Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Recently the venerable Chowtimes wrote about drinking Milo with a raw egg cracked into it, and it got our memory jogging about other odd mealtime supplements that we grew up with, the drinks that still litter the menus of HK-style cafes everywhere: Ovaltine and Horlicks.

But what the heck is Ovaltine, anyway? If it tastes sort of like a stale Malteser, there's probably good reason. According to Brendan Koerner:
In the late 19th century, Swiss chemist Georg Wander invented a cheap process to harvest malt extract, a syrup derived from malted barley that's commonly used by beer brewers. The barley was first allowed to germinate, or sprout rootlets, in a moist environment. Wander then used a vacuuming process to dehydrate this softened grain, leaving behind a thick, sweet goo. He hoped this syrup, once fortified with goodies like vitamin D and phosphorous, would someday win the world's battle against malnutrition.
Of course, that tasted about as good as it sounds, and Wander's son Albert started adding sugar, beet extract and other additives and sold the mix as Ovamaltine, an energy drink to Swiss skiers at the turn of the century. That somehow went gangbusters, and the mix cross the Channel to the UK, where it was renamed Ovaltine.

Of course, you and I both realize that Ovaltine is a hard drink to swallow, and perhaps the folks over at the company realized that too. In the 1930s through to the mid-1950s, Ovaltine hooked the nation's youth by sponsoring radio shows like "L'il Orphan Annie."

Horlicks differs slightly in how it is made. The malted barley is mixed with wheat flour to form a sugar mixture, instead of being mixed right away with milk powder. The drink was made by two English brothers that emigrated to Chicago in the 1870s, again in the hopes of solving the world's malnutrition problems. Another similarity? It still tastes like dust.

While Horlicks was, of course, marketed to kids as well, a major component of Horlicks' promotional campaign was - and is still - geared toward selling the mix as a sleeping aid. It isn't exactly known how or why Horlicks helps a person gets to sleep. The Independent's Terry Kirby wrote:
If you ask any self-respecting doctor what to do about insomnia, you will be told to improve your sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene involves lots of preparatory rituals before getting into bed. You must make sure the room is comfortably warm and dark, and not drink coffee or tea in the evening. Another suggestion is to have a light carbohydrate snack before bedtime as a way of making sure blood sugar levels are high enough, giving a sense of well-being.

One of the most important rules is to make sure that you are warm, de-stressed and relaxed. And this is where Horlicks comes into its own. Horlicks may not be very sexy, but it's warm, it's milky, it's got plenty of sugar in it - about 19.6g in a cupful (roughly the same as five teaspoons of sugar) - packing the same calorific content (186 calories) as a Cadbury's Creme Egg...

Scientific studies into whether Horlicks makes you sleep better are notoriously difficult to perform. In the 1970s, one study compared a cup of Horlicks with a yellow capsule that contained sugar. People who drank Horlicks slept a bit better than those who took the capsule, but it could be that those who took the capsule were worrying about what they had just swallowed.
Horlicks' other point of notoriety was becoming synonmous with being a horrible mess (well, at least when Thatcher was still in power). Check out Brendan Koerner's bit in the Slate to explain that whole Horlicks.

the clutterer Web Developer


  1. LOL! I was just about to go make a Milo (without eggs!) before hitting the sack and then on the last blog post I intend to read I see this post. Very interesting and well researched post, Joe. No wonder I sleep better with a glass of hot Milo.