If nasi lemak is Malaysia’s national dish, then Milo makes a strong contender for its national drink (well, eclipsed only by teh tarik). You can’t escape it: Milo is served in mamaks, chain restaurants and fast food joints. It’s a staple of home and office pantries. It’s also a huge sponsor of sporting events.
But this ubiquitous Malaysian drink isn’t Malaysian at all. Here’s the story behind Malaysia’s favourite chocolate drink.
Where did Milo come from?
Today, Milo is viewed as a sort of cheap, high-processed substance that just about passes for food, but it was really a nutrition-focused, modern innovation of its time (or so the corporate myth goes).
Milo was invented in 1934 by Thomas Mayne, a chemical engineer who worked for Nestlé Australia. At the time, Depression-era children suffered from poor diets, and so there was a demand for a relatively affordable product that would give them the nutrients they need, as well as taste good enough that they would actually drink it.
“I attempted to develop a completely balanced food drink which contained all the necessary proteins and minerals,” Mayne told an Australian newspaper in 1994. He put his money (or rather, Milo) where his mouth was, as Mayne reportedly drank a cup of Milo every night until his death at 93.
The name Milo itself was borrowed from a sixth century Greek wrestler who possessed legendary strength. Nestlé wasn’t subtle in its marketing efforts: early designs of the Milo tin showed its namesake hoisting a bull on his shoulders, while newspaper ads depicted Milo as a “fortified tonic food” that could provide energy, boost your immunity and help you sleep.
Milo in Malaysia
There’s a good chance that your first (or most memorable) encounters with Milo involved waiting in line for a free drink. This tradition goes back to the 1950s, where Milo’s green vans would visit schools or communities to hand out free Milo in little paper or plastic cups. These vans even used to screen cartoons and local films at night, which was appreciated in remote areas that had little entertainment.
Milo was consumed in different ways, too – prefer your Milo sprinkled liberally on condensed milk and bread, in a sinfully delicious trifecta of creamy, carby and chocolatey? You have Nestlé to thank. Newspapers ads that circulated in Malaya during the cusp of independence taught us how to ‘eat’ our Milo.
Later in the 1970s, with its newly set up Sports Marketing unit, Milo began marketing itself as a sports drink, especially to school-going kids. High-profile athletes like Datuk Marina Chin (who won seven SEA Games medals in the 70s) took part in Milo events. Even our national chant, “Malaysia Boleh”, was coined as part of a marketing campaign for the 1993 SEA Games – although now the phrase is more likely uttered to mock or express disappointment.
Today, Malaysia houses the world’s largest Milo factory – and fittingly so – we also happen to have the highest per capita consumption of Milo.
An evolving taste with different formulations
When food (or food products) transcend borders, they tend to adapt to local tastes and customs. And so it is with Milo, which has a slightly different formulation in each market it has a presence in.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity – or misfortune, perhaps – to try other variations of Milo, you may notice a difference in taste and texture. Some Malaysians prefer the Australian version of Milo, claiming that it’s creamier and has a stronger malt taste (you can get a tin of Australian-imported Milo in supermarkets like Jaya Grocer, although they’re about twice the price of locally produced ones). But not everyone’s a fan. “It tastes weird. It’s like Horlicks, and I don’t like Horlicks,” said Jasmine, scrunching her nose over our Zoom call. “It’s not like the usual Malaysian Milo we’re used to, you know?”
Milo evolves with time, too. Ask a parent, grandparent or older sibling: they might tell you that the Milo of their childhoods was thicker and more chocolatey. This isn’t just romanticised nostalgia. Take it from the operator of famous KL coffee shop Yut Kee, who told the Vulcan Post that three tablespoons of Milo today equaled the strength of one tablespoon decades ago.
But not all changes are bad. Milo, which has gotten flack for its high sugar content (as much as 40%, claims a video that went viral in 2018), has expanded its line of products to include reduced-sugar options. Even its Singaporean counterpart has introduced a version with no added sugar, while Nestlé Australia recently launched a reduced-sugar, plant-based Milo.
These days, the consumer behaviours that helped Milo find success in earlier decades have shifted. Milo’s continued popularity looks a bit out of place in today’s anti-sugar, anti-gluten, real food please, not this processed stuff society. But thanks to savvy marketing, adaptiveness to food trends, its pervasiveness in Malaysian eateries and a foothold in our collective nostalgia, Milo will probably be around for a little while more.