reports that “as recently as 2008, alternatives to cow’s milk largely meant soya (invariably Alpro in the UK, Silk in the US),” and that “for anything else, you’d need to scour health-food shops for drab, clinical-looking, long-life cartons of rice milk buried in the back with the other digestive aids,” and it seems like plant milks hit a exponential growth point in the mid-2010s, particularly with the growth in popularity of almond, then oat, milk. But the rise of plant milk in mainstream culture perhaps finally gave dairy milk a foe, a villain to posit itself against and attempt to come out the other end the superior choice.
But Wood Milk isn’t the dairy industry’s first attempt to regain relevance with younger audiences. Who could forget the Got Milk? ads of the ’90s and early 2000s, which featured celebrities like Britney Spears, the cast of “Friends,” the Williams sisters, and Beyonce and Solange Knowles, all photographed by Annie Leibowitz sporting milk mustaches? The campaign aimed to convince younger consumers that milk was cool simply because their favorite celebrities loved milk, too.
A piece for Saveur chronicles how iconic the ad campaign was, noting that celebrities clamored to be part of the advertisements. But while awareness of the campaign reached almost 90% among teenagers, milk consumption only saw a minor bump in the mid-00s before trending downwards as the decade continued.
Simply slapping a celebrity with a milk mustache clearly wasn’t enough for dairy milk to turn its fortunes around. If this latest campaign offers any update on the original, it’s finding someone to blame for declining sales. As a result, the ascent of plant milk is painted not just as a point of confusion for consumers, but as a threat to people who make their livings in livestock and dairy farming.
But who’s the real villain in this story?
Not Everyone Has Got Milk
Considering that I’ve steamed—literally—thousands of gallons of milk, it’s wild to remember that the majority of humans cannot digest lactose. According to NPR, “35 percent of the global population — mostly people with European ancestry — can digest lactose in adulthood without a hitch.” The rest have insufficient amounts of lactase, the enzyme needed to process the milk sugar.
Dairy milk’s Wood Milk spoof is meant to poke fun at plant milk for being twee and a relic of hipster culture, but what does it mean to make fun of something that is an important alternative for many people—specifically, people who are not of European descent?
To be clear, many plant milk brands have also positioned themselves in opposition to dairy milk. Oatly, an oat milk brand whose advertisements you’ve almost certainly seen on bus stops and subway signs, often references dairy milk as an outdated product. Some of its slogans include: “It’s like milk, but made for humans,” “Ditch milk,” and “Post-milk generation.” (On its website Oatly refers to itself as “The original oat drink company,” and to its products as “oatmilk”—all one word).
This messaging punches up in taking aim at dairy milk, and implies that plant milk is more inclusive, built for all, and looks toward the future. Dairy milk’s dig at plant milk, in comparison, feels sorry and harsh, like when a mean girl makes a cruel joke about a fellow student to reassert high school power structures. The dairy industry’s critique is not genuine—it’s so it can reclaim its position at the top of the milk pyramid.
Speaking of which, dairy milk is still at the top of the pyramid. Yin Woon Rani, the chief executive of the Milk Processor Education Program, told the New York Times, “Dairy milk sells as much at retail in a week as oat milk sells in a full year.” Dairy milk’s sales are still five times greater than all plant milk sales: $15.7 billion compared to $2.4 billion in 2022.
And the dairy category doesn’t simply represent milk: Sales of other dairy-based products, like yogurt and cheese, have actually gone up. “In 2001, Americans consumed 30 pounds of cheese per person, 8 times more than they did in 1909 and more than twice as much as they did in 1975,” the USDA reports. In another report, the USDA found, “Daily cheese consumption grew to 0.74 cup-equivalents per person in 2021 from 0.36 cup-equivalents per person in 1981. Yogurt consumption increased to 0.05 cup-equivalents per person from nearly 0.01 cup-equivalents.”
I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of dairy farmers. Still, the industry’s decline from its mid-century peak has been happening for decades, and I wonder if the expectation of limitless growth within a stable status quo (supported through government subsidies and regulations) rather than a willingness to be adaptable has anything to do with the current climate.
When you look at sales numbers, dairy still has plant milk beat by an order of magnitude. When you look at industry trends, dairy milk’s slide began long before it chose plant milk as its adversary. The fact that we’re still debating what makes a milk “real” ignores both historical precedent and the current way in which we consume foods. And the fact that milk chose Aubrey Plaza to be its spokesperson—and to use her signature deadpan delivery to make fun of milk alternatives—indicates that the dairy industry must feel like it has to appeal to a young audience, even while not fully understanding what that audience is looking for.
If there's anything that milk could have done to make itself look dated and cringe, it was this ad. Sorry dairy milk, but this wasn't it.
Tammy Baldwin is a much better senator than the election-denying twerp serving alongside her in my current home state of Wisconsin. This seemingly petty bill feels like a move meant to appease a very specific Wisconsin voter base.
Thanks for this, great piece. If I may, I would just like to throw in the importance of non-human animal rights as well as climate concerns in transitioning to plant-based alternatives to dairy milk.
Great piece! I’m from Wisconsin, too, and I’m so disappointed to learn this about Tammy Baldwin 🙄