Dairy cows

Everything you wanted to know about milk but were too afraid to ask

Milk is always in the news. Seriously, it's kind of a big deal

If milk were a celebrity, it would have found fame as a child star, before its turbulent teens were splashed all over the front pages its ascent into adulthood littered with shock and scandal. If milk were a celebrity it would be Lindsay Lohan.

In short, milk has been in the headlines a lot over the last few decades, popping up again this week with a new report showing the UK wastes a whopping 500 million pints (284 million litres) of milk every year and Asda’s launch of a new line of free-range cows’ milk. Everyone knows milk is kind of a big deal, but not everyone knows why – it’s all white (sorry), we’ve got you covered.

Why milk is in the news so much

UK farmers took cows into supermarkets to protest

In some supermarkets, milk is cheaper than water. It’s caused an ongoing crisis that has seen one in 10 dairy farms in the UK go out of business in the last ten years. Supermarkets have been selling milk at ultra-low and dairy processors have cut the prices paid to farmers to accommodate it. It costs farmers around 30p (37 cents) per litre to produce milk, but many are earning less than 20p per litre for their troubles, which is why they’ve been protesting so much.

Why milk is in the news again


Waste and recycling body WRAP just released new figures that show Brits waste a staggering 500 million pints of milk every year - and not just because we’ve forgotten about it at the back of the fridge, either. Contributing to the waste is confusion around use-by dates. These can be pretty generous (because producers and supermarkets want to cover themselves in the event that someone gets ill), so people are pouring away as much as 100 million pints of perfectly good milk because they’re worried it’s ‘out of date’. For a long time we’ve been told to pay careful attention to ‘use by’ dates but now WRAP says they should be scrapped in a bid to prevent millions of pints of milk being wasted each year. If it smells alright, it’s probably fine.

What pasteurized milk actually means

Louis Pasteur at work
Louis Pasteur at work

Humans have been drinking milk for thousands of years, but if left for too long ‘the virtuous white liquor’ (as it was known in the Middle Ages) can become a breeding ground for disease. In Victorian times this was put down to unsanitary transport and storage conditions (the first glass milk bottle was patented by Dr Henry Thatcher after he witnessed a child’s filthy rag doll fall into a milkman’s open bucket of milk) but French scientist Louis Pasteur soon discovered heating beer and wine could kill bacteria and prevent it from spoiling, and applied the same principal to milk. Pasteurization was born.

Now, technically milk doesn’t need to be pasteurized, but legally the milk you buy in shops and supermarkets needs to be for health and safety reasons. Plus, pasteurised milk lasts a lot longer that it does unpasteurised - although exactly how long is up for debate, hence all the ruckus about use-by and best-before dates.

However, there are a number of ‘raw milk’ advocates who believe unpasteurized milk is more nutritious and tastier. Sales of raw drinking milk are illegal in Scotland but there are around 200 registered producers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that are allowed to sell raw or ‘green top’ milk directly to consumers (via farmers’ markets or independent delivery services), providing the bottle bears the warning ‘this product has not been heat-treated and may contain organisms harmful to health’.

Why milk that isn't milk is so popular

Almond milk

Almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk… the list goes on. The non-dairy milk market grew by 155% between 2012 and 2014 and is now worth $1.9 billion, so it would seem that good ol’ cows’ milk just isn’t cool any more, and there are several reasons why.

For a start, a rise in reported cases of lactose intolerance – which can upset your digestive system and leave you feeling bloated – means many people have turned to plant-based milks for health reasons.

Some argue that they’re better for the environment, too, since cows’ milk requires a lot of natural resources to produce (not to mention all the flatulent methane it releases into the atmosphere – farts = bad).

Another reason is the increasing popularity of veganism - the number of vegans in Britain has risen by a whopping 360% in 10 years.

Why every celebrity ever had a milk moustache in the 90s

Got milk Britney
Image via vintageadbrowser.com/got-milk-ads-2000s

If you were born after 1993, chances are you associate the phrase ‘got milk?’ with jokes from The Simpsons or Powerpuff Girls, but the phrase actually stems from an early 90s advertising campaign in the US, designed to get people drinking more cows’ milk for health reasons.

Major celebrities including Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie and Elton John appeared on giant billboards under the words ‘got milk?’ while sporting a ‘milk moustache’ in a bid to… make milk sexy? It’s not quite clear, and although the campaign largely failed to get people drinking milk again, it’s become one of the most memorable large-scale advertising campaigns in recent times.

Why Margaret Thatcher's a Milk Snatcher

Cow gif

It’s fair to say that Margaret Thatcher – the UK Conservative prime minister between 1979 and 1990 – was a divisive political figure. She had a lot of nicknames – The Iron Lady being one of the most well-known – but she was also known as ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’. After the Second World War, then-prime minister Clement Attlee passed the 1946 Free Milk Act which provided all children under the age of 18 with a third of a pint of milk a day. This was limited to primary school children only in 1968 under Labour, and in 1971, under Thatcher’s watch, the government stopped free milk for all children over seven years old in a bid to save £9m a year, sparking the first of many angry protests that characterised her political career.

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