The origins of meat and milk are omitted in the naming of the sources and purposes of these products, as well as the taste and provenance of the products.
During World War II, the government set aside a group of nutritionists, engineers and various other occupations to investigate a source of milk-like food that was free from likely disease, easily accessible and tasty.
This alternative food was developed, particularly by a group associated with Norman (Bill) Pirie FRS, and it was described as leaf protein. It was a readily available source and met some of the criteria. In particular, ‘cheese’ was produced with simple equipment and machines were developed for use in African villages to make the proteinaceous food. It is still in production in parts of Africa.
Bill Pirie’s product was not very popular in this country, owing to its green colour which couldn’t easily be removed and also because the leaves used were from the tobacco plant and tobacco was already facing dissent in this country. However, many other plants were ultimately used, including crops in the vigna genus, such as the cowpea (though something would have to be done about that name).
At this time, soya was very much in favour as a crop in the USA, developed particularly for animal feeds. It attracted the investors in the leaf protein project to turn their attention to soya as a source of proteinaceous material and to look around for other sources. The early investors included Dr Frank Wokes, who was the Chief Scientist with Ovaltine, Dr Frey Ellis, Dr Alan Stoddard and one or two others in the Vegetarian Nutrition Research Centre (VNRC).
One or two of the investors were disappointed that the leaf protein project hadn’t reached its full promise and withdrew their support. An oriental product called Vitasoy had been discovered and it was indeed a plant milk. The remaining investors helped to put it on its feet with Arthur Ling, a businessman, to make a commercial product.
The VNRC was in fact helped by the dairy industry quite a bit, via Frank Wokes, and the soya milk that was put on the market contained various nutritional factors that were lacking in bovine milk. Much was made of this because the VNRC group and others were involved in the early work on penicillin and that helped a great deal in making the product superior to cows’ milk. Vitamin B12 had been discovered a short time before and supplies were easily available to the small group who made a product called Plamil.
Plamil was sold in tins originally and it established itself in the market place. Various others have since added what they considered were useful extra nutrients. So the product that emerged was called soya milk, though other proteinaceous material could be used to make it.
Plants were going great guns as a source of protein and protein was significant in the protein / calorie shortages in developing countries and worldwide. Other crops were used, in particular, nut milks have been made satisfactorily recently. Sources of nuts (eg almonds) have been developed on a large scale, particularly in California. Other sources are plenteous, for example in Turkey.
The work of the VNRC had some other improvements to make, particularly using by-products of fermentation and antibiotic productions, including mycoproteins. Famous names such as Barmene, for instance, were low in salt and they too have persisted in minor purposes of protein supplementation but unfortunately not as successfully as the milk.
The name soya milk has persisted for all plant milks although other plant products have been tried successfully and commercial products have been produced. The major test that was applied in the early days was: would it make a good cup of tea. The early soya products made a good cup of tea but with coffee it tended to curdle. So various improvements had to be made using different crops and different starting materials and that problem has been overcome with the modern production processes.
Soya products gave some difficulties and involved the VNRC and Arthur Ling in vigorous debate with the then Minister of Food because the French wanted soya milk to be differentiated from cows’ milk. Something similar had occurred when margarine was developed. The Minister of Food accepted the British appeal in favour of using the name ‘soya milk’ commercially but that rescue was short-lived when various arrangements were made with the Continentals as the French wanted the name to be very clearly distinguished from Cows’ milk and other animal milks.
So there were various curious responses to this. One was that milk chocolate (eg Cadburys) had grown in popularity during the war and the French derided this chocolate, but the British liked it and were quite happy go on eating it. The French wanted to call it choc-au-lait. It was more like drinking chocolate in Britain, though now is more like the French variety of black chocolate. The VNRC supporters had to contest vigorously through their MPs to get a working situation to their satisfaction.
Naming of the products became difficult and now one has to recognise that other plant milks have arrived on the scene and all have to be comprehended in the word ‘milk’. For example, Tesco vouchers, when they are offered to customers will either be for cows’ milk or soya milk and that is largely due to the fact that the original product was well-balanced nutritionally.
Now of late, many imitators and imposters of the first successful plant milks producers have broken significantly into the market, using coconut, oats, rice and nuts, so the customer should watch carefully the definition on the carton.
Soya milk was introduced at a time when much emphasis was placed on the protein-calorie importance. The soya milk had to be adequate for other things, for example as a source of beneficial fats. Later it became useful as a source of B vitamins, particularly B12, in which function it was well ahead of cows’ milk (unless the latter was supplemented too).
The milk was regarded in a new nutrition as a source of things other than protein, so might for instance be a useful source of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), but not containing appreciable amounts of protein. Furthermore, cereal proteins had been developed as well-rounded alternatives to meat.
So they may be advertised for claims that weren’t relevant in the past but have emerged since. So a product may be low in protein but high in PUFAs and still significant nutritionally. Or the product may be a drink low in protein but good for quenching thirst.
But we consider it very important, particularly for children over 3 or 4 years old, to have plant protein in the diet after breastfeeding and to aim for at least 2% for this purpose, distinguishing it from a drink and from food, rather like the way juice drinks and juices are divided
However, so many varieties exist now that no doubt the name will be very important and the manufacturer will aim for attractive names and further additions will have to be made, for example GM soya milk which manufacturers must divulge if the meanings of the definitions are respected. The description should also include organic and inorganic versions, variously defined in other countries and in imports.
Another factor that has always been shrugged off and put in another category is pet milks and pet foods generally which give greater scope for manufacturers because the controls are less limited – though the compositions are also important.
So, for instance, dog food may be suitable for dogs but is not of dogs. The essential amino acids are not the same as those for human beings. This is a matter that will need more attention in future. After all, one must remember that a dog may eat as much as a human being and must be accounted for in the population statistics.
The veterinary organisations which pride themselves on the protection of animals make a poor showing of their protection of all animals, the cow in particular. The vets proclaim that their mission is to prevent over production and factors to hinder this development for all the animals in their care – a mission sadly neglected.
Soya milk is a long-standing advantage to vegan diets and yet it is ignored by such consumers of the milk of human unkindness. Soya milk may be easily obtained in shops and restaurants and should feature in any welfarist’s menus and tables. At 60p per litre, it compares favourably with organic milks and is available in chilled and UHT forms. Dr Lester Smith FRS, a vegetarian allied with the VNRC, started the magazine Plant foods for Human Nutrition.