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The culture of milk in Argentina

Patricia Aguirre


This paper analyses the culture of milk and it includes both the micro social aspects of household consumption and the economic macro aspects related to milk production and their market and the welfare distribution in public policies against poverty. The hypothesis is that in Argentina there is a real culture of milk, which gives meaning to consumption, and marks the different income groups within society, as well as their gender and age. But since approximately 20 years ago, in accordance with the restructuring of the dairy industrial complex, that culture of milk has been changing, and its most outstanding features are the following: abandonment of milk as the emblematic food for children and its extension to the adult “formal” consumption; milk is no longer the knowledge of women and becomes the knowledge of experts; increase in milk consumption (dairy products in general) as food gets feminine, infantile, medicated, globalised and segmented.

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1We believe that a study about the culture of milk should include both the micro social aspects of household consumption, and the economic macro aspects related to production, distribution and consumption, in the process evaluating the State and market variables that affect it.

2Our hypothesis is that in Argentina there is a real ‘culture of milk’, which gives meaning to consumption, and marks out the different income groups within society, as well as their gender and age. Since more or less the early 1980s, in accordance with the restructuring of the dairy industrial complex, that culture of milk has been changing, and its most outstanding features are the following:

  • Abandonment of milk as the emblematic food for children and its spread into adult “formal” consumption.

  • Production segmentation correlative with the growing social fragmentation.

  • Increase in milk consumption (dairy products in general) as food becomes feminine, infantile, medicated, globalised and segmentated.


3This paper started out from a qualitative research project based on the analysis of practices and representations about the consumption of milk in 144 households across 6 eco-cultural areas in Argentina carried out for the Health Ministry (Aguirre, P. 2001a). However, this paper also includes macro aspects from secondary sources.

4We will begin by ordering the different levels in which the culture of milk spreads out, separated for analytical purposes. In fact, of course, they operate simultaneously; for when people consume milk, they are consuming the product together with the significance it has for the group that produces and distributes it. Although in practice milk is not a kind of food that can be analyzed as a homogeneous category because not everybody drinks the same milk, for the cultural referents any kind of milk is still considered “milk”.

5Let us begin with the biological phase and some history in order to locate the ‘hard’ aspects of demand; we will continue with a brief market analysis including all the changes produced in the dairy complex; later we will deal with the role played by the State in conditioning the supply process. Finally, on the micro social level, we will deal with consumption in households and institutions, taking into account the meanings that consumers give to its consumption.

The Basis: Biological Aspects

6We are mammals. Yet, this fact – as we will see later – is irrelevant for the meanings given to the consumption of milk because meaning (in cultural terms) goes beyond biological aspects. Milk means much more in our society; it is culture made nature. The native American people, who did not know about the milking of cattle until the arrival of the Spanish, were (and still are) intolerant to milk: among members of this population, at the age of 4 or 5, individuals stop synthesizing the enzyme (lactase) that breaks the milk complex sugar (lactose) down into two simple monosaccharides (glucose and galactose) which can be metabolized in the intestine. If today 80% of the Argentinian population drinks milk, this is due to the biological and cultural colonization of the country by waves of Europeans. As a genetic colony, the immigrants’ contribution was to provide high tolerance to the Creole’s gene pool; as a cultural colony the Spaniards introduced the milking of cattle in the 16th century.

History of the Milk Market

7Introduced to an eco-system with no competitors, cattle reproduced spontaneously and exponentially forming herds of wild livestock. As they were rustic, they were used, for the first 300 hundred years, as the source of meat and leather, but not of milk, which was notoriously scarce in colonial towns (Alvarez y Pinotti. 1999)

8This was the case until 1823, when Don José Quirno’s farm in Flores started supplying milk to local coffee shops and households. Milkmaids with felt hats and huge skirts went around the city, taking with them between 4 to 10 cows who wouls be milked straightaway. Also, milkmen used to carry milk in Sevillian pitchers for distribution. The general dairy offer was completed with country cheese (semi-hard) and butter in cow bladder (systematically rancid until c.1825 when the Scottish colony of Santa Catalina started manufacturing butter in pound pieces.) (Wilde, J.A. 1908). However it was not until the Basque immigration at the end of the 19th century that the production of milk and other diary products was systematically exploited. Powdered milk production and consumption date from the first decades in the 20th century; we will refer to it later.

9Today, there are 22,000 dairy farms in the general milk-producing area, where 80,000 family groups work, with an estimated production of c.1,100 litres a day per farm. Only a third of this remains as liquid milk; the rest is industrialized in 800 plants. However, 25 years ago the dairy industrial complex was restructed in order to increase productivity –through technology – to reduce its seasonal nature. This change was decisive for the elaboration of different products with higher added value (at the same time it excluded the medium-sized firms and thus created an oligopolistic market). Analyzing dairy consumption by items, we observe that while the industry progresses, the supply becomes ever more fragmented through the production of more elaborate products with a higher relative price so favoring the highest income sectors and the increasing isolation of “market niches”. This process explains the increase in diary consumption from 13 to 31 kg/person a year. At the same time, most Argentinians who have suffered a dramatic fall in their incomes ‘return’ to consumption of liquid milk (“in sachets”), the cheapest dairy packaging. In the Table below we can see that in the last 25 years the level of this consumption has increased from 165 to 252 litres each person per year, i.e. a rise of 152%. This is misleading as it ‘should’ have increased 312% if it had strictly correlated with the rise of the poverty rate, (which over the same period increased from 8% to 25% of the population). Table 1 shows that as poverty increases, the consumption of fluid milk does not increase in the same proportion, and people even stop consuming the product (among all the foods that are replaced or not consumed any more because of poverty).




Industrialized dairy products

Powdered milk






































































































































Table 1 Apparent Consumption Of Dairy Products 1975-2000 (In litres or kilos per person, per year)

Sources: own report bases on INDEC. FIEL . Secretary of Agriculture, Fishing and Food, and CIL (Center of Milk Industry). 1975-2001

10So, if the industry has improved its quality, biological safety and supply, the industrial restructuring has also increased prices and segmentated the supply directing it principally towards high-income sectors. In the last quarter of the century these sectors have shrunk while poverty has extended exponentially, with a decrease in food consumption of 30% of the family shopping basket, a decrease which includes the consumption of liquid milk (Aguirre, P. 2001b).

11Supply segmentation (regular milk – in sachet – and differentiated milk containing calcium, A and D vitamin or iron, whole milk, skimmed milk, semi-skimmed milk, sweetened milk, long-lasting milk, etc.) reflects this social fragmentation. There are as many kinds of milk as income groups in Argentinian society, so making applicable the saying “one shall be known by the milk one drinks”.

Role of the State and Incidence of Public Policies

12The agents of the State disseminate meanings through its public policies, laws, regulations and institutions, as they are the ones who legislate, control and approve what can and may be consumed and why.

13The health-medical discourse about milk that inspires public policies has changed several times over the last century, legitimizing opposed positions at different points of time. One example is the promotion of powdered milk which was carried out until the ‘70s, folloews by the sudden change towards promoting breastfeeding since then. In general terms, however, the State has rashly followed the ups and downs of the diary industry, imposing or promoting as many products as the industry wanted to sell.

14Since 1945 the dairy industrial complex has placed an appreciable percentage of its powdered milk production (which in the decade of the 1980s reached 30%) in State welfare programs1, thus spreading across the poor population the consumption of this product, which otherwise would be hard to get due to its high price (and whose consumption stops when the State stops providing it.) When the product is distributed massively by the State it becomes filled with meaning (as good, reliable and nutritious) because it is assumed that the State acts for the good of all (and is, moreover, supported technically by the public health campaigns). On the other hand, the milk industry exerts a great deal of pressure on the government, as a result of its contribution to the GDP (1.6%), to farming (6%) and industrial (3%) production, to the creation of employment (30,000 jobs), to the generation of currency through exports, and to foreign policy (MERCOSUR gets 80% of milk exports.) This is the main reason why the State hardly dares to contradict what it is beneficial for the milk industry (FIEL 2001).

Consumption in social groups2

15In Argentine’s food culture, milk is considered a “staple” for an “age group”: children. We can appreciate this in the statement, “milk is the best food for children”. This phrase which belongs to the “common sense” realm –repeated as an evident truth- stimulates a variety of reflections:

16- The “milk” referred to in the popular discourse – qualified as “the best food” – is not human beings’ maternal milk as mammals (which was during millions of years both the best food for children and the only one3) but cow milk. We have already mentioned that the introduction of powdered milk dates from the early 20th century; it was promoted as “the best food”, spurred by the development of a middle-income social class that could afford both a private medical system and formula milks for babies.
Natural breastfeeding came to be depreciated because physicians, pharmacists, and the diary industry had too much to lose, even though this depreciation endangered the health of mothers and their childre. From 1980 and after 20 years of intensive campaigns in favour of natural feeding, less than 20% of children were being fed exclusively on cow milk, while just ove 80% were receiving mixed breastfeeding (maternal and artificial combined) at the fourth month of age (Ministerio de Salud 2000) . However, the 80 year-old medical advocacy of formula milk produced some longlasting results, and even today the National Commission for Maternal Breastfeeding faces the amazing task of convincing mothers that their human milk is a more appropriate food for human babies than cow milk.
All the same it must be said that the idea of cow milk being better than human milk was symbolically founded on the value cows have as providers of meat. Meat is the marker in Argentinian food4, to the extent that red meat is synonymous with “food”. Until a few years ago, if a meal had no meat in it, it was not considered “food”.

17- Milk is the best food: this association between cow milk and food reaches its climax in the belief that a dish of food (meat, vegetables) can be replaced with a cup of milk. Though rejected by nutritionists, this is unquestionable from the point of view of the culture of milk, to the extent that, as poverty advances, dinner is replaced with a cup of boiled mate and milk and a piece of bread, under the conviction that in giving milk to children, they are being fed with all they need.

18- For children: the different ways of preparing and having milk indicate the different stages of growth. A baby sucks – whether maternal or cow milk – and he/she becomes a child when he/she starts drinking from a cup or with a spoon. This passage may be accompanied by variations in the milk flavor, as the maternal breastfeed is supplemented or abandoned, or by the combination of milk with mate, herb tea, cocoa, sugar, honey, etc.
This passage from “baby” to “child” takes place at around 6 months of age. But, as is well-known, age categories have nothing to do with age itself but with social considerations about when a person comes to be recognized as a member of each class. “Baby, child, grown-up” are states relative not just to an individual’s development, but also to the mother’s perception, the family situation, the relationship with siblings, etc. For example, as the number of children in a family increases, they are declared “grown-ups” at a younger age.
In our research, we found that the great majority of people think – in relation to the question about the appropriate age to stop drinking milk – that it is a food which, so long as it does not interfere with personal preferences, people should have all their lives. Mothers think it par excellence the food of the ‘sons and daughters’ category, which explains why some of their answers make reference to social categorization, e.g. phrases such as “until they get married”.
Being an archetypal food for “children”, milk has a deep female resonance, without at the same time being an exclusively “female food”, because males -as sons- ‘must’ have it. Therefore we can say that we can place milk in the category of preferential food for women. Up until about twenty years ago, its consumption among male adults had an ambiguous nature, at least if consumption occurred in public. In those days it was associated with disease (a high milk consumption was prescribed for gastric ulcers and lead poisoning) rather than pleasure. The old milk shops were intended for mothers with little children and teenagers, who were expected to migrate -at due age- if they female to tearooms (where infusions were sold), and if they male to bars (where they would have alcoholic drinks according to their role.)
Even the noun “milk” is feminine in Spanish. However people do not have “milk” but “the” milk, referring to a particular, given milk (implicitly provided by the mother.) Not long ago, the term “yogurt” was also feminine (Shavelzón, D. 2000) and now it is masculine, (and the spelling has also simplified, omitting the final ‘t’ to match the Spanish pronunciation), a change that coincides with the restructuring of the dairy industry and its massive spreading.

19- Milk consumption is a routine; it is a common food whose prestige is built on its supposed importance in the growth of children; and it is prepared in the kitchen. It is hardly surprising, then, that it is exclusively handled by women, who have traditionally been in charge of functions related to reproduction. Contrary to masculine meals such as barbecues (made outside the kitchen, where men handle the knife, the fire and the meat and are considered “special” meals, if not festive), the preparation of milk falls on women-mothers. This daily, infantile and feminine characteristic is supported by the fact that there are no traditional savoury meals5 but sweet, milk desserts, mostly derived from the Spanish custard or the emblematic dulce de leche (milk jam)6.

20Besides, another female task associated with upbringing, health and protection of children is to manage the food dimension of government-run social care (which mainly delivers powdered milk for poor families, undernourished children or as a means of social control). We can observe the superlative value milk has when we interview mothers picking up powdered milk at the health centers. Beyond any nutritional considerations, when a mother has milk, she “has food” and she holds those cartons as a psychological defence against starvation. Having two 1kg-cartons of powdered milk not only means having 16 potential litres of milk, but the certainty of being able to feed the family; these cartons operate as a shield against “despair”7.

21“Drinking milk” means that one has food loaded with significance, an indicator of the domestic consumption associated with maternity and childhood, sweet desserts, daily life and the cow (a giver animal par excellence.) It is a sign of maternal care and protection across age groups (grown-ups prepare ‘the milk’ for the children), and of solidarity across classes in social care programs. Perhaps it is due to all these positive meanings that “milk” means “luck”; thus, someone lucky is said to have “buena leche” (to be jammy) and on the contrary, pitiful indeed is the unlucky person who drags his “mala leche” (bad luck) around.

22This culture of milk suffered radical changes at the time of the restructuring of the milk industry already mentioned. We should point out that in the “culture of milk” we include all milk products, although we have stated that they follow different paths (industrialized milk products are diversified in search of high-income consumers, while the liquid and powdered milk supply is focused on the poorest sectors.) The main features of this renovated culture of milk, compared with the earlier one already discussed, are:

  • Milk products are no longer indicators of age and gender. Though milk products remain daily and domestic foods, their consumption diversifies; public consumption of milk products increases, particularly with yogurt replacing lunch at work, among men and women, without distinction.

  • Supply is segmentated, reflecting the social fragmentation and the increase of poverty. As the industry offers products which are more and more expensive for their more and more specific subsets of consumers, high-income sectors spend more to consume more milk products, both in number and variety, while low-income sectors consume mainly liquid and powdered milk, the former because it is the cheapest on the market and the latter because it is supplied by the State. The new modes of milk consumption follow a golden rule: the poorer the family, the more collective the consumption (milk in 1 litre sachets); the higher the income, the more individual the consumption and the smaller the portions of it (producing higher packaging costs compared with the costs of the milk product itself.)


1st Quint.

2nd Quint.

3rd Quint.

4th Quint.

5th Quint.


Fresh Milk








Powdered milk








Milk Jam
















Cream Cheese








Soft Cheese








Semi-hard Cheese








Hard Cheese
















Table 2 Quantities Of Milk Products Consumed As Incomes Increase

Source: 1996 National Survey of Home Expenses. INDEC

23Also, in this segmentation of consumption we find a certain elitist feature of the new culture of milk that separates habitual consumers from healthy life activists. Milk becomes more and more unaffordable for most people who are only worried about living on their incomes, in a country in crisis with 49% of its population living below the poverty line (at the time this paper was written, April 2002.)

24- If the segmentation of supply in search of market niches responds to growing social fragmentation, we should mention briefly how these differentiated consumption patterns become indicators of individual identities, in-/excluding people as members of different groups. Here, differentiated consumption marks the limits of in-/exclusion, and the otherwise easy recourse to price as the unique parameter is not satisfactory. Product selection (always conditioned) and occasions for consumption form a plurality of identities in the great umbrella of the culture of milk. “Milk time” at home, with the mother and children eating and drinking together, coexists with other actors having yogurt for lunch quickly at work, with children having milk products for lunch at the school cafeteria, with women longing to be young and beautiful, condemned to perpetual diets of fatless milk products, with sportspeople milk-fed for competitive needs, with the sophisticated clients of cheese and wine bars. At the other end of the income pyramid coexist unemployed people’s children fed at care centers and beneficiaries of State food care programs who take away powdered milk. All these places and moments gather eaters that have milk in places socially identified as their own and which indicate membership, as son or daughter, as student, as employee, as worker, as healthy modern young woman, as sportswoman or sportsman, as the poor, etc. What these eaters have in common is their membership to the group of drinkers, determined by one product or a set of specific products (liquid milk, yogurt, drinkable yogurt, powdered milk, etc.), by a specific place (home, work, school, popular centers, hospital) and by a specific goal (to bring up children, to work, to keep or improve healthy conditions, to cover needs or simply to survive.)

25- The images associated with milk are no longer those of growth and health; they have given way to beauty and thinness (considered synonyms in this context) which are seen to accompany a healthy lifestyle characterized by a concern about the body, physical exercise and body aesthetics, and the fight against cholesterol embodied in red meat and high-fat meals. According to this scheme, yogurt as a pre-digested milk product, supplied in small containers, becomes a banner-food for those consumers who want to eat little, healthy and nutritious food. It becomes the office workers’ food that replaces lunch (as boiled mate and milk replaces dinner in the case of the poor.) It leaves the maternal and homemade food environment to be consumed outside.

26- Knowledge of milk is no longer the province of women (how and when to boil it, when to serve it, how to combine it, who should have it, etc.) and becomes the knowledge of experts. It is not that women stopped being producers of knowledge but their power has decreased greatly. Now, doctors are the ones who indicate which milk is convenient for a child (fortified with iron), for an adult woman (fortified with calcium and D3 vitamin), for a stressed adult (with lactobacillus), for a schoolchild (whole milk), for a teenager (fortified with iron and calcium), how it should be prepared and what it should be combined with (e.g., milk fortified with iron should not be mixed with mate – the national beverage – because the mineral bio-availability decreases and the colour turns to grey when the iron sulphate gets combined.) Also, the specialists are those who manage the milk “image”, creating associations with experience (in the case of cheese), health (modified milk), sports (drinkable yogurt), thinness and beauty (skimmed yogurt), childhood (imitation milk desserts), youth and dynamism (soft cheese). These experts, hired by the industry or by the State, generate meanings and build preferences, through an ongoing dialogue with social groups. The expertise of physicians, nutritionists, industrialists, and advertising agents can have a great effect on the acceptance or rejection of milk by mothers who offer it at home (and model their children’s preferences about what is socially acceptable) and on consumers who choose to drink a particular milk product and not any other because it meets their possibilities, wishes, expectations or goals.

27- Growing competition from other emblematic drinks to be regarded as the characteristic drink of juvenile and adolescent culture. The new culture of milk faces the bad press of being seen as “healthy”, an idea strongly repudiated by teenagers who wish to differentiate themselves from their parents (who at the same time drink milk to keep young perpetually – at least in appearance). Milk shops have disappeared; teenagers drink sweetened soft drinks and beer (the socially accepted age to start drinking beer goes down year after year); children drink synthetic juices (strictly chemical, fruit or soya). Today no child would think of celebrating his or her birthday with hot chocolate as was done until 1970, because nowadays juices and “other” milks (soya milk) have an aura of modernity and of festive food as opposed to the milk products youngsters associate with domesticity.

28Some authors state that food in highly urbanized societies has become “feminine”, in terms of the huge number of products and meals that at an earlier time indicated gender consumption8 and today belong to the global consumption. We cannot affirm that food has become “feminine”. However, we can affirm that the new culture of milk affects more and more the consumption of those sectors that can choose what to eat. People drink milk because they are sons or daughters, women, sportsmen or sportswomen, healthy life activists, etc. Whatever the excuse is, the new culture of milk has turned us – more than ever in the food Argentine history- into the children of cows9.

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Aguirre, Patricia. 1997. “Patrón alimentario, Estrategias e Identidad en Aregentina”. En Alvarez, M. y Pinotti, L. Procesos Socioculturales y alimentación. Ediciones del sol. Buenos Aires.

Aguirre, Patricia. 2001 a). “Representaciones Culturales acerca de la leche, anemia y hierro”. En Calvo, E. Longo, E. Aguirre, P. y Britos, S. Prevención de Anemia en Niños y Embarazadas en Argentina. Actualización para Equipos de Salud. Ministerio de Salud-UNICEF. Buenos Aires.

Aguirre, Patricia. 2001 b) “Los alimentos rendidores y el cuerpo de los pobres”. En La cocina como patrimonio (in)tangible. Secretaría de Cultura. Buenos Aires.

Alvarez, Marcelo y Pinotti, Luisa. 1999. A la Mesa. Ritos y Retos de la Alimentación Argentina. Grijalbo. Buenos Aires.

CIL Centro de la Industria lechera. Memoria Anual 1975-2000

FIEL -Fundación de Investigaciones Económicas Latinoamericanas-(Foundation of Latin American Economic Research) 2001. Tendencias Económicas y Financieras (Business and Financial Trends). Buenos Aires. Pag 429:431

INDEC. Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos.
Encuesta Nacional de Gastos de los Hogares. 1996
Indice de Precios al Consumidor 1975-2000
Encuesta Permanente de Hogares 1980-2001

Ministerio de Salud. 2000. Encuesta sobre Lactancia Materna. Buenos Aires.

Secretaría de Agricultura Pesca y Alimentación. División Lechería. Memoria estadística 1975-2000

Shavelzon, Daniel. 2000. Historias del Comer y del Beber en Buenos Aires. Aguilar Buenos Aires. Pag 110

Wilde, José Antonio. 1908. Buenos Aires desde Setenta Años Atrás. Biblioteca de La Nación. Buenos Aires.

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1 The Mother-Child Program since 1937, The Cup of Milk since 1946, The School Diners since 1964, and various Programs such as PAN, PRANI, EVA, etc., have been providing powdered milk as part of their assistance.
2 This section is based on a Paper prepared with the methodology of statement semiotics in 2000 for the Health Ministry.
3 Particularly for the native people who lived in the present Argentina’s territory, which had no milking cattle.
4 As for any population with a very low demographic density, the meat option has yielded a favourable balance for four centuries and even today the “ecologic meat” of the pampas is not a choice but a consequence of the convenience of raising animals with pasture and water with no investment whatsoever. As it can be seen with the recent aftosa (BSE) epidemic, the herds were not even vaccinated.
5 The humita (flavoured corn paste wrapped in corn leaves) is cooked in stock or milk, a choice that undoubtedly was introduced with the Spanish conquest.
6 Even if Argentineans find it hurtful, the oldest references to this jam are found in Chile as “manjar blanco”, liquid fudge dessert.
7 In a study carried out according to statement semiotics methodology, the word most frequently used when answering the question about the lack of powdered milk was “despair”, both by mothers receiving it and by doctors giving it out.
8 Yogurt, fruit, white meat, white and sparkling wine among the products and pies, salads, chopped fish or meat with vegetables, milk desserts among the prepared dishes.
9 In reference to the sacred cow myth for the Argentine people, developed in another article by the author Aguirre, P. 1977.
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Electronic reference

Patricia Aguirre, “The culture of milk in Argentina”Anthropology of food [Online], 2 | September 2003, Online since 01 September 2003, connection on 07 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Patricia Aguirre

Departamento de Nutricion, Ministerio de la Salud, IDEAS (Instituto de Estudios Sociales) Universidad General San Martin

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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