Folks, it looks like the conflict over whether “soy milk” or “almond milk” should be called milk at all is flaring up again.
Last month, a cabal of 25 Congress members wrote a strongly-worded letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urging them to clamp down on manufacturers of plant-based milks who market their products as milk. These politicians contend that plant milk is not really milk, defined by the FDA as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”
Milk is a liquid produced by mammals, and a plant, as I’m sure you know, is not a mammal. These Congress members are couching the need for this shift in the concerns of dairy farmers, who have faced the brunt of declining dairy sales, citing a 40% drop in milk prices over the past three years.
Controversy around this nomenclature isn’t new. The FDA even issued a warning letter to Cytosport about the fact that their flagship protein supplement, Muscle Milk, contained no actual milk.
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If there’s a case for calling plant-based milks by any other name, I’d like to hear it. I’m all for being more precise about the language we use to talk about what we eat and cogent about the messaging around it, ultimately easing potential consumer confusion. Outside the Western world, historians have traced the first instance of plant-based milk in a cookbook to 1226, when it appeared in Kitabh al-tabikh, or A Baghdad Cookery Book, with recipes that called for milked “sweet almonds.” The first recorded English-language mention of a plant-based milk was in 1390’s The Forme of Cury, which refers to Almand Mylke.
Consensus seems to have formed around this latest feud and chalked it up to a non-controversy, pointing to the idea that this is all is just Big Dairy’s doing. Besides, there seems to be little agreement on what would even constitute a viable alternative name. This was confirmed by the number of flummoxed responses I received on our Hotline yesterday when I asked what a suitable name would be for these drinks. To a good number of consumers, names like “almond milk” have burrowed themselves so deeply into our cultural vernacular they need no clarification. Peanut butter has no butter; gummy bears aren’t bears.
So I visited the thesaurus for the word “milk.” Suggestions included cream, half-and-half, and chalk. I’m not sure any of these suffices as a substitute. Buttermilk? Pretty sure that has the word “milk” in it, so that’s a no go. None of these sounded terribly appealing to me, so I asked (okay, I forced) the rest of my editorial team to come up with some alternate names for almond milk, which somehow became the de-facto nut milk of choice for our team. We had a few ideas. I’m just not sure if any of them will really take off.
This post originally ran on January 6, 2017, but we've decided to republish it because the DAIRY Act, as it's called, has just reached Congress. Yesterday, the Good Food Institute lobbied the FDA for the right of plant-based milk manufacturers to call their products milk, so long as those producers are clear about what's actually in the products at hand. In other words, this debate continues to inspire rigorous, impassioned disagreement.
What's your take on this? Should we just keep calling plant milks "milk"? Let us know in the comments.
The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.