For the past few years in Italian supermarkets, we have all sorts of "healthy" and "organic" alternatives to dairy milk for vegans and for consumers who are lactose intolerant. For example; soy milk (latte di soia), rice milk (latte di riso), hazelnut, coconut, or almond milk (latte di mandorla), and oat milk (latte di avena).

I know this trend of plant-based milks sold commercially is hardly recent in the US or in the UK, but in Italian supermarkets, these substitutes for cow milk, are not called latte (milk) in Italian and neither when the package is written in English, and I wonder why. I am specifically speaking about the product sold in supermarkets.

“latte di coccco” (coconut milk) and “latte di mandorla” are both described as bevanda (drink). And when the packet is written in English, the term “milk” is avoided, an organic rice milk is called bio drink rice natural. Note also the wording on the packet Granarolo (a leading Italian dairy company), it simply says RISO, the term bevanda is not even used.

enter image description here click the image above to see the larger version

Compare with the situation in the US, where the product carries the term “almond milk”

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and in Australia where the term “oat milk” is clearly displayed.

In the US there appears to be some debate over the definition of “milk”

Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, […] speaking at a policy summit in Washington, D.C., suggested that no product that doesn’t come from a lactating animal should be allowed to call itself milk. “An almond doesn’t lactate, I must confess”…

The War on Soy Milk, The New Republic

  • Is it technically correct to call a beverage “milk” if it is obtained by mixing the strained pulp of almonds, hazelnuts, oats, etc. with water?

In the Middle Ages, almond milk was known in both the Islamic world and Christendom. As a nut (the "fruit of a plant"), it is suitable for consumption during Lent. (Wikipedia)

  • Why was it called “milk” and not “almond drink” or “almond juice”?
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 3:15
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    I am surprised how everyone here is talking about looks as if that is the only thing that matters. Words do not have to depict what a thing is. Words can also depict what the thing is used as. There are any number of examples, genericized trademarks being one obvious and large group. Not every kleenex is a kleenex, but we still call it that because it brings across what it is supposed to be used as. A table leg is not a leg, not technically, not non-technically. But we don't call it a leg to indicate its nature. We call it a leg to indicate its purpose.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 11:42
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    [cont'd] Soy milk is marketed as milk because it's a milk surrogate. It is specifically meant to replace milk when proper milk is not an option. When you're making Christmas cookies and the recipe calls for milk, but you can't use milk for whatever reason, you won't think of replacing it with juice. That just doesn't sound right. You will look around for a milk replacement. For something that specifically says "milk".
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 11:46
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    Can you add the text that you care about in those pictures? I can't tell what you're looking at for comparison (both the English and Italian explicitly).
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 15:12
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    Related question: What should peanut butter be technically called, since it also contains no dairy?
    – Blorgbeard
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 21:50

6 Answers 6


English speakers have been calling white liquids “milk” since Old English. But please don’t drink spurge milk (i.e. its white, latex-like sap), since it’s poisonous:

Wið weartan genim þysse ylcan wyrte [sc. spurge's] meolc & clufþungan wos, do to þære weartan. 
Pseudo-Apuleius' Herbarium

“With warts, take the wort (spurge’s) milk & clove-tongues ooze, apply to the warts”

Another pretty old use of the word refers to milk of fish (now called milt). You can eat this, but it’s fish semen:

When þe femele [fish] leggeþ eyren oþer pisen, þe male cometh aftir and shedith his mylke vpon þe eyren and al..þat ben y-touched wiþ þe mylk of þe male shal be ffysshe.
(a1398) Trev.Barth.

From about the same time we start seeing the types of milks you mention in the question:

Cawdel of Almand mylk. Take Almandes blanched and drawe hem up with wyne, [etc.].
(a1399) Form Cury

For more examples refer to the MED.

Another thing worth mentioning is the Milky Way, which was named after its milk-like appearance. You should not attempt to drink the Milky Way though. The expressions “milky circle” and “galaxy” are older (Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus Rerum (translation), 1398) but ultimately those expressions were said in Greek or Latin well before the English:

  • Hellenistic Greek γαλαξίας (“galaxy”)
  • Ancient Greek γάλα “gála” meaning milk, milky sap, or the Milky Way
  • Classical Latin lactea via (milky way)
  • Cicero lacteus orbis (milky circle)
  • Pliny lacteus circulus (milky circle)
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    Awesome! So awesome. Also I’m impressed I’m able to read, with relatively strong confidence, something written in the English of 600 years ago.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 19:21
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    "please don’t drink spurge milk" - nor milkweed sap: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asclepias. But if you are a Monarch butterfly, it's OK :)
    – alephzero
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 23:58
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    Almond milk being mentioned in 1399 is rather amazing.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 5:16
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    I wonder if it's also related that you milk a snake of their venom. Perhaps one part of milk is that it has to be extracted from the thing that grew it, rather than including all white liquids? Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 6:07
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    @WillCrawford The Latin expression it came from translates more clearly to “milky path”, because it looks like spilled milk. But it’s nothing to cry over.
    – Laurel
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 12:42

As @WhatRoughBeast's answer alludes to, this a food labelling regulation issue not a linguistic one. In English it's completely correct to call nut milks "milk". Whether a jurisdiction allows you to sell them as "milk" is an entirely different matter.

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    @mari-loua I disagree that it's much about language, what is legally allowed in food labeling and the way the general population uses words to describe things is not necessarily consistent. Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 5:24
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    @BryanKrause That may in part depend on how far back in time we go. This metaphorical application of the word milk for the liquids from grinding/pulping various nuts/beans has been used in most European languages: German (mandorlmilch), French (lait d’amande), Italian (latte di mandorle)... . Is it “technically correct” to call any of the products milk? No. But nobody who calls something “almond milk” is suggesting it is produced from the mammary gland of any mammal, and nobody who knows the language is likely to misunderstand this metaphorical usage.
    – Tuffy
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 14:29
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    @Mari-LouA The reason word restrictions exist are that the language would otherwise allow such usage. You don't need a law saying not to call fish "beef," just an accuracy in labeling law. In the case of milk, it is generally the cow milk industry that is trying to reduce competition by lobbying to get non-dairy (or even non-bovine) milks not labeled as such. There's no debate about the meaning in language, but an attempt to change the existing meaning.
    – trlkly
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 18:15
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    An accuracy in labelling law doesn't solve the problem, it just moves it: the question then becomes "is it accurate to label coconut milk as milk?" Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 15:27
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    @BryanKrause That is not a problem. A change in the law may complicate usage. It may even change usage in the country/ies to which the law applies sufficiently to make that population give up calling legally disqualified products ‘cheese’ entirely. But mercifully there is no such law that applies world wide!
    – Tuffy
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 22:11

In the US, it is technically illegal to call plant-based products "milk", "cheese", etc per old FDA regulations. However, the distinction has never been enforced to any degree. Within the last 6 months the FDA has undertaken to understand how people use and perceive terms like milk, in order to determine how to handle the issue. This article is worth reading. While the cases are presumably small in number, soy-based "milk" has apparently resulted in cases of rickets due to Vitamin D deficiency, and rice-based "milk" lacks protein, resulting in Kwashiorkor in infants. Presumably the parents thought they were doing the right thing in avoiding animal products, without realizing that the milk alternatives they were buying did not have the nutritional qualities of the original.

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    I see "NOT FOR USE AS INFANT FORMULA" printed in red on the side of cartons of soy and almond milk purchased in California. The linked article appears to cite sources from the dairy industry.
    – njuffa
    Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 2:01
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    @njuffa - I see cancer warnings on cigarette packages, too. People always pay attention to that sort of thing, right? Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 15:00
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    @WhatRoughBeast Is this sarcasm? I can't say I've ever met a smoker that wasn't astutely aware of the fact that cigarettes increase the risk of cancer.
    – arkon
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 9:18
  • @njuffa - Well-spotted, sir. Sarcasm it was. And sure, smokers are aware that smoking causes cancer. Let me ask you this: have you ever known a smoker who did not smoke because of the package warnings? And how many of the smokers you know who are aware of the risks got that information by reading the package warnings, rather than hearing it repeated on radio or television? Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 19:38

As I understand it, you just need to look at its colour to see why it is called ‘milk’. In the case of almond, the ‘butter’ extracted by grinding the the nut, even when mixed with water, had a milky colour and texture. The liquid from ground soy is so because the beans are not processed till they have a mature ‘beige’ colour and so are again a sort of milky white (unlike soy sauce, where the beans have been dried and the liquid is dark brown.

Coconut ‘water’, as we might drink it straight from the nut, is much clearer. In fact, from my youth I called it ‘coconut milk’. I am grateful to @Chronocidal for correcting my lifelong error. The commercial ‘milk’ comes from the grinding of the white flesh.

  • Is it technically correct to call these beverages “milk”? I understand that the plant-based drinks are white in colour... but why is it illegal (on packets) to call it milk? I'm guessing there are some laws prohibiting this description.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 16:36
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    Yeah - I think it's definitely gotta be white (or at least, whitish), to be called milk. @Mari-LouA - "Illegal?" - is that some kind of EU directive? Are they gonna arrest kids who ask to have the milk from the Christmas coconut? Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 16:38
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    @Mari-LouA, what exactly do you mean by 'technically' here? If you are asking whether it is illegal in a particular jurisdiction (and if so, why), then the question seems to have more to do with the law and the politics of agriculture and consumer protection in that jurisdiction, than with English (or Italian) language.
    – jsw29
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 17:24
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    @Tuffy I’m no expert, but I don’t think soy beans are dried to make soy sauce. They’re generally soaked and cooked, then mixed with wheat and some type of fermenting agent, then mixed into brine and left to ferment (this is the stage that gives the brown colour), then strained and pasteurised. Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 17:29
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    If you are drinking straight from a Coconut, you are drinking Coconut water. You have to grate the pulp to release the oily and fattier Coconut milk Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 9:16

Is it technically correct...?

No, of course not. It is neither technically, nor legally correct, for the same reason "fat free milk" (yes, this exists!) isn't, and cannot be.

Technically, milk is an exocrine secretion produced by mammals (in the tell-tale mammary gland) consisting of predominantly emulgated fat in watery solution and casein (protein), some sugars, and some salts. Anything not coming out of an animal's tit therefore is not "milk". Anything not containing a considerable amount of fat is not "milk".

Legally, there are, depending on where you live, more or less hefty regulations such as e.g. the FDA's in the USA, or about half a dozen EU laws in the EU which control pedantically every aspect of what may be called "milk" and "some type of milk" as well as "milk product", including microbiological and technical minimum stadards and minimum fractions in its composition. The word Milk is a protected term, which is basically something like a Trade Mark (similar to Champagne, Camembert, or Nürnberger).
Anything that did actually come out of an animal tit but underwent processing in excess of heating and segregation by skimming is not "milk", and depending on what was done and what composition it now has, it must bear a prefix (such as pasteurized, H-, fat-reduced, etc.).
Milk being sold without animal prefix is (at least in the EU) defined to be "cow milk". Where "cow" should more precisely be "cattle" (but isn't) as "cow" can, depending on the language chosen, be quite ambiguous species-wise. So, e.g. "goat milk" may not be sold as "milk", although it is milk.

Why was it called...?

So why did and do people call white liquids (including the sap that comes out of dandelion) milk? Well for the same reason that diamonds or gems in general (including amber) are stones.

White liquids are white liquids, and milk is a white liquid. 99% of all people aren't biologists or lawyers or overly bright or educated (especially not in the middle ages), and few would care anyway, for that matter. If something looks like a duck, it is called duck.

  • Props for distinguishing between "technical" (biological) and "legal" (food labelling regs). I would add that almond milk is also of a similar viscosity to other "milks", is nutritious and is sold as a cow's milk substitute. Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 2:46

The scientific or biological definition of milk as a liquid produced by mammals to feed their young does not cover "almond milk".

The food-labelling regulations definition, as it applies to the European Union, is more complicated.

So far, I think I have uncovered four layers:

  1. EU regulations say milk must come from an animal;

  2. Each country has their own exemptions;

  3. Each country has scope to interpret the law;

  4. At least two supermarkets have decided to "bend" the regulation, presumably to maintain customer familiarity.

I am not a lawyer, so I ask you to treat this information as such. If you are merely curious about why certain products are labelled as they are, then I hope that my answer is useful. Equally, this issue came about because a German consumer group made a legal challenge against a manufacturer, and I would hope that their counsel was more thorough and more expensive.

  1. Following a ruling by the European Court of Justice, "milk" and other milk product names are reserved for animal products.

  1. However, each member nation has its own exemptions to this rule. Examples for the UK include:

    • Cream crackers
    • Coconut milk
    • Butter beans

Exempted Italian products :

  • Burro di cacao
  • Latte di cocco
  • Fagiolini al burro

And everyone's favourite wine :

  • Liebfraumilch

  1. If this were not complicated enough, there is scope for further flexibility. As a matter of principle, national courts of EU countries are required to ensure EU law is properly applied, but courts in different countries might interpret it differently.

  1. All four websites for the largest UK supermarkets return results when searched for "almond milk", but only Tesco's and Morrison's advertise it as "almond milk" - Sainsbury's and Asda call it "almond drink".

Looking carefully at the products, none are labelled as milk.

  • Could you list some of the more relevant exceptions, please?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 7:51

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