Most of us drink it in some form or another some of the time: over cereal, in our tea, in our bedtime hot chocolate. And we cook with it: scrambled eggs, cake, lasagne, custard. Milk occupies a curious place in the national psyche. It is vaguely romantic, conjuring up images of pastures green. Take away our milk and risk national outrage, as Margaret Thatcher learned to future governments' peril.
Recently, however, milk – in the good old fashioned, cow-in-a-field sense of the word – has found itself under attack. From every angle. It isn't just the Government's truncated flirtation with removing the white stuff from nurseries, it's everything: the diets that frown upon it (Atkins, Cabbage Soup, Master Cleanse), the shops that won't pay full price for it, the bottles of soya, of nut, of goat alternatives, that teeter on the shelf alongside it. Recent reports suggest that camel's milk may be winging its way to the UK before long, boasting an array of health benefits as exotic as its origin.
Camel's milk is lower in fat and cholesterol than dairy milk. It also has much higher levels of vitamin C and boasts a number of other, admittedly unsubstantiated, health benefits, from helping to control Type 2 diabetes to protecting against cancer. Even so, British palates might take a while to adjust to the strong and salty taste, and there's unlikely to come a time when we'll be pouring it in our tea.
Milk consumption has declined by more than 14 per cent in the past decade – despite an increasing population. It has also changed. We consume our milk very differently. Last time a Tory government found itself under fire for lactose-snatching, milk was being brought to our doors. Just five years ago some 480 million bottles were still deposited on people's doorsteps. Now that number has more than halved, and websites like findmeamilkman.net service those who indulge in daily delivery.
Squeamish about the milk factory-bred cows produce, we opt for organic: 165 million litres of the stuff. And we go skinny, with skimmed and semi-skimmed. These days, we drink our milk outside the home. For countless consumers, their biggest dose of milk is steamed, poured over a shot (or three) of espresso. Chugging warm, milky coffee from oversized paper cups has become the pedestrian tic of our age.
Unless it is steamed soya milk you like in your coffee. The rise of the milk alternative has been formidable. It is almost impossible to find a supermarket or café that doesn't stock non-bovine "milk". As senior grocery buyer of Whole Foods UK, Linda Katz oversees the company's considerable stock. Over the years, she says, demand has grown not just for soy but also for the other varieties the store now sells: oat, almond, rice, hazelnut – even quinoa. "It is partly the customers' initiative. We will educate people on why they might want to try this or that milk – for instance, if people choose soya for allergy reasons, they might want to know that soya is also high in allergens."
Katz's company also stocks goat and buffalo milk, and has already been approached by customers in search of camel milk. While the European Commission recently approved plans by two Middle Eastern camel farms to start exporting to Britain, health and hygiene inspections have yet to take place. Goats' milk, on the other hand, is almost as ubiquitous as soya – if not in cafés and restaurants, then at least at grocers' checkouts. "Fifteen years ago you would have to go to a health store or something to find it but now it is stocked in every major supermarket," says Liz Sutton of Delamere Dairy, which specialises in goat products. "At Delamere we've seen 20 per cent year-on-year growth consistently for the past five years." Sutton sells more than 17 million litres of goats' milk a year, largely to people who have to switch because of allergies to cows' milk, though also to people who opt for it for taste, wellbeing, ethical or other reasons.
All of which has got cattle farmers in rather a tizzy. A total of £113m is spent on advertising dairy products each year – far more than the £84m spent 10 years ago. Most famous, perhaps, is the EU-sponsored Make Mine Milk campaign. Enlisting celebrities to pose with a milk "moustache," the campaign aims to encourage milk consumption among young people and to "bust" the various myths that, in a fuzz of glossy magazine health pieces, have taken hold: that milk is bloating, acne-causing, or mucus-producing. "Those have been a real problem for the industry," explains Dr Judith Bryans of the Dairy Council. "People diagnose themselves with food intolerances – even food allergies. Most of the time, people who think they have an allergy don't."
The fact of the matter is that, as exciting as the non-dairy options available may be, they have their own drawbacks. Soya milk has offered an easy alternative for countless (genuinely) lactose-intolerant consumers around the world, though its marketing as a kind of whiter-than-white health product is far from accurate. The most common complaint against the soy industry tends to be environmental (intensive soya bean farming is responsible for widespread Amazon destruction), though the health concerns are potent too. Soya contains oestrogen-mimicking hormones known as phyto-oestrogens. Recent research has linked their consumption with lowered male fertility, and a heightened risk of certain cancers.
The other milk alternatives, too, may not be for everyone. Katz tends to direct customers with allergies away from nut milks, such as almond or hazelnut, regardless of whether their intolerance is nut-based. Buffalo and goats' milk can be allergenic, too – though they are more than equivalent to cow's milk in terms of calcium and other minerals, something that can't be said of soya and oat varieties. As the rising incidence of osteoporosis would indicate, calcium is an often-underestimated part of a balanced diet.
Milk, then, is unlikely to fade from British life. Still, its future is not uncomplicated. On top of the competition it faces, it has suffered from falling prices, putting pressure on the industry to produce the white stuff more cheaply, and raising the spectre of massive, US-style "factory farms". How the dairy industry will respond remains to be seen. In the meantime, supermarkets across the country are getting ready to make space for yet another milk alternative, in the unexpected form of Camelicious.