FDA Says Plant-Based Milks Aren’t Milks. So What Are They?

published Jul 20, 2018
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(Image credit: Rob Hainer)

In what has to be the most iconic scene in Meet the Parents, an eager Ben Stiller tells his girlfriend’s parents about the time that he milked a cat so that the smallest kitten in a litter could eat. “You can milk anything with nipples,” he explained.

“I have nipples, Greg,” a stone-faced Robert DeNiro responded. “Could you milk me?”

The idea of lactating and nipples and what can and cannot be milked came up earlier this week, but it involved zero DeNiro and also fewer chunky cable-knit turtlenecks. (Win some, lose some.) On Tuesday, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that his agency was going to start cracking down on soy, oat, and other plant-based drinks that describe themselves as “milk.”

“If you look at our standard of identity — there is a reference somewhere in the standard of identity to a lactating animal,” he said. “And, you know, an almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”

Despite seeing the word milk on countless cartons of Almond Breeze, I had never once considered the nip situation of a tree nut. According to Gottlieb, the FDA hasn’t really either; as Ars Technica explained, the agency has failed to enforce its own policy — that standard of identity he mentioned — and now there are too many non-milks using that four-letter descriptor on their own packaging.

Gottlieb said that, within a year, the FDA would hopefully update its policy and its guidelines for what can and cannot call itself milk. But the FDA is also going to have to decide whether its own definitions outweigh what has been written by Merriam-Webster. “If you open up [the FDA’s] standard of identity, it talks about a lactating animal,” he said. “But if you open up a dictionary, it talks about milk coming from a lactating animal or a nut. Invariably we’re going to get sued, probably.”

According to Grub Street, John Cox, the executive director of Soyfoods Association of North America, released a statement pointing out that ‘soy milk’ had been part of the commercial lexicon for more than 70 years, and that the USDA itself has used the term since 1963. The Soyfoods Association also reiterated that surveys have shown that consumers aren’t buying soy milk because, like, they’re dummies who think soy is a slang term for a cow — they’re buying it because they know it doesn’t contain any dairy.

What Gottlieb hasn’t explained is what these products are going to be called if they’re not allowed to use the word ‘milk.’ Who wants to buy a carton of Creamy Soy Beverage, Oat Squeezin’s, or Non-Lactating Nut Drink? It sounds like that’s where we’re headed — unless Ben Stiller can prove Gottlieb wrong about those almonds.