Milk has lost all meaning
You hear a lot of weird things in coffee shops, but ordering an “almond-based dairy alternative cappuccino” isn’t one of them. The same goes for a “soy drink macchiato” or an “oat milk latte.” Vocalizing such a request elicited a confident look from my barista when I recently tried this trick in a New York City cafe. For most people, plant-based milk is plant-based milk.
But while the American public has embraced this naming convention, the dairy industry has not. For more than a decade, companies have tried to convince the FDA that plant-based products should not be allowed to use the M-word. An early skirmish unfolded in 2008 over the name “soy milk,” which it acknowledged the FDA at the time, it wasn’t exactly milk; a decade later, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted that nut milk should not be called “milk” because “an almond doesn’t produce lactate.” To be sure, some fake milk products have stuck to vaguer labels like “beverage,” “drink,” and “dairy alternative.”
But a few weeks ago, the FDA signaled the end of the debate by proposing long-awaited naming recommendations: Plant-based milk, the agency said, could be called “milk” if its plant origin was clearly identified (for example, “pistachio milk” ). Additionally, the labels could clearly indicate how the product nutritionally differs from regular milk. A package labeled “rice milk” would be acceptable, but must state when the product has less calcium or vitamin D than milk.
Rather than spark détente, these recommendations are sucking milk into an existential crisis. Differentiating between plant-based milk and milk requires defining what milk really is, but doing so is at odds with recognizing that plant-based milk is milk. It is impossible to compare plant-based and cow’s milk if there is no standard nutrient content for cow’s milk, which comes in a variety of formulations. This awkward moment is the culmination of a decades-long shift in the way the FDA and consumers have come to think about and define food in general. At this point, it is not clear which milk is not anymore.
Technically, milk has an official definition, along with more than 250 other foods, including ketchup and peanut butter. In 1973, the FDA stated this: “The milky secretion, practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” (Yum.) Recent guidance doesn’t overturn this definition, but it doesn’t maintain it either, so the status of milk remains vague. The agency doesn’t seem to care; consumers understand that plant-based milk is not cow’s milk, a spokesperson told me. But the FDA has long allowed vague interpretations of this standard, which is why the lacteal secretions of sheep and goats may be called “milk.” As time goes by, what can be called “milk” seems to matter less and less.
At one point, names mattered. In the late 19th century, people began to worry that their foods were no longer “normal, natural, and pure,” Xaq Frohlich, a food historian at Auburn University who is writing a book on the history of foods, told me. FDA food standards. As food production increased in the late 19th century, so did attempts to cut costs with cheap products that were presented as authentic, such as margarine made from beef tallow. In 1939, the FDA began setting so-called standards of identity based on traditional ideas of food.
But the agency’s definitions of food were malleable even before oat milk. The agency hasn’t been very strict with identity standards, because consumers haven’t been either. Around the 1960s, as people became aware of the ills of animal fat and cholesterol, and bought the low-fat and diet foods that proliferated in response, the agency moved away from defining the identity of foods toward an “information labeling” policy that provided nutrition information directly on the package so consumers knew exactly what they were eating. It was accepted that food was something you could “modify” with, Frohlich said, and what mattered more than whether something was natural was whether it was healthy. Amid this change, the milk was given its official identity, which came with warnings about added vitamins. Loosely interpreted, “milk” soon came to encompass that of other ruminants, as well as the stuff chocolate, strawberry, skim, lactose-free, and calcium-fortified.
In this context, the recent expansion of this standard by the FDA to accommodate milk of plant origin is to be expected; Frohlich doesn’t think the dairy or plant-based industries “are particularly surprised by this proposal.” Very little will change if the new guidance becomes policy. (The decision has to go through a public comment period before the FDA has the final say.) If anything, there may be more plant-based products labeled “milk” in the supermarket, and perhaps the new labels will prevent any possible confusion that does occur. Pointing out nutritional differences between plant-based and dairy milk on packaging, the FDA spokesperson said, is intended to address the “potential public health concern” that people will mistakenly expect these products to be nutritional substitutes for one another. . But the nutritional value of cow’s milk varies by type, and in some cases, nutrients are added. Milk is confusing, and maybe that’s okay. For most consumers, milk will continue to be milk, a whitish liquid, from a variety of plants and animals, and constantly evolving.
Aside from milk, for most modern consumers, what a food is called matters less than other factors, such as what it is, where it comes from, how it is made, and its impact on the planet. “Public understanding of food has really changed since the early 21st century,” Charlotte Biltekoff, an associate professor of American studies and food science and technology at UC Davis, told me. In some cases, people define food less by what it is than by what it does. Many plant-based milks, Biltekoff said, don’t look or taste much like cow’s milk, but are accepted as milk because they’re used the same way: sprinkled on coffee, poured on cereal, or as an ingredient in baked goods. . In short, trying to define food with a standard identity cannot capture “the full scope of how most people interact with food and health right now,” he said. A name, or indeed a label that points out the nutritional differences between dairy milk and plant-based milk, may encompass only a fraction of what people want to know about milk, all of which is beyond belief. that the FDA can regulate, Biltekoff added. No wonder his name doesn’t seem to matter much anymore.
That doesn’t mean that all food names will eventually become fuzzy to the point of meaninglessness. it’s hard to imagine peanut referring to anything but the legume, but then again, a debate over what counted as “peanut butter” lasted a decade in the 1960s and 1970s. Name clashes will, in all likelihood, occur over staple foods that they already attract a lot of scrutiny and are produced by powerful industries, like eggs or meat. For example, Americans use the term meat flexibly: In addition to animal meat, it can also refer to products made from plants, fungi, or even mammalian cells grown in a laboratory. Just as the dairy and plant-based industries fueled the milk naming debate, there will undoubtedly be pushback from those who cling to and break meat conventions: “You’ll see the meat industry make similar arguments” about what constitutes a hamburger or what lab. —The bred chicken can be named, said Frohlich.
As technology continues to push the boundaries of what food can be, food names will continue to change, and the results won’t always be clear. Someone can value natural foods sourced from farmers markets and served in farm-to-table restaurants, but at the same time champion the technological advances that make different versions of our food possible. Such a person might eat exclusively free range organic bacon, but demand highly processed oat milk for their diet. cut. These internal conflicts are inevitable as we experience what Biltekoff calls “some kind of evolution in our understanding of what good food is.” The milk, for now, remains fluid, simultaneously many things and nothing at all.