The Great Soy Debate: What Makes Milk "Milk"?

Photo: Gillian Vann

As the food director of mindbodygreen and someone who spends a lot of time thinking about what constitutes a healthy diet, I’m a person who preaches in favor of whole foods. When I’m developing recipes for my cookbooks or the site, I’m constantly thinking about what ingredients are good enough to include and which should be avoided—and generally, I come down on the side of whole foods every time. If you’re craving a burger, I’d rather you eat a burger than a substitute that may or may not satisfy your cravings. It’s a stance I’ve taken for granted—"Just eat real foods!" I say blithely—without recognizing the one substitute I’ve endorsed without question in my recipes and life: milk.

My first cookbook, Glow Pops, relied on various types of nondairy milk—coconut, almond, and cashew—to create creamy ice pop textures; in my newest cookbook, Healthier Together, I readily make gratin from almond milk and rice pudding from coconut milk. These nondairy milks were, I thought, whole foods—free of additives and heavy processing. I knew they weren’t cow’s milk, but they were milk-like: white and creamy, perfect for adding viscosity and mouthfeel to dishes.

This week, a statement from the FDA commissioner brought into stark focus a debate that’s been simmering on the back burners of the food world for years: What makes milk "milk"? The commissioner strongly suggested that the administration will soon allow only products that come from "milking of one or more healthy cows" to be considered "milk," according to the Los Angeles Times. The issue stems back to what’s known as a "standard of identity," an FDA requirement that sets the standard for what a certain food product must contain to be marketed as that food.

While it seems straightforward, it can—and has—raised questions. When manufacturers modify, say, peanut butter by adding emulsifiers or other additives, it’s up to the FDA to decide whether or not the resulting product is indeed still peanut butter—at least to the point where it’s not confusing to consumers (and, while we’re diving into dairy nuance, is peanut butter even "butter"?!).

But this announcement, albeit precursory, gets at a larger conversation among food lovers, particularly those who have dietary restrictions: What function do food identities serve, and how do the increasingly common substitutions play into those identities? Is a ranch dressing made from soaked cashews in lieu of the traditional buttermilk still ranch dressing? Are fries made from carrots, not potatoes, still fries? What about sweet potatoes, or parsnips? And what if they’re baked, thereby subverting the very cooking technique for which they were named?

Milk is a category of ingredient that behaves, by and large, the same no matter where it derives from. In nearly all of the recipes I’ve written, I call for "milk of choice" because the type you pick—cow, almond, rice, macadamia, coconut, or any of the countless other options—doesn’t make a difference to the final result. If it does make a difference, I specify, just as if a recipe would specify if it needed, say, full-fat milk instead of skim—just as I’d call out if a Fuji apple was for some reason preferable to a Honeycrisp. When people are using milk as a complement to cereal or granola, or to combine with protein powder for a shake, they’re simply looking for a white liquid to add body, mouthfeel, and a creamy counterpart to the add-in—and nut milks and animal milks fulfill that role equally well.

The main benefit of having all of these options, aside from personal taste? Many people out there can’t tolerate every single type of milk, whether they have allergies, sensitivities, or an autoimmune disorder. As science progresses and we learn more about nutrition, the only thing that becomes definitively clear is that what works for one person might have a completely different result for another. Even in the strictly defined cow’s milk category, there are types of milks that work for one person’s body that might not work for another (see: A2 milk, a cow’s milk that contains a different protein that many people find less irritating to their gut. But it’s all milk! Isn’t it?). A2 milk and A1 milk behave the same in food: They’re both milk. But in the body? It’s a different story.

The FDA’s ruling exists, in theory, to protect consumers from purchasing something different from what they intended. The question, then, is whether the use of the word "milk" is an asset or detriment to consumers. John Cox, the executive director of Soyfoods Association of North America, believes the confusion of the consumer is overstated. "Consumers are accustomed to using products with names similar to other foods, such as peanut butter, almond butter, or apple butter," he said in a statement this week. "As we all know, these products don’t contain dairy-derived butter, but no one is confused as to the contents of either product."

At the end of the day, if it looks like milk and acts like milk, the only primary difference is how the substance behaves in your body. Whatever the FDA decides, ultimately it’s our responsibility to figure out what works for our own physiology and cook and eat accordingly. You might love the sweet richness of coconut milk while your partner may prefer the earthiness of hemp or the protein of soy. Sometimes I’m in the mood for almond milk; other times I might go for macadamia. But guess what? You can use all of them in your bowl of granola, or even—dare I say?—your chocolate milk.

In case you're wondering, these are the healthiest nondairy milks (if we can call them that).

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