Essay

The fight for the white stuff

The ongoing machinations of the milk wars

IN 2013, DURING the early stages of my PhD, I spent a semester in Washington, DC. There I was, a twenty-something postgrad from Canberra, spending each nine-to-five at the Library of Congress, opposite the Supreme Court and around the corner from Congress itself. Each morning I queued for coffee behind suits wearing lanyards who spoke of influence and access. I saw presidential motorcades, hobnobbed at the Australian Embassy, and was privy to rumours that Hillary was definitely going to run in 2016.

Exciting, sure.

Stimulating, certainly.

But what truly struck me, what really wowed this kid from Down Under, was not the proximity to power or the imposing architecture, nor even the high-quality gossip. It was the milk. Specifically, the brave new world of plant-based milks ubiquitous in aspirational DC.

At CVS pharmacies, the fridge section housed a garrison of almond milks in every imaginable size and flavour. My housemate, a Black policy advisor determined to become Governor of Alaska, filled our fridge with squat two-litre cartons of vanilla almond beverage, which she glugged into the blender for green smoothies.

When I went on pilgrimage to Whole Foods, I found oat, soy, rice, coconut, cashew and even hemp milk. At the time, hemp milk was banned in Australia due to a blanket prohibition on cannabis products. Perched on the shelves, rich in protein and omega-3, it seemed impossibly futuristic, a souvenir from the twenty-second century. Poured over cereal the beverage was creamy yet light, with a nutty aftertaste. As it trickled into my stomach I felt a rush of vitality, a placebo hit of righteous nutrition. 

At that point I was not yet vegan, but I was already a wellness devotee fascinated by foods that promised self-optimisation. I was awed by the hubris of refusing the milk found in cows’ udders and the insistence that humans could build a better alternative, and I was vulnerable to the suggestion that perfect health was just a $6 carton away. As I toured grocery stores it became a hobby to peruse the milk selection, searching for new varieties to sample. I became familiar with the federal capital through drinking its overpriced health beverages.

Back home, plant milks and America remained entangled in my mind. Although non-dairy milks are hardly unique to the US, there seemed something distinctly ‘American’ about the consumerist techno-utopianism of engineered nutrition. In its seductive promises and dazzling abundance, in its massification and drive for profit, and its bold-yet-arrogant ambition, the world of plant milks became a metonym for everything I loved and loathed about US culture. Give me a carton of Blue Diamond Almond Breeze and you have given me America.

 

ALICE CAPORN KNEW her milks. Cow’s milk, what most people called milk, was an anathema. It was hard on the joints, a source of mucus and disease. Soy milk was a decent alternative, but almond was the gateway to optimal health. Caporn liked to make her own almond beverage with a cheesecloth, using honey to sweeten.

Caporn herself was a walking advertisement for the dairy-free life. Although in her mid-sixties she could pass for decades younger. Slim and deeply tanned, with an erect spine and apple cheeks, Caporn was the picture of vitality. The health entrepreneur hustled day and night yet hadn’t had a day’s illness in years. Her eyes twinkled beneath dark hair, not yet faded into grey. With an infectious smile, Caporn told Australians that almond milk is ‘rich in mineral elements and vitamins’ and the ‘best possible kind of protein’. Whatever the precise reason, the beverage had clearly worked wonders on her.

In the era of Goop, #fitspo and mass veganism, this is all standard stuff. By the 2020s, Australia had jumped on the plant-milk bandwagon. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, plant milk consumption is up 43 per cent over the past three years. In 2022, the ABC reported that one in four café coffees were served with a non-dairy alternative. In my gentrified suburb of Northcote, in Melbourne’s north, the local IGA sells more than fifty varieties of plant milk, including spelt, hazelnut, coconut and even hemp, which has been legal in Australia since 2017. Caporn would fit in here just fine. 

Except Caporn wasn’t speaking in the 2020s. She was long dead by then. In fact, Caporn’s adventures in plant-based nutrition took place almost a century ago, long before almond milk entered Australian supermarkets. Her stomping ground was not wellness Instagram but the newspapers and lecture halls of 1930s Western Australia. 

What was an almond-milk evangelist doing in interwar Perth, the world’s most isolated city, a British outpost that then boasted a settler population of only 250,000?

Well, as with my dalliance with plant milk, it all started in America.

Born in 1875 in Angaston, South Australia, Caporn (née White) began her professional life as a nurse. She worked in Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, then in 1904, aged twenty-nine, married Henry Caporn. Around the same time, she discovered Christian Science, a new church founded in 1879 by American Mary Baker Eddy that focused on spiritual and physical healing. From the 1890s, when Christian Science arrived in Australia, it won over many progressive women, including feminists Vida Goldstein and Miles Franklin.

Caporn was one of these converts. She fell hook, line and sinker. More than her husband, Christian Science was her great love. So, in 1917, she made a dramatic decision. That winter, with World War I still raging, Caporn ditched Henry and boarded the Makura for a three-week voyage to the United States. At the age of forty-two, Caporn made a new home in Boston, the headquarters of the Christian Science faith.

At the time the US was an unlikely destination for a white Australian. Even back then, in the early 1900s, settler Australians were enthusiastic travellers, eager to flee the perceived provincialism of the southern continent for wider horizons. Yet the vast majority went to England – the mother country, the imperial metropole. In 1920 almost 19,000 Australians embarked on what historian Angela Woollacott has called the ‘secular pilgrimage’ to London.

By contrast, the US wasn’t a huge presence in Australian life. This was before the GI influx of World War II, long before ANZUS. There was no cable or wireless link between the two countries and no formal diplomatic ties. Hollywood was only just beginning; American books were hard to find. Against this backdrop, to head to America was to swim against the tide. In 1920 only around 2,000 Australians left for the US. By joining them, by heading stateside to join her Christian Science community, Caporn marked herself as a freethinker, someone determined to carve her own path.

Once settled in Boston, Caporn developed an interest in the new science of nutrition. After the discovery of vitamins in 1912, the US had become the global hub of nutrition research and a pioneer of the dietetics profession. Thanks to innovations in technology, modern dietary science was providing the tools to optimise vitality and health. Yet modernity was also a threat, as it presented new stresses such as urban pollution, sedentary lifestyles and processed food that risked devitalising the Western world. This was the high watermark of eugenic thinking, and fears abounded that the ‘white races’ would soon be usurped by the ‘rising tide of colour’. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Could correct diet protect the white population from the scourges of modern living, before it was too late? 

Caporn dove headfirst into these debates, remaking herself as a proto-wellness influencer. Like health gurus before and since, she boasted her own redemption narrative. As Caporn entered midlife she’d been beset by aches and pains. Liver trouble. Heart trouble. Insomnia. Weight loss, swollen legs, fallen arches. All looked hopeless, a slow decline towards death. Then she discovered the cure: ‘natural foods’ and vigorous exercise. With her vitality so restored, Caporn became a convert to naturopathy and ‘modern food science’. In Boston and New York she pursued qualifications with proponents of the ‘nature cure’, such as naturopath Benedict Lust.

By the mid 1930s, Caporn had developed her own system of ‘Health and Beauty Exercises’ and lectured on ‘Dynamic Health!’ across the eastern seaboard. She claimed to hold a degree from Columbia University, but her name is absent from the university’s list of graduates. A prolific writer, Caporn published fourteen books under the Boston-based Radiant Health imprint. Her oeuvre ranged from Sex Intelligence and Phosphorus Foods to Sunshine Treatment and Care of the Feet. She continued to live apart from her husband, not even returning to Australia when he died in 1934.

Her schemes grew more ambitious each year. For a time Caporn planned to establish a nudist colony near Washington, DC but was thwarted by concerns about indecent exposure. Instead, she moved her efforts to West Virginia, where she advertised Minnehaha Health Spa. Later, Caporn investigated founding a health colony in Belize.

Caporn finally returned to Australia in 1937. After a long run of freedom, duty had come calling. She’d been recalled home to nurse her ailing mother. Yet despite her familial obligations, Caporn maintained a frenetic schedule. Although no spring chicken herself – she was now in her sixties – Caporn channelled her energies into a campaign to remake the Australian diet. In 1938 Caporn settled in Perth, where she set up shop as a self-proclaimed ‘famous American Authority on Nutritional Science’.

First order of business: Ra-D-nt Helth Centre, a health food store and café in Perth’s CBD. Operational headquarters were in London Court, with the shopfront around the corner on Barrack Street. There, patrons purchased nut butters and sea lettuce, or dined on ‘Hollywood salads’ and ‘Hollywood vegetable juice cocktails’. Caporn also became a well-known public commentator. She gave twice-weekly talks on radio stations 6iX and 6PR, and lectured on Monday evenings as well as Tuesday and Friday afternoons.

Then, in 1939, Caporn launched her own lifestyle magazine. Modern Living juxtaposed recipes, advertisements and Christian hymns. In the June issue she raged against ‘devitalised white flour’, advocated nude sunbathing and shared recipes for Ra-D-nt Helth macaroni and oat porridge. Unafraid of provocative claims, Caporn boasted that her dietary regime could eradicate infantile paralysis and had effected the complete ‘rejuvenation’ of her octogenarian mother. It was the classic wellness pitch: eat this way and you’ll outrun age and disease.

Almond butter and green juice might be supermarket staples today, but back then Caporn’s regime was revolutionary. In the 1930s, when the settler population was 98 per cent ‘British’, the Australian diet was structured around meat, sugar, dairy and tea – staples of a cuisine inherited from the mother country. Salads were a novelty, fresh juices virtually unheard of. All in all, it was radical stuff.

And it was all depicted as distinctly ‘American’. Although a native-born Australian, Caporn was at pains to flaunt her American credentials and stress the Americanness of health-conscious eating. Her diet wasn’t just healthful; it was ‘the very latest Hollywood diet’. Adopting the eugenicist logic of the period, in which diet was tied to national and racial fitness, Caporn presented the vitamin-rich produce of American ‘food science’ as a vehicle to personal and collective flourishing. In her words, Americans were a ‘food-conscious race’, scientifically informed eaters whose passion for fruits and vegetables both reflected and fuelled their modernity. ‘Everyone who is really modern is interested in diet,’ Caporn proclaimed, stressing that ‘Americans are more advanced in the application of dietetics to everyday meals than the English.’

Now she’d arrived to spread the gospel, Australians had a chance to become modern themselves, one ‘Hollywood salad’ at a time. The implicit flipside of these ideas was that the stodge and starch of British tradition risked degeneracy. Too much meat and milk, and white Australia might just wither on the vine.

For several months, Caporn basked in the glow of positive press. Her ‘advanced American views’ on ‘Modern Food Science’ set Perth abuzz. She was given endless column inches to share her views on everything from apples to elocution to men’s fashion. Everyone wanted a piece of the sprightly expat who’d returned home after twenty years with better health than when she left.

But then, in mid 1939, public sentiment underwent an abrupt U-turn. Suddenly Perth’s new health guru was on the nose.

The problem? Caporn’s heterodox views on milk.

Dairy milk was little consumed in Australia prior to 1920, but its status soared in the wake of widespread pasteurisation and the development of nutritional science. Interwar medical professionals championed milk as a ‘protective food’ that promised to fortify the next generation of white settlers. By 1939 the federal Health Department advised that children should drink 1.5 pints (700 millilitres) of dairy milk per day. In the popular imagination the beverage had become key to ensuring the future of a white Australia ever anxious about its precarious foothold on stolen land proximate to Asia.

Caporn, however, was unconvinced. In Modern Living, she posed the question ‘Is Cow’s Milk Good for Man?’ The answer? An emphatic no. ‘So-called civilized man is the only animal on Earth who never leaves off drinking milk, but nature makes him pay the price for this violation of her laws,’ Caporn thundered. In her public talks, she explained ‘Why Cow’s Milk Causes Mucus, Colds and Tonsillitis’. Instead of feeding dairy to children, Caporn championed an almond beverage, which ‘in chemical analysis is very similar to mother’s milk’. Nut milk was indeed a recipe for perfect health. ‘A girl brought up in that way would never know what a headache was,’ she told a 160-strong audience at Arundale Hall. It was an unabashed provocation, a red rag to the pro-dairy establishment.

The backlash was fierce. First off the blocks was dairy farmer WH Taylor. In May, Taylor heckled Caporn from a lecture audience, challenging her to a public debate about the value of milk. When Caporn declined the challenge, on the grounds that Taylor was not a scientist or medical professional, the irate man took to the letters’ page of The West Australian. In a lengthy diatribe, Taylor denounced Caporn’s anti-milk views as ignorant and dangerous. He depicted Caporn’s acolytes as gullible housewives, women who were easily led and needed to be protected from misinformation. ‘[S]ome action should be taken to combat Dr Caporn’s pernicious teaching on this milk question,’ he opined. Caporn responded with a counter-letter defending her credentials, but by this point Taylor had been joined by vocal allies. ‘Taylor is to be complimented on his stand,’ wrote an SE Turner, because we ‘cannot afford to have our children’s health endangered by mere notions.’ Another correspondent called for a citizens’ meeting on the question given milk’s ‘extreme importance’ to the state. Caporn was in the firing line.

But this was only the beginning. Next, in June, Commissioner of Public Health Dr Everitt Atkinson joined forces with the Perth Sunday Times to demolish Caporn’s reputation. In a feature headlined ‘Dietetic Bunk Exposed’ she was charged with spreading an ‘Absurd Doctrine’ that ‘Misleads Mothers’ and ‘Flouts High Medical Opinion’. On behalf of local doctors, Commissioner Atkinson issued a ‘scathing condemnation of this foolish cult’. In his view, Caporn’s recommendation to avoid dairy imperilled the health of children and invalids. Not satisfied with this dressing down, the Times continued its attacks over the coming weeks. ‘Fantastic Food Fads Further Exposed’ screamed one headline. ‘Public Advised Not to Listen to Mrs Caporn’s Stupid Theories’ ran another. In article after article, she was derided as a ‘milk faddist’ who traded in the ‘pernicious virus of American “hooey”’.

 

ALICE CAPORN WAS part of the reason I was in Washington, DC in 2013. I’d gone there to research Australian women who lived and worked in the US during the early twentieth century, Caporn among them. I wanted to know what drew them across the Pacific, what they found there and what ideas about America they brought back home. How did the travels of ‘ordinary’ women like Caporn shape the development of relations between Australia and the US?

My focus wasn’t on food per se, but food emerged as a big part of the story. For white Australian women, the US was understood as more ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ than both Australia and Britain, and their sense of this superior modernity stemmed largely from everyday things – design, architecture, consumer goods and food. American clothing, American cities and, above all, American meals were all perceived as cutting-edge, a sign of things to come.

It wasn’t just diet professionals like Caporn who read meaning into American cuisine. All sorts of Australian women were fascinated by US food culture, coming to see local eating habits as up-to-date best practice, a model to emulate. Although the phrase ‘American food’ might today conjure images of burgers and fries, in the interwar decades the term more often evoked fresh produce. Dorothy Cottrell, an Australian writer who moved to California in 1928, saw Americans as a vigorous people who knew how to eat for optimal vitality. In letters to family, Cottrell gave breathless accounts of the American diet, recommending the local penchant for orange juice, raw vegetables and plenty of water. Ruby Coulls, an ‘Adelaide girl’ who travelled solo through North America in 1931, was likewise transfixed by the ‘American custom’ of salads and later sought to popularise the dish back in South Australia.

Yet, as Caporn’s example made clear, it was no straightforward thing to challenge Australian dietary norms. Food was more than mere fuel. It was culture and identity and values; it underpinned personal and national wellbeing. When food norms were questioned, other sacred cows invariably came under threat. Backlash was common. Things could get ugly. 

 

BY LATE JUNE 1939, Caporn’s stance on milk had seen her pilloried as a ‘modern health-diet crank’. As the vehemence of this response suggests, more than milk was at stake. Rather than a mere dispute about nutritional science, this was a battle for the physical and racial future of the nation. Both Caporn and her opponents believed correct diet was crucial to sustaining white Australia. But did dairy help or hinder a healthy white population? Conventional medical opinion held that milk was ‘key to proper nutrition’, the building block of individual and national strength. Yet for Caporn dairy milk was a recipe for decline. Poor diet had led to low birth rates among white settlers. ‘Australians are sterile,’ she explained, ‘because they’ve been eating the wrong foods.’ Milk, along with sugar and white flour, was ‘like a nest of vipers in the body’.

Perth’s milk war was also a battle between competing forms of knowledge and expertise. On one side was Caporn, a ‘milk faddist’ with ‘Yankee Modern Health Letters after her name’ and legions of credulous female fans. On the other was an all-male league of ‘recognised health authorities’, who condemned the US as ‘the home of superstition’ and whose pro-dairy stance was endorsed by the British Advisory Council of Nutrition. The battle lines were drawn: Britain versus America, tradition versus modernity, men versus women. By challenging British norms and masculine authority with her anti-dairy claims, Caporn was asking bigger questions about Australian culture. Should the nation continue in its historic emulation of Britain? Or did a better future lie in looking to the US, where a feminised popular modernity was on the march?

The backdrop to these questions was the anti-Americanism then rife among Australian elites. By the late 1920s, Hollywood imports represented 90 per cent of films screened in Australian cinemas. The wireless played American jazz and the press syndicated American comics. Although working people – especially young women – embraced these modern entertainments, churches and middle-class tastemakers worried about the ‘vulgarisation’ of public life. Hollywood was all sex and violence, a crass spectacle that threatened to corrupt the local populace. In a 1935 pamphlet, literary figure (and fascist) PR Stephensen condemned ‘Mental Rubbish from Overseas’, decrying the ‘dumping’ of ‘cheap and undesirable’ American imports in the Australian market. To a large extent this anti-American rhetoric was thinly veiled racism. In Stephensen’s formulation, the racial purity of white Australia was under threat from an American mass culture infused with Black and Jewish influences. Left unchecked, Australian youth would be corrupted by ‘cosmopolitan’ (read: non-white) culture from the American melting pot.

In this context ‘America’ was a loaded word. By the time Caporn arrived on the scene, the term didn’t just refer to the US: ‘America’ was also a metaphor for a constellation of bogeymen – unchaste women, racial intermixing, unbridled commerce, challenges to British pre-eminence. By stressing the ‘Americanness’ of her thinking, Caporn was therefore playing a dangerous game. It was a branding strategy that conferred an undeniable glamour, especially among the women who formed her main audience, but it also allowed Caporn to be condemned by association. For gatekeepers threatened by her views or influence, it was all too easy to undermine Caporn via sneering references to ‘Yankee’ credentials and ‘American hooey’. The subtext was clear: as if some old bat from degenerate America could have something to say. 

THE MILK WARS are back. In 2017, NSW lobby group Dairy Connect complained about the misuse of ‘milk’ on almond and soy products and called for a ‘truth in labelling crackdown’. Although the idea that consumers confused almond and cow milks was widely mocked, the dairy industry only stepped up their efforts to prevent the incursion of plant-based ‘milk’ products on their terrain. By 2019 the NSW Farmers Association was complaining that ‘so-called plant-based milks [were] trying to use the nutritional quality of milk to sell their products’. According to the association’s Chair, Colin Thompson, ‘To use the word “milk” for anything other than fluid from lactating animals is deliberately misleading.’ He wanted ‘almond milk’ renamed ‘almond juice’.

As of 2021, the issue has been taken up by the Australian Dairy Industry Council (ADIC). At a Senate hearing in December, ADIC Chair Rick Gladigau accused alternative milks of ‘falsely leveraging the dairy industry’ to boost their products. Consumers had been befuddled into thinking that plant ‘milks’ were nutritionally equal to dairy. To address this issue, the ADIC called upon the federal government to better regulate terms such as ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’, as is already happening overseas. The resultant Senate report, released in February 2022, recommended new guidelines to inform the labelling of plant-based proteins, though stopped short of acting on dairy. What happens next remains to be seen.

There are echoes here of 1939. We’re no longer talking about British authority and American hooey (though US influences in Australian wellness culture remain strong), but this latest milk war once again represents the clash of two different stories about milk and population. Among plant-milk consumers there is a narrative that these beverages are healthier than dairy. According to 2020 consumer research (funded by Dairy Australia), half cited health as their main reason for choosing milk alternatives (whereas only 30 per cent cited environmental factors). This narrative is fuelled by plant-milk producers, who stress the health benefits of their products. ‘Natural source of good fats’, ‘whole plant protein’, ‘good source of calcium’, ‘all essential amino acids’, ‘plant prebiotic fibre’, ‘filled with good, free from bad’: a sample of the verbiage that adorns cartons. ‘Is it better than milk?’ asks Blue Diamond Almond Breeze. The implicit answer, of course, is yes. Low-calorie yet nutrient dense; natural yet high tech, better than nature: this is the cultivated image of plant-based milks. The moniker says it all – who can argue with something made from plants? Never mind the stabilisers and emulsifiers and sugars and acidity regulators that accompany the nuts. In the 2020s Caporn’s story of almond milk as Mother Nature’s alternative to dubious dairy remains alive and well.

For the dairy lobby, however, milk is a nutritional powerhouse. Packed with protein and calories, ‘real’ milk is the clear winner over watery ‘almond juice’. As in 1939, the industry has spun an ominous tale about gullible (implicitly female) consumers being led up the garden path by unscrupulous actors who fool them into thinking watery nut beverages carry nutritional weight. Once again we have a paternalistic moral panic, a pro-dairy backlash that seeks to save the consumer from herself. The nation’s health – or at least the dairy industry’s bottom line – is at stake.

 

CAPORN SURVIVED THE milk war of 1939. The ‘unrelenting waves of persecution and misrepresentation’ only fuelled her righteous conviction. As she put it, the ‘concerted effort of certain powerful vested interests’ had done their worst, but the ‘Modern Health Science Movement’ lived to see another day. On Friday 7 July a notice appeared in The West Australian. Dr Alice Caporn would lecture that afternoon at the Cremorne Arcade ballroom. The topic? One word: ‘Milk’. This was Caporn giving a defiant middle finger to the Dr Atkinsons of this world. She would not be silenced on the milk question; she would ‘weather the storm of abuse and opposition’ like the martyr she believed herself to be.

In fact the storm was an apparent boon for Caporn’s career. Following the milk controversy, speaking invitations flooded in. Everyone from the Fremantle Labor Women’s Organisation to the Methodist Ladies’ Society wanted to hear from the Yankee food faddist. That year Caporn commenced a popular lecture series at Boans, Perth’s leading department store. On the business front Caporn expanded her operations to include a solarium and naturopathic clinic based in a handsome residence in prosperous Nedlands. Neighbours would spy her enjoying a dawn skinny-dip down at the river. All the while Caporn kept promoting ‘American’ healthy eating. ‘We congratulate America for its leadership in popularising salads,’ she wrote in 1950.

At Nedlands, Caporn began teaching, passing on American ‘food science’ to a new generation. One of her students was Dorothea Snook, a woman who ended up as Perth’s pre-eminent naturopath. Snook continued practising into the 1990s, when her career ended in a scandal about alternative cancer treatment. Caporn herself remained a walking advertisement for her regime until the last. She’d long boasted she’d ‘live to 100’; as it turned out she almost made it. She died in 1969 aged ninety-three.

In the 2010s, Snook’s – and Caporn’s – health advice was republished by an Australian devotee. It was now the golden age of plant milk, history had caught up with Caporn and the erstwhile ‘food faddist’ was reclaimed as a visionary pioneer. According to science writer Greta Puls, author of Gut Instinct (2017), Caporn was not a crank but a trailblazer, a woman unfairly maligned by a close-minded health establishment, now vindicated by the latest dietary thinking. On page thirty-five of Gut Instinct you can find a recipe for almond milk. It calls for almonds, boiled water, honey, carrot and cucumber, all blended together then strained.

These days I prefer soy milk to almond, but I give the Gut Instinct recipe a whirl. The result is sweet and creamy, far thicker than store-bought varieties with earthy notes from the carrot. It tasted wholesome, if cloying, like something you might feed a convalescent. The labour of preparation seemed to imbue it with extra goodness. I can see why Perth mothers believed the concoction would nourish their children. The next morning, though, I put full-cream dairy in my tea, then later down a soy latte. When it comes to the milk wars, I’ve landed as a fence-sitter, a promiscuous beverage consumer who wants to drink my nuts and eat milk too.

Caporn would not be proud. 

 

Author’s note: My thanks to Greta Puls for sharing her Caporn research.

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