Comparatively little has been written about the role of chocolate in foodways throughout Asia, much less within the region of Southeast Asia. Except for Philippines, a former Spanish colony, where a drink of hot, dark chocolate is still consumed as part of breakfast on Christmas morning, chocolate never ‘took off’ in India, Southeast Asia, or the Far East (Coe & Coe, 1996: 173-174), the same way it did across Europe in the 17th to 19th centuries.
The Chocolate-Malt ‘Tonic Food Drink’
However, chocolate did eventually make its way into Southeast Asian cuisine, albeit through a very different product and under tremendously different circumstances at a much later time. Chocolate became a popular ingredient in Singapore (and neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia) by way of Nestle’s MILO drink. Claiming its namesake after the great Greek athlete Milo of Croton, who won 6 Olympic events in the 6th century BC, Nestle’s MILO is marketed as a health-sustaining “Tonic Food Drink” since its creation in 1934, which has been attributed to Australian food scientist, Thomas Mayne. Mayne had apparently concocted the drink to feed the malnourished children of Depression-era Australia, where the economic crisis had undoubtedly spread. Nestle claims that Mayne had “developed a powdered chocolate malt drink that people could mix with water or milk, and drink hot or cold”. Indeed, advertisements from that time show MILO marketed as a “fortified” health drink, with an obvious ‘chocolate-y’ brown appearance:
MILO was apparently introduced to Singapore in 1936 and has had a production facility on the small island nation since 1984. Print advertisements throughout the years have attested to the staying power of MILO in the Singaporean market:
A MILO advertisement painted on the side of a building in Singapore, 1949, above a similar advertisement for Milkmaid Milk. (Source: The Long and Winding Road)
A Nestle stall selling MILO drinks at the Great World Amusement Park, 1951. The park was considered a trendy entertainment spot for young Singaporeans at that time. (Source: The Long and Winding Road)
Interestingly, several of the print ads I’ve found of MILO in Singapore at that time depict the chocolate malt drink as an energy-giving sports beverage:
A MILO ad in Singapore from 1966 advertising it as an energy beverage for sportsmen and sportswomen. (Source: The Long and Winding Road)
Undated Singapore print advertisement of MILO in Chinese. (Source: Taking Up the Challenge blog)
Espousing the nutritional and energy-giving properties of MILO, the messages in these ads echo those of chocolate as a health food in Europe in the 19th century, when it was first introduced as a mass commodity and marketed to the working and middle-classes as affordable luxuries by chocolate manufacturers:
A Cadbury poster (left) and Hershey’s poster (right) from the 19th century, also found in Coe & Coe (1996: 239)
The Sugar Controversy of MILO
Chocolate “occupies an uneasy place in European diets today” (Martin & Sampeck, 2016), and the rise of sugar production and consumption throughout the centuries have caused health issues, such as obesity, over the increase in their consumption (Mintz, 1985). As a food product containing both sugar and cocoa, MILO consumption in Singapore and Malaysia have not been spared from similar discourse. In fact, precisely because MILO has been marketed as a health beverage, its ingredient list and the way that it is advertised, has been in recent years, scrutinized in Malaysia:
Sugar has been highlighted as one of the main ingredients of MILO, ‘proving’ the hypocrisy of food titans of the industry and sparking conspiracy theories of great ‘cover-ups’ by Nestle in the marketing of their food products:
“Big food companies are not incentivised to make you feel healthier. They’re incentivised to make you feel sick and keep you pumping your body with sugar because sugar makes you hungrier, so you buy more of their poisonous sh*t.”
Because of these allegations, Nestle launched ‘sugarless’ and low-sugar MILO products in Singapore, such as the MILO Gao Kosong* (sugarless) and the MILO Gao Siew Dai**(less sugar) and marketed them as healthier alternatives to regular versions of the drink:
Less-sugar MILO (left) and No sugar-added MILO (right)
Incidentally, both these ‘healthier’ versions of the drink emphasised a thicker (“gao”) flavour in their tastes, mirroring moves in chocolate consumers’ tastes towards “better”, “quality” chocolate containing higher proportions of cocoa solids (Coe & Coe, 1996: 257-261), perhaps drawing a closer but unconscious relation in consumers’ minds to “fine chocolate in the market sold as high in anti-oxidants and otherwise of potential benefit to consumer health” (Martin & Sampeck, 2016: 52). MILO Gao Kosong is even endorsed by government-sanctioned health authorities in Singapore as a “Healthier Choice”, with the President of Singapore appearing at the official launch for the beverage.
(*“Gao” means “thick” in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien and Teochew, where most Chinese diaspora in Singapore and Malaysia hailed from generations ago. “Kosong” means “empty” or “zero” in the Malay language. “Siew Dai” is a term for “little brother” in the Hainan dialect spoken by Chinese diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore, many of whom owned coffee stalls or coffee shops. It has become a term used to denote “less sugar” when ordering coffee or tea at local coffeeshops. )
The ‘no added sugar’ version of the popular chocolate malt drink MILO was launched in Singapore by President Halimah Yacob on 19 June 2018, attesting to the drink’s ability to evolve with consumption preferences across time.
From Healthy to Decadent – Staying Power
Like its ‘purer’ counterpart cocoa powder, MILO is has also proven to be a versatile ingredient for other food creations and its popularity in place of cocoa powder may be attributed to the relative affordability. A 400g tin of MILO costs just SGD4.14 (USD3.06) whereas a 225g tub of Hershey’s Cocoa costs SGD6.60 (USD4.88), with the latter being a foreign import and subject to import taxes.
The MILO Dinosaur, a MILO shake drink served in coffeeshops all over Singapore and Malaysia.
The affordability has meant that, like cocoa, MILO has been used as an ingredient in many confections in Singapore and Malaysia, such as shakes, ice creams, cakes, candy bars and even fried chicken, all of which diverge far from its intended ‘healthy’ image so carefully assembled by its marketeers.
MILO’s affordability and versatility has meant that it has established itself as a popular, though sometimes controversial ingredient in Singaporean and Malaysian diets. The chocolate-malt drink, like many of its cocoa counterparts, has had an unstable relationship with its consumers over the years. It is at once healthy yet decadent, nourishing yet ‘poisonous’ (as some have claimed), and energy-giving yet full of ‘empty’ calories (sugar) – larger testament of the shifting, dichotomous and sometimes contradicting meanings societies imbibe in food.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” pp. 37-60
Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.