Last night on The Late Show host Stephen Colbert turned his biting wit towards a subject that’s been generating a lot of media buzz lately: the question of what to call dairy alternatives. He was referencing last week’s Politico Pro Summit, in which FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that his agency would start cracking down on the use of the term “milk” for non-dairy products.

Now I love Colbert as much as the next person (read: a lot), so I was thrilled to see him bringing attention to a worth issue. Especially one that’s so clearly begging to be made fun of. While Colbert doesn’t take an outward stance on the naming issue per se, he does do what he does best: rip it to shreds with sarcasm.

“If it ain’t from a mammal, you can’t call it milk; it has to be ‘soy juice’ and ‘almond sweat,” he quipped. He also latched onto the oft-quoted phrase from Gottlieb: “an almond doesn’t lactate.” It was almost too easy to make fun of.

Towards the end of the segment, Colbert addressed dairy farmers — a group whose perspective has been relatively ignored in the hullabaloo of mocking lactating nuts. He pointed out that if the FDA decides that alternative milks can’t be called “milk,” it will be a boon for dairy farmers, who have been struggling recently with milk surpluses and consequent low prices.

We also have to question whether things like soy milk and hemp milk actually care if they’re called “milk” or not. After all, their whole appeal is that they’re not milk. At the same time, we’ve grown so used to asking for oat “milk” with our lattés that it seems almost too late to change the nomenclature here.

Also, it seems pretty pointless. In a statement released this morning, Gottlieb returned to the idea that we need to explore the implications of calling non-dairy products “milk.” He wrote:

Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as ‘‘milk,’’ we intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of cow’s milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow’s milk.

He also pointed out potential consequences to labeling non-dairy products “milk,” stating:

“…feeding rice-based beverages to young children resulted in a disease called kwashiorkor, a form of severe protein malnutrition. There has also been a case report of a toddler being diagnosed with rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, after parents used a soy-based alternative to cow’s milk.”

I am extremely skeptical that any parent — or anyone at all — is accidentally purchasing alternative milks. (So is the Good Food Institute, who recently conducted a pilot study on just this issue.)

Also, while rice-based beverages might indeed result in kawshiorkor (AKA protein malnutrition) in certain rare cases, milk isn’t all sunshine and rainbows either; many cows are fed hormones to continually produce milk, which humans ingest when they pour it over their cereal or into their coffee. Milk also contains quite a bit of saturated fat, and some people are lactose intolerant and can’t have milk to begin with. Plus — as Chris Albrecht pointed out on his post reacting to Gottlieb’s comments last month — the dictionary definition of “milk” actually includes plant-based options.

The question of naming is far more applicable in the case of products of cellular agriculture, like the cow-free dairy made by Perfect Day. Though it didn’t come from an animal, their “milk” is made with the same proteins as the real thing — and apparently tastes and acts the same, too.

When we spoke to Perfect Day co-founder Perumal Gandhi a few months ago, he actually told us that they want to call their product something other than “milk.” “We’re trying to come up with a nomenclature to show the consumer that this is produced in a new way, without animals,” he said. “If we call it milk then we’re not being transparent.”

This makes sense for an emerging alterna-milk, especially one so mollecularly similar to true milk, but it seems pretty ridiculous to completely change the terminology for existing plant-based products. Apparently, Colbert agrees — we’ll see if the FDA eventually does, too.

Watch the full episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert here.

 

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