Is almond milk really milk?
In recent weeks, you may have come across energetic debates about whether almond milk and other dairy-free milks live up to their name. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called into question the legitimacy of such products’ claim on the appellation, and now the answer to the question ‘Got milk?’ could very well be ‘I’m not so sure…’. A similar dispute involving soya and tofu has happened before on the other side of the pond.
Like many English words, milk is polysemous: that is, it has more than one meaning. The first meaning most people think of is also the earliest meaning: the white liquid produced by mammals to nourish their young. However, milk has also referred to the non-dairy secretions of plants since we spoke Old English, with early examples of milk not sourced from mammals coming instead from figs and the leaves of herbs. It is also very common for the liquid inside a coconut to be referred to as milk, and this too has a long history in the English language.
Coconut milk might seem well-established enough not to raise many eyebrows as to its right to the claim of being a kind of milk, while almond milk and its trendy cohorts are new and appropriating a name they have not yet earned through longevity. However, the concept of almond milk is much older than you might think: the Oxford English Dictionary contains a quote in the entry for milk discussing the ‘mylke of almaundes’ back in the early 15th century (clearly long before a standardized spelling was decided on for either word). This was not a one-off or exceptional use: the ‘Milke of Almaundys’ was mentioned again in a mid-15th century cookbook, and continues to be evidenced throughout the centuries up to the modern day (with increasingly familiar spelling). ‘[A]lmande mylk’ has a longer history still, reaching back to the late 14th century, modelled after the French lait d’alemandes or lait d’amandes.
With types of milk that do not fit the main, mammary meaning of milk, it is typical, even expected, to specify its alternative origin: most would be a little put out if almond milk or coconut milk were substituted in their coffee without any explanation. This is in part because they carry a taste that would affect the drink differently to traditional milk. Consequently, almond milk may not be simply called milk, unadorned by any modifier or footnote, but has been described for a very long time as milk specifically obtained from an almond: it is not identical to true milk but is close enough to be called that with a sort of caveat. However, the same is often true of milk from any source other than a cow: you’d quite rightly expect something as exotic as camel milk to be labelled as such in the supermarket, though its status as milk cannot be denied.
If the FDA believes that this is nevertheless enough to strip almond milk of the name it has held for over five centuries (perhaps to something like the more clinical almond milk-style drink), this raises questions for that other, more traditionally American, not-quite dairy product of nuts: peanut butter. Of course, peanut butter is no more a dairy butter than almond milk is a dairy milk: if the name of almond milk is deemed misleading enough to require it to be changed, you might ask whether a corresponding amendment will be needed for peanut butter. With such a possible rechristening on the horizon, millions of Americans may soon be packing peanut butter-style spread and jelly sandwiches for their lunches, which seems a change of such magnitude perhaps even the almond milk sceptics will be reluctant to take it on.