The First Drop: Mother’s Milk

My mom has a problem. She doesn’t know what kind of milk to drink. This isn’t a nice thing for an 80-year-old lady to grapple with.

About a year ago, she switched to almond milk for her cereal, because she thought that regular milk was (sorry, mom) giving her gas.

Then, dairy struck back, with a commercial attacking almond milk by pointing out that the product isn’t just almonds and water, but also a few different gums, some added vitamins, lecithin, and salt and sugar. (For some reason, in this already unbalanced comparison of cows to nuts, the commercial further puts an indelicate hoof on the scale by putting dairy milk up against flavored almond milk. Talk about hand-picking the competition.

The commercial sure did its job. My poor mother, spooked at the idea that her cereal might be floating in an almond-based soup of lecithin and gums, headed straight to Whole Foods, where she embarked on a guided tour of the dairy (and alt-dairy) departments with an unsuspecting liberal arts college graduate dairy manager. She emerged with an unnamed almond milk that likely is only water and almonds, which she hated, leaving someone who has more than enough problems (aching back, moron for a son) in the midst of a cereal crisis that threatens to derail her breakfast for good.

Why? She looked at the label of dairy milk, which revealed that it has 12 grams of sugar in a cup! Twelve grams! When I pointed out that it was from the lactose, she said she understood, but she told me that because she’d been eating so many sweets (curse you, country club buffet cookies!) that she needed to cut down on her sugar.

We aren’t even going to address the presence of materials like lecithin and gums in a pure dairy product like, say, ice cream, or the idea that so much of the dairy business includes PETA-alarming problems like involuntary bovine servitude (highfalutin language brought to you by my mom’s moron for a son, but you get the issue), but it’s enough to make you never want to look at an almond or a cow again, unless it’s been chopped up and burgered for you.

As for something like Ripple, or all of these other choices like oat, rice, pea or everything else plant milk, they’re all great substitutes, but I don’t think that I, or the team at Whole Foods, or even the entrepreneurs in every single one of those categories really want to spend their time hashing out the issue with poor Babs Klineman.

Fortunately, the dairy industry has yet another advocate out there who’s trying to make the choice clearer for both my mom and for everyone else: I’m referring, of course, to Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, who is down on almond milk and other types of alt-dairy that aren’t “lacteal secretions of a bovine mammal,” which is the standard to which dairy would like to see enforcement.

Gottlieb was, of course, right when he told the world that he was pretty sure that “an almond doesn’t lactate.” Considering the war on truth being conducted by his boss, that should probably be grounds for firing, but since said president gets, by fiat, an extra scoop of ice cream with his pie, he probably doesn’t want to tick off the cow folks.

Still, it’s hard to imagine what kind of branding crisis we’d see if dairy was forced to hold itself to the statutory standard it’s pushing Gottlieb to enforce. They’d truly be throwing the baby out with the formula if milk producers had to call their own products “the lacteal secretions of a bovine mammal.” It might even make “almond beverage” or “cashew juice” a little more appealing.

There’s a larger point here, of course, which is that dairy is – justifiably – fighting to find a way to hang onto share in the midst of a plethora of emerging lifestyles and diets and health concerns, many of which have grown at the expense of milk sales, which are expected to be down another 11 percent by 2020. There are real human costs to that decline, and I hate to see farmers, or cows, concerned about making a living.

But I also feel like my mom should be able to have her cereal without worrying too much about whether or not she wants almond milk or dairy milk, and the way we get to that is through transparency, not infighting. Diary has health benefits, so does almond milk, and there’s a lot of other good alternatives out there and a lot of great people working to make them enjoyable and vital. Don’t tear up the dairy aisle in a turf war. All it’s doing, really, is yucking my mom’s yum. Which no one wants, because she’ll just eat more cookies, and not know what to chase them with, either.