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A Short History of Plant-based Dairy

Plant-based mylk may be seen as a modern product that is changing the way we consume dairy and causing ramifications to dairy industries globally. The truth, however, is that plants have been ‘milked’ and used as dairy milk for a long time in history. The consumption of mylk has existed in cultures across the globe, finding mention in texts as early as 1226 CE. Much like our piece on the history of dairy which laid out historical points in the development of the dairy industry, this piece traces key moments in the history of plant-based mylks.


1226 CE

Although plant-based mylks have been in use across the world for millennia, the first historical record of a mylk is an eleventh century Iraqi recipe book [referred to as A Baghdad Cookery Book]. It was written by an author named Muhammad al-Baghdadi and has numerous mentions of the use of almond mylk in different recipes. In these recipes, the nuts are “milked” or made into milk; they are ground and immediately mixed with water. Similar recipes and uses of almond mylk are seen throughout the Middle-East. Further north, in England, a recipe book written in Old English records the use of almond mylk in a curry.



Historical records suggest that soy mylk is consumed in several districts in China in the Quing Dynasty as a beverage. It was described as very watery and probably might not be the same thick soy mylk that is known today.



Although several mylks were made and used across the globe, soy mylk began to gain more prominence with increased globalization. A record from 1866 by a French traveller in China describes soy mylk as a drink in itself being consumed by his Chinese guides. Soy mylk was championed by people as varied as Henry Ford (who claimed the cow was the most inefficient means possible to get milk) and a Christian sect called the Seventh Day Adventists. However, it was derided by many because of its beany taste and it gave some consumers gas.



In 1910, the first soy mylk dairy was set up near Paris. The owner applies for the first patent for soy mylk under the title of ‘Vegetable milk and its derivatives’. Soy mylk is still largely unpopular though. In the US, soy mylk also became an ersatz product—a product whose demand grew during wartime as a replacement for a more popular unavailable product—this will lead to it being less popular in the decades after the war as it came to be seen by some generations as an inferior substitute.



However, variations on the idea of what a plant-based mylk could be began to emerge. In 1921, a company called Vita Rice Products produced and sold the first rice mylk in San Francisco.



In Hong Kong, an entrepreneur named Kwee Seong Lo heard about soy mylk in a US Embassy in the 1930s. He went on to create a company that focused on producing soy mylk called Vitasoy. Vitasoy was one of the first companies to produce soy mylk as a distinct beverage, marketing it in unique curvy bottles much like the aerated drinks that dominated the market at the time. This was to meet the need for a dairy-alternative by a largely lactose intolerant Chinese population. The company also added flavours to the mylk which made it extremely popular.



A small startup is established business in Boulder, USA that manufactures soy mylk. Silk will go on to become one of the largest selling plant-based mylk producers in the US.



Rickard Öste, a food scientist studying lactose intolerance and sustainable food systems in Sweden, crafts the first batch of oat mylk that will go on to be the basis for Oatly. Oatly will go on to become the world’s largest selling oat mylk producer.



A variety of alternative mylks emerge to grab a share of the dairy market; coconut mylk, hemp mylk, pea mylk, and peanut mylk all begin to flood stores in the US and Europe. Soy mylk sales in the US peak at $1.2 billion in 2008, the highest a plant-based mylk has reached until that point.



A small company named Goodmylk set out to create the greatest plant-based dairy in the world. We care about animals, we care about the planet, and we care about making delicious plant-based dairy. 


A Brief History of Soy Milk, the Future Food of Yesterday by Nadia Berenstein

History of Soymilk and Other Non-Dairy Milks (1226 to 2013) by William Shurtleff & Akiko Aoyagi