Waste Not, Want Not: Transforming Waste into Food – Skimmed Milk

By Lesley Steinitz

Fancy some pig’s wash with your granola? In the late nineteenth century, the ‘pig’s wash’ – a euphemism also for vomit – was skimmed milk. It was so-named because it had been the sour leftovers after the cream was skimmed off milk left out overnight in the dairy. Although some ‘skim’ was used to make cheese and feed poor agricultural workers, it was so disgusting that most of it was fed to pigs. Skimmed milk remained disgusting in the minds of consumers even after dairies were mechanised, from the 1880s, once it had changed materially into a fresh sweet liquid. It sold, at best, for a quarter of the price of whole milk, but philanthropists couldn’t even give it away to the poor.

From the perspective of nutritional chemists, this was a waste of a valuable source of protein at a time when dietary deficiency was a grave political concern, linked to worries about the fitness of the workforce and its implications for industrial productivity and military security. This waste therefore spurred innovation among commercially-oriented engineers and chemists at the turn of the twentieth century.

Chemists devised noxious industrial-scale chemical processes which transformed skimmed milk into near-identical protein powders. These contained around 90% milk protein and 5% phosphates, and were off-white, insubstantial, odourless and flavourless. They didn’t resemble food in the slightest. It’s instructive to compare how the two most advertised brands in Britain, Plasmon and Sanatogen, were advertised.

Plasmon’s adverts presented it as a cheap nutritious food, using numbers and pictures to signify its protein’s muscle building power. To persuade people to cook with it, they ran cookery competitions, published recipes, and persuaded famous people – notably the vegetarian health writer and sports champion Eustace Miles – to do so. However, these efforts backfired. Plasmon and Miles were lampooned regularly. The Evening Post derided Plasmon as an uninviting food made by ‘nutrient necromancers’, while the Daily Express declared that this ‘food of the future’ did not satisfy the social and cultural expectations of food as something to enjoy and share.[1] Only Plasmon Oats and Cocoa, where Plasmon was mixed with familiar foods, remained popular.

Although it was near-identical, Sanatogen was positioned primarily as a nerve nutrient thanks to its phosphates (which are present in high concentration in the nerves and brain). Sanatogen therefore addressed another dominant health concern, ‘nerve weakness’, often referred to as the new disease category of neurasthenia. It was therefore not simply a food, but a ‘food-drug’, something that was ‘taken’ like a medicine before meals, rather than as part of them. There were no recipes, simply instructions on how to prepare a dose. With advocates including MPs, doctors, respected writers and aristocrats, and adverts with inspiring quotes from Shakespeare and Goethe, this was an aspirational product which sold for twice the price of Plasmon. You can still buy Sanatogen today.

At much the same time, engineers devised mechanical preservation methods. Their machines sprayed milk, skimmed or whole, onto steam-heated spinning metal rollers where it condensed instantly, forming a powder.[2] (While dried milk had been produced during the nineteenth century, the slow heating methods tended to cook the milk and caramelise its sugars, so it could only be eaten if it was disguised mixed in other foods.) Manufacturers, competing on cost, largely could not afford to advertise their dried skimmed milk. Exceptionally, Cow & Gate published recipes using it, but I’ve yet to find any in ordinary cookbooks, though when fresh milk was scarce in wartime, newspapers suggested using dried instead. Consumers were largely oblivious to the nutritional benefits of this ingredient and to its abundance in industrially manufactured foods such as bread, biscuits and chocolate, and in canteens and institutions. There are few traces before 1920 of people using it domestically other than the full fat versions for infants.

These foods were not popular thanks to their intrinsic palatability, convenience or physiological effects, but instead reflected the cultural characteristics that advertisers linked to their nutritional claims. Expensive Sanatogen was aspirational because it was presented as a respectable medicine-like supplement used by the elites. Cheaper Plasmon was less successful because this peculiar food seemed ridiculous. For consumers, the even cheaper dried milk was an alternative infant food, but was thought to be unsuitable for adults. The positioning of these three similar products demonstrates that food choices are far more than a rational choice relating to nutrition and economy. Now protein powders and skimmed milk are popular commodities. The change in their popularity illustrates how food manufacturers wield considerable power over consumers by leveraging nutritional ‘facts’ alongside cultural values to suit their commercial aims.

[1] Evening Post, 11 July 1900, p. 2; Daily Express, 11 July 1900, p. 4.

[2] A. W. Scott, The Engineering Aspects of the Condensing and Drying of Milk, Bulletin, no. 4 (Glasgow: The Hannah Dairy Research Institute, 1932).

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