'An Almond Doesn't Lactate'

The coming war over nut milks


The increasing availability of plant-based alternatives to products that were traditionally derived from animals has been a blessing for vegans, vegetarians, and others who—for reasons biological or ideological—simply don't enjoy animal-based fare. If milk makes you gassy, you can buy a white, milk-like substance made from almonds, cashews, or coconuts. If you love the texture of beef but not the idea of eating something that once had a face, you can get patties with a meaty texture that bleed beet juice.

Although most of these products borrow terminology from the animal realm, American consumers don't seem particularly confused about what makes them different. The ingredients in almond, soy, and coconut "milks," for instance, are prominently featured on the packaging. Nearly all of these products are explicitly marketed as "nondairy," and the lighting in most grocery stores is adequate for distinguishing between the item types.

And yet in July, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a rule that would prohibit the use of the word milk on a label unless the product inside was a "lacteal secretion…obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows." (And we wonder why some people prefer milk made from nuts.)

"An almond doesn't lactate," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said at the time. He's joined in his meddling by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D–Wis.), who has introduced legislation to federally outlaw the labeling of nondairy products as any kind of milk.

In August, Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) sought to put a stop to this pedantic (and—in Baldwin's case—protectionist) madness by introducing an amendment that would update the 1938 "standard of identity" law, which empowers the FDA to decide who gets to call what, well, what.

"No one buys almond milk under the false illusion that it came from a cow," Lee said in explanation. "They buy almond milk because it didn't come from a cow."

This seems pretty obvious. There is no problem here that needs fixing. The FDA and Congress may feel pressure from animal producers, but that's what rent seekers do—pressure the government to entrench and increase their market share.

Consumers are not endangered by this shared language any more than they are by the fact that tuna and cat food are both sold in similarly shaped cans and picture fish on the label. While it's true Americans are drinking less milk, the reason is that we want to, not that we're illiterate.