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Editorial Writer

Got milk? The answer isn’t so simple anymore.

Big Dairy has had it up to here with these alternative beverages masquerading as milk, and now the Food and Drug Administration plans to start forcing plant-based products that co-opt the language of lactation to abandon the act. That’s right: The official definition of milk involves “lacteal secretion,” and, as the head of the FDA said last week, “an almond doesn’t lactate.”

As it turns out, this isn’t entirely fair to almonds. Labeling botanical liquids “milks” is more than a newfangled marketing maneuver that must speedily be put out to pasture. Francis Bacon noticed in 1626 that “there be plants, that have a Milk in them when they are Cut,” and Encyclopaedia Britannica acceded a century and a half later that “the emulsive liquors of vegetables may be called vegetable milks.”

Besides, the FDA has official definitions, or “standards of identity,” for plenty of products that it neglects to enforce. What matters more, it seems, is how we shop. “Cow-nterfeits,” as the milk lobby likes to call them, aren’t really fooling anyone — not almond milk or soy milk or cashew milk or oat milk or rice milk or hemp milk or pea milk or “Super Rebbl Herbs Turmeric Golden Milk Elixir.” Shoppers know that the products provide the creaminess that comes with dairy while leaving out the lactose. Peanut butter is much the same. We know it is not butter. The FDA knows it. But the term became lodged in our lexicon, and “peanut paste” wouldn’t have set shoppers salivating. So the agency created a carveout.

Milk, in other words, is what man makes of it, and if Americans decide to stop associating the name so closely with cows and start associating it with its texture and uses, that’s up to them. Who cares?

Well, everyone. The dairy industry cares because the cash cow it once was has stopped producing so prolifically. Prices are plunging, lactose intolerance rates are rising along with animal rights initiatives and the “health halo” that once hovered over the beverage has lost its luster. Milk is good for you, it turns out, but it’s not that good. And other options, including those pesky pretenders, are good for you too, especially when they’re fortified with additional nutrients.

The nut-milk industry cares, too, for all it claims to have no interest in “imitating” milk. That’s because “nut drink” doesn’t ring so delicious — and worse than that, it rings unnatural.

And Americans care. The dairy industry and its allies have spent the past century convincing them that the beverage was the best way to make sure children grow big and strong. The mythos around milk and motherhood probably made that job even easier.

So when World War I ended, and all that dairy our leaders had squeezed out of farmers to nourish soldiers overseas had no one to drink it, the government poured the excess into our schools — where it has stayed, thanks to federal subsidies for serving it. Dairy got its own group on the dietary pyramid, and federal guidelines were released recommending three servings of dairy a day.

Thanks to all that, milk isn’t associated only with motherhood anymore. It’s associated with Americanness, too. The dairy industry, then, is right that the nut-milkers trade on their reputation. It’s just that their reputation is as pasteurized as their product.

Studies show that milk doesn’t guard against fractures, and even that it may cause certain types of cancer. Loads of fruits and vegetables contain the same nutrients as a tall glass of the white stuff. But no one was going to call bull. The dairy industry was pulling in big bucks and giving them right back to the campaigns of the politicians who helped protect it. It still does. Today, dairy farmers funnel money into a fund that, with U.S. Agriculture Department oversight, supports campaigns like the “Got Milk?” ads that saved the product from a souring citizenry — and defined ’90s childhood as closely as Nickelodeon.

We’ll probably always want to buy something called “milk.” But the product’s identity, “standard” or not, has shifted all the same, and now the dairy industry wants to wrest back the narrative. We may think of milk as American, but there’s also something American about allowing the people to determine what qualifies as “milk.” Milk as we once knew it may finally have fallen off its pedestal, and if it has, there’s no use crying over it.