Plant Milks and the Uncanny Valley

Is plant milk supposed to taste like cow milk or like the ingredient it's derived from?

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Plant milks have been a staple of coffee shops for decades, but our relationship to them has changed dramatically over time. Back in 2010, when I started in the coffee industry, we only served soy milk at our very busy shop in Times Square—and we went through a carton of it, at most, every few days. (Meanwhile, crates upon crates of dairy milk were delivered to us daily.) Today, by contrast, plant milks are so ingrained in coffee culture that most shops offer a wide range of options—and there are some cafes that have even made plant milks the default rather than the alternative.

That shift hasn’t been static: You’ve likely witnessed preferences evolve from soy to almond to the current king of plant milks, oat. One of the reasons oat milk has so seismically changed the way we consume plant milks is that it tastes closer to cow milk than its predecessors. Oatly, which is one of the world’s largest makers of oat milk, positions itself as an alternative to cow milk for those who don’t want to or can’t consume dairy. It’s enjoyable enough to be used daily, but many still see it as a replacement first and foremost.

But is that the point of a plant milk?

As Alicia Kennedy wrote in her recent newsletter piece, “On Milk,” the current zeitgeist treats plant milks like they’re a new invention—but that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Soy milk came onto the documented scene in 1365, and almond milk had made it to Europe by 1390, when it became popular during Lent. The first written mention in English of soy milk was in 1704,” she writes.

Even if you look at the etymology of the word “milk,” its origin seems to refer to the extraction process rather than the actual liquid itself. There have been debates about whether you can use the word “milk” to refer to things like soy and almond milk, to which some lexicographers make the argument that we’ve already been using the word “milk” to refer to non-dairy milks for centuries.

Despite the fact that plant milks have been around forever, we generally still see them as subordinate to dairy milk. If you order a latte at a coffee shop, most baristas will make it with cow milk—you’d have to specify otherwise. We don’t treat plant milks like they’re unique ingredients with their own textures and notes and flavors that can contribute different qualities to a finished drink.

Imagine being a chef and converting a beef dish into one that’s vegetarian. In swapping the meat for, say, mushrooms, you may need to make other small tweaks to the recipe as you go. The goal wouldn’t be to exactly replicate the experience of eating beef, but to make the overall best-tasting version of a composed dish.

We don’t do that in coffee. We do not roast coffee differently to pair with plant milks. We do not pull shots of espresso differently. We do not recommend people drink a different type of coffee if they’re going to pour cow milk versus plant milk in their final brew.

This is where the idea of the uncanny valley comes in.

The “uncanny valley” was first described in a 1970 essay by Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. In observing the evolution of aesthetics in robot design, he wrote: “I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley … which I call the uncanny valley.” After a certain point—when the robots resemble humans closely but not exactly—their appearance becomes deeply unsettling. (For more on the concept, this “30 Rock” clip has an … interesting take on the uncanny valley.)

I was introduced to the idea of the uncanny valley in the context of food by my friend, Ben Wurgaft. Ben is one of the smartest people I know, and certainly one of the kindest, and he studies lab-grown meat and the future of food, among other subjects. About lab-grown meats he says:

I think [lab-grown meats] are sometimes difficult for people because they’re close to expectations, but don’t quite meet them … and there are also a lot of vegetarians who will praise products that are for me in the uncanny valley. And I think part of it is that I’m an omnivore and I will happily eat a hamburger derived from a cow. When I eat an Impossible Burger, I am struck by how it is not in vivo meat. It is not meat from an animal.

In a similar way, I think we’ve entered an uncanny valley for plant milks. Oat milk might be our closest foray into the abyss, but it will never be cow milk, or share its exact properties. Within the coffee world, we’ve tried so desperately to disguise this fact—to make plant milks steam and taste and act like cow milk—that we’ve disregarded their provenance as centuries-old ingredients, and limited their potential in new and innovative applications. Like, does every coffee shop need to serve the same set of drinks? Could we use non-dairy milk to move beyond the ubiquitous paradigm of latte, cappuccino, macchiato, flat white?

Ben himself noted that he enjoys plant milks most when they taste fully of themselves—when they’re not just positioned as imitators:

The goal is copying. It’s funny to think about this. I myself prefer soy milk that tastes like soy too … when we think about things in terms of mimicry, one of the questions I often ask is what does that foreclose, what does that leave out? If you were free of the imperative to copy cow milk, what could it be?

As discussed with my recent podcast guest Sierra Yeo, the coffee industry would be better served by imagining plant milks not as replacements, but as their own standout ingredients—their own entry points into creative experimentation. Not only would this treat allergies, food intolerances, and dietary choices with respect, but it could provide a much-needed shake-up in the way we design and think about coffee menus.

I tackle some big questions in my new series with Pacific—I can’t wait to tell you more—but in the meantime, I’m keen to know what you think. Plant milks offer so much potential, but I’m still wrapping my head around how they can be best used, both in coffee and elsewhere. (I don’t know of many chefs who’d use a plant milk as more than a replacement for dairy, and would love to hear about folks who are doing this.) Comment below and share how you feel about plant milks—I’d love your thoughts!

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