Candice Choi published an interesting article in STAT about a controversy regarding "fake milk". Dairy producers in the USA are asking the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on products with names such as "soymilk", arguing that they are not really milk under FDA rules.
“Mammals produce milk, plants don’t,” said Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation.
Producers of plant-based "milk" argue that their terminology is fine so long as labels make clear to consumers that their products are plant-based rather than dairy.
The problem of authenticity in products, especially food, is longstanding. As the article notes, controversy about margarine as "fake butter" goes back to the 19th century.
There are several criteria that might make a food authentic. One is that the food is genuine, that is, it comes from the appropriate source. This concern is at the root of Mulhern's insistence that milk must come from mammals such as cows, and not plants.
Such concerns can be further sharpened. For example, a product labelled Jersey Milk would be considered a fraud unless it originated from Jersey cows.
(These concerns can also apply to region of origin. So, champagne (officially) refers only to sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France.)
By this criterion, soymilk is not genuine and, thus, not milk.
A food may also be considered authentic if it is unmodified. For example, Peng Chang-kuei, the principle creator of General Tso's Chicken, considers the American version a fraud because it has been modified to contain sugar, among other things.
By this criterion, soymilk might be an acceptable name. After all, soymilk is not modified milk but rather a different sort of beverage, at least, in terms of its composition. So, since it is not inauthentic milk, it may be considered authentic soymilk.
Of course, if soymilk is so different from milk, then why call it "milk" at all? After all, motor oil is not modified milk, but calling it "car milk" would be bizarre.
One answer might lie in the "theory-theory" of concepts, on which concepts embody theories about how categories of things in the real world work or may be used.
On this view, "milk" is a liquid that plays a certain role in cuisine. In other words, people drink it or use it as a cooking ingredient in certain ways, within a given culture. To call a plant-based liquid "soymilk" is simply to suggest that it could be used in similar ways.
This view may be that of some supporters of the term "soymilk".
Matt Penzer, an attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, said some standards are outdated, but are being used by the established players to fend off competition and innovation.
In other words, outlawing terms like "soymilk" serves not so much to prevent consumers from confusing plant- and animal-based products with each other but to protect milk producers from innovative competitors.
Of course, defenders of the status quo might argue that Americans' theory of milk includes its derivation from cows. Soymilk producers claim that, if such was once the case, it does not apply any longer.
So, is "soymilk" milk? Fake milk? Should terms like "soymilk" be allowed on food labels?