Busting milk myths shakes the Finns’ national identity

Taru Lindblom, Vilja Lukkarinen and Sami Koponen

This blog post explores the cultural role of dairy products and the Finns’ strong relationship with milk by looking at an empirical case of heated online debate sparked by an oat milk company Oatly’s campaign. The campaign was launched in late 2020 in Finland by sending a leaflet to more than 200 000 Finnish households with school-aged children. The leaflet aimed to ‘bust milk myths’ by presenting twenty research-based statements on various themes. The statements regarded for instance health issues, nutrition education, ecological sustainability, agriculture and farming, and animal rights. They were formulated in an appealing and almost humorous manner (as per the Oatly’s general brand image and strategy) and they tried to convince recipients of why choosing plant-based option to milk would be beneficial on many accounts. The campaign gained generous publicity in the national media and was also extensively commented by consumers on social media, online discussion forums and newspaper webpages. In our study, we wanted to see how mundane food consumption – here milk – can be considered as political consumption. Furthermore, we acknowledge, that since milk has such an institutional status in Finland, it can reveal deeper connotations to national identity. We collected a dataset consisting of 204 online comments to a newspaper article on the campaign. In order to better understand milk’s cultural role in Finns’ everyday life, let us first take a brief look at the history of dairy and milk production and consumption in Finland.

Finns consume, and have traditionally consumed, milk and dairy products extensively. One peculiarity in the Finnish eating patterns is the adult population’s penchant for drinking milk or sour milk during mealtimes (Purhonen & Gronow, 2014). Despite being regarded as a staple of Finnish diet and playing an almost hegemonic role in Finnish food culture, dairy consumption and production are relatively recent additions. Before the 20th century the production of dairy was on a small scale, and domestic households had perhaps one, if any, milking cow which provided limited amount of dairy to be consumed within the household. Similarly, dairy products were not consumed on a daily basis but rather reserved for rare occasions and festivities. (Kaarlenkaski, 2015.)

Oatly’s Milk Myths brochure presented statements e.g. on food education on milk in schools

A significant event in the Finnish milk history was the establishment of Milk Propaganda Office (MPO) in 1929. Its purpose was to promote milk consumption with the official agenda to produce ‘unbiased’ milk propaganda, as milk had recently been discovered to be an almost magically nutritious ’superfood’ that would provide aid to a poor and malnourished nation. Ever since the early days of the MPO milk has been on the political agenda, and dairy production subsidized heavily by the Finnish government, and more recently, by the European Commission. The Office was later on discontinued, but its agenda was still promoted by a lobby association (“Milk and health” in English) until 2020.

Another institutional factor that has promoted the consumption of milk across population for decades has been ‘school milk scheme.’ Milk drinking is encouraged during the free school lunches and the ‘scheme’ is subsidized by the EU. Interestingly, for a long time, milk was the only product group that companies were allowed to advertise in schools (Sarja 2022).

The brochure included scientific references in the ended for each presented statement, 20 in total

We found two main themes in the discussions. The first one clearly emphasized cultural and material factors that were seen as focal to national identity. We labelled this theme as ‘gastronationalism’ (DeSoucey, 2010) as the comments resonated vividly with something that is seen a ‘national heritage’, something that has ‘always been part of Finnish food culture’. The consumers argued that milk is, and should be, a ‘natural and normal’ part of our daily eating practices. The discussants also commented on the importance of dairy production to the national economic wellbeing. Some comments regarded the origin of the company as suspicious: Swedish Oatly was seen to stick its nose to something that was not its business: Finnish foodways and its domestic dairy products. Cows on the green summer pasture were seen to be an integral part of the Finnish landscape, although the agricultural days of most of Finland are long gone, and the dairy production has mostly been shifted to factory-like facilities. Still, the imagery of this ideal landscape was symbolically threatened somehow by the oat and oat milk production (see Pospëch, 2023).

The other main theme was more tainted with expressions of care and moral issues. These too are often found in studies on political consumption, especially related to meat or other animal-based foods (e.g. Koskinen 2024). We labelled this theme as ‘gastroplanetarism’ as it taps with altruistic concerns related to environment, its species and their health and well-being. The discussion considered both the health of human beings (supporting both the dairy and the plant-based products) and other animals. Consumers lamented for instance the cruelty of the calves being taken from their mothers as well as the methane emissions of the dairy production. Gastroplanterism is thus related to the call for the planetary health diet (Willett el al., 2019) that aims at ‘plant-forward’ diet nurturing human health and supporting environmental sustainability on a global level.

Our data provided a typical example of contemporary online debate on food. Being rife with moral, ideological, and aesthetic arguments, they were also seemingly influenced by the affective sentiments and thus part of the so-called identity lifestyle politics. Yet, since Oatly’s milk myths’ proposals of replacing milk with plant-based alternatives raised polarized and tense discussions among the consumers, we conclude that as a part of mundane, banal food consumption, milk serves as an exceptional case to be examined through the lenses of political consumption and (banal) gastronationalism. Milk represents central values of Finnish food culture and thus contributes to the national, food-related polito-ideological identity.

DeSoucey, M (2010) Gastronationlism: Food Traditions and Authenticity Politics in the European Union. American Sociological Review, 75(3), 432–455.

Purhonen, S & Gronow, J (2014) Polarizing appetites? Stability and Change in Culinary Tastes in Finland, 1995–2007. Food, Culture & Society, 17(1), 27–47.

Kaarlenkaski, T (2015) Cattle tending in the ‘good old times’: Human–Cow relationships in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Finland. In: Affect, Space and Animals pp. 25–36.

Koskinen, O (2024) Everyday food consumption practices involving meat as multiple relatings of care. Publications of the Faculty of Social Sciences 255. Helsinki University: Helsinki.

Pospëch, P (2023) Banal gastronationalism and anti-EU populism. Sociologica Ruralis, 63(4), 969–985.

Sarja, T (2022) Superjuomasta kiistakapulaksi. Docendo: Helsinki.

Willett, W et al. (2019) Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet, 2019(393), 447–492.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *