"Dairy Pride" and "soy boys": The heated identity politics of non-dairy milk

The FDA just announced guidance that recommends plant-based alternatives can be labeled as "milk" — for now

Published March 1, 2023 2:00PM (EST)

Glass of spilled milk (Getty Images/Max Milne)
Glass of spilled milk (Getty Images/Max Milne)

On Feb. 22, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a recommendation that shook the dairy industry. For several years, the federal agency has been drafting guidelines to "help ensure appropriate labeling of plant-based products that are marketed and sold as alternatives to milk." 

These include products like soy, oat, almond and pea milks, which the FDA collectively refers to throughout the draft as PBMAs, or "plant-based milk alternatives." Prompted by pushback from members of the dairy industry, as well as the politicians who represent them, regarding plant-based products being labeled as "milk," the FDA issued a notice in 2018 soliciting comments from the public to gain insight into how consumers understood the word. 

The agency received more than 13,000 comments.

"After reviewing these comments and conducting focus group studies with consumers, the FDA determined that consumers generally understand that PBMA do not contain milk and choose PBMA because they are not milk," the FDA wrote in a press release

For that reason, the agency recommends that PBMA's can use the term "milk" in their labeling and marketing; although, it is recommending they include a "voluntary nutrient statement" that conveys how the product compares with milk based on the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service fluid milk substitutes criteria. 

"These statements will help consumers make informed dietary choices when it comes to understanding certain nutritional differences between plant-based products that are labeled with 'milk' in their names and milk," the release said. 

This industrial and governmental consternation over the use of a single word crystallizes the way in which plant-based milks themselves have been adopted as both political metaphor and a cultural shorthand. Put another way, sides have been drawn in the Great "Milk" Debate and the FDA's decision marks a win for one. 


As mentioned, the FDA's proposed guidance comes after years of outcry from major dairy producers, who say that the term "milk" should be reserved only for animal-based foods and dairy products.

Take for example the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) — a non-profit organization that works to advance dairy producers and their cooperatives — which refers to plant-based milks as "plant-based beverages" or, simply, "plant-based." Earlier this month, the NMPF urged the FDA to reconsider its definition of "milk," underscoring the importance of dispelling "the lie of plant-based beverages masquerading as 'milk.'"

"Until the FDA enforces its own standards of identity for milk by getting dairy terms right – reserving them for the real thing to distinguish them from the nutritionally deficient concoctions that hide behind milk's health halo – the lie of 'healthy' plant-based 'milk' is likely to persist," the organization wrote. "And as we've seen, that lie is proving difficult to eradicate."

"Until the FDA enforces its own standards of identity for milk by getting dairy terms right – reserving them for the real thing to distinguish them from the nutritionally deficient concoctions that hide behind milk's health halo – the lie of 'healthy' plant-based 'milk' is likely to persist."

Similarly, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF) slammed plant-based alternatives for using the label "milk" to tout health benefits that they don't contain:

"Consumers choose milk because it is a trusted term associated with quality and nutrition. This trust has been built over generations of Wisconsin dairy farmers who take pride in producing a quality product with regulations that reflect that quality," said WFBF President Kevin Krentz, per The Center Square. "Plant-based milk alternatives are not milk. They aren't held to the same regulations and therefore should not be labeled as milk."

Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin further claimed that plant-based producers are "deceiving consumers" and urged for the passage of the Dairy Pride Act, a 2019 bill that combats "the unfair practice of mislabeling non-dairy products using dairy names."

"America's dairy farmers work hard to produce second-to-none products with the highest nutritional value, and plant-based products should not be getting away with using their good name," Baldwin said in a letter to the FDA this week. "Since the FDA is failing to enforce its own definitions for dairy terminology and stop imitation products from deceiving consumers, we will be reintroducing our DAIRY PRIDE Act to stand up for America's dairy farmers and the quality products they make."


Amidst the industry backlash over what to call the plant-based alternatives, the products themselves have been gradually adopted into the lexicon of the "culture war," largely by members of the far-right. For instance, in 2020, Rachel Hosie broke down the origin of the insult "soy boy" for The Independent. She points to two Urban Dictionary definitions of the term: 

Slang used to describe males who completely and utterly lack all necessary masculine qualities. This pathetic state is usually achieved by an over-indulgence of emasculating products and/or ideologies.


The average soy boy is a feminist, nonathletic, has never been in a fight, will probably marry the first girl that has sex with him, and likely reduces all his arguments to labeling the opposition as 'Nazis'.

Where exactly "soy boy" originated is unclear. Some suggest it first appeared on 4Chan, while The Daily Dot posits that it was started by Mike Cernovich, a far right social media personality, who used it to insult people on Twitter. Meanwhile, James Allsup — a white supremacist podcaster and YouTube commentator — claimed that he actually invented the insult. 

"For the men who use terms like … soy boy, being called anything related to femininity is the ultimate insult," Hosie wrote. 

Let's be clear, it's an objectively really dumb insult, and one that has been "reclaimed" if you will by both consumers and brands — as evidenced by the barista-favorite Happy Happy Soy Boy Milk from Happy Happy Foods. But there's something deeper, too, to be extrapolated from the perceived femininity of choosing to drink soy milk instead of dairy. Conservative politicians, including Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and author J.D. Vance, and are increasingly vocal regarding their concerns that "traditional manhood" is under attack. 

"The left want to define traditional masculinity as toxic," Hawley said in an address to the National Conservatism Conference in 2021. "They want to define the traditional masculine virtues, things like courage and independence and assertiveness, as a danger to society."

He continued: "The problem with the left's assault on the masculine virtues is that those self-same qualities, the very ones the left now vilify as dangerous and toxic, have long been regarded as vital to self-government." 

This binary that Hawley sets up — in which the political progress of historically marginalized groups is interpreted as an assault on tradition, instead of as a collective win — underlies the online politicization of soy milk. Using milk as a metaphor, plant-based alternatives aren't just personal choices, they're a threat to traditional dairy. 

This isn't really a surprise. As Salon Food has reported, health foods, including plant-based products, have long been positioned as "othered" in both pop culture and American culture in general. 

This perception was cemented during the countercultural movement during the 1960s and 1970s. As author Jonathan Kauffman wrote in his book "Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat," many young Americans were rebelling against the increased industrialization in the U.S., including within the military, by changing how they ate. 

"The idea that my personal food choices — what I buy, what I consume — can have these larger political impacts on global hunger, the environment and capitalism, it was a huge shift."

Pre-industrial food sans cans and plastics, like organic vegetables, sprouted grains and soy protein became touchstones of the movement. 

"The idea that my personal food choices — what I buy, what I consume — can have these larger political impacts on global hunger, the environment and capitalism," Kauffman said in an interview with CUESA. "It was a huge shift." 

As researchers wrote in the article "Palatable disruption: the politics of plant milk" for the academic journal "Agriculture and Human Values," how true this remains in practice is a contentious topic in an age of increasingly industrialized food systems. 

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"We examine the politics of plant milk by developing the concept of palatable disruption, which posits that people are encouraged to care about the environment, health, and animal welfare enough to adopt [plant-based] mylks but to ultimately remain consumers of a commodity food," they wrote. "Our analysis is not meant to be dismissive but to urge caution against any implicit assumption that plant-based offers food futures that are better for the environment, health and animal welfare." 

That said, the researchers point out that there are other options for those who want to be more conscientious about how they purchase plant-based milks, like buying from local producers or co-ops. And as more Americans cut back on meat in dairy — just as a reported one in four have endeavored to do, according to a 2020 Gallup poll — the necessity and viability of those options will hopefully increase. 

In the meantime, perhaps making plant-based alternatives seem a little less alternative is a worthwhile start. For those who feel otherwise, the FDA has opened up a 60-day window for electronic comments on the draft guidance.


By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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