What is real milk?
The discourse of "real" food has now become the focus of the latest campaign by the California Milk Processor Board (the people who brought us "Got Milk?"). This campaign is particularly interesting because it frames cow milk as "real" not in contrast to foods like McDonald's that everyone already thinks of as industrialized, but in contrast to plant-based milks like almond milk and soy milk. These plant milks have an aura of being healthy, natural, and associated with the very cultural left that produced the "real" food discourse. But the cow milk industry is very intent on reframing plant milks as fake.
In the "real" food discourse, there are at least three things that can make food "real" -- real food is natural (not highly processed), traditional (not a newfangled invention), and genuine (not an imitation of something else).
A natural food would be, essentially, one that resembles something found in nature, or which can be produced from natural ingredients in a small number of low-tech steps. The new milk ad involves guessing which bottle of white liquid is real (cow) milk, and which are fake (plant) milks. When the user selects one of the plant milks, the bottle turns around (with a sound I've been told is grating) to reveal a long list of ingredients. Several of the more exotic-sounding ingredients, such as carageenan and guar gum, are highlighted in red to emphasize that this product is highly unnatural. But of course these extra ingredients are only added to make a shelf-stable product that can be mass-marketed. The ingredients of homemade almond milk, for example, are water and almonds. And the process of making it involves the low-tech steps of soaking, grinding, and straining.
A traditional food is one that people have been eating for a long time -- something "your great-grandmother would recognize as food," to use one of Pollan's food rules. Cow milk is certainly highly traditional for European, south Asian, and African populations. But some plant milks are also quite traditional. People have consumed coconut milk for thousands upon thousands of years, we have evidence of soy milk as early as 82 CE, and milk made of rice or almonds has a long history in both Europe and the Americas. The only reason my great-grandmothers wouldn't recognize plant milks is because they happen to come from areas (Sweden and Britain) that didn't happen to have any plant milks of their own.
A genuine food is one that is not imitating or pretending to be a different food -- reflected in Pollan's dictum "Never eat something that is pretending to be something else." The milk board hits this theme, declaring for example that it's "spooky" how similar coconut milk looks to cow milk. The problem with this imitation criterion is that whether something is an imitation is a matter of framing, not a question of the nature of the product itself. The names of the plant milks seem to suggest that they are imitations, since "milk" without a modifier is generally taken to mean cow milk. But what if we called them "horchata" -- the same product, but now not framed as an imitation of cow milk. From personal experience, I can report that my enjoyment of plant milks increased when I started thinking of them as food items in their own right rather than as fake versions of cow milk.
The difficulties of applying any criterion of food "realness" suggest to me that it's of little use trying to judge foods by their realness. We should judge them by the things that are really worth caring about -- taste, health effects, and the labor and environmental effects of their production.