The FDA Is Suddenly Obsessed with the Definition of 'Yogurt'

It looks like Big Dairy wants the Trump administration to strip the label from soy- and nut-based versions of the creamy stuff.

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Sep 28 2018, 1:00pm

Photo: Getty Images/iStock

The summer of 2018 has been a busy one for the Trump administration. In between jailing immigrant children and attempting to force an accused sex offender onto the Supreme Court, the government has dealt with the pressing issue of the legal definition of various foods. In July, the FDA announced that the agency wanted to protect the dairy industry by revising the definition of the word “milk” to exclude plant-based substitutes made of soy, nuts, hemp, and the like. Earlier, in May, Missouri state legislature took a similar tact when it passed an agricultural bill that seeks to aid Big Meat by banning makers of plant-based burgers and dogs from using the word “meat” in their product labeling.

Now, in the wake of those hugely important actions, the government has announced that it plans to tackle the meaning of the word “yogurt,” defining once and for all which jiggly, tangy food products are encompassed by the label.

The Associated Press reports that the FDA intends to standardize the category of yogurt, ruling whether plant-based coconut and almond yogurts make the cut, as well as which products qualify as “low-fat.” As with its battle against soy and hemp milks, the dairy industry has claimed it’s not clear on the rules, and likely hopes that the administration will limit the term to milk-based cow, goat, and sheep yogurts. But it also wants to be able to call sweetened and flavored versions “yogurt” even if they’re loaded with extra ingredients like chocolate and fruit.

It’s not yet clear whether the FDA intends to narrow or to broaden the definition of what qualifies as a yogurt. Right now, the agency appears to be focusing simply on updating the language that applies to the food category, which has expanded vastly since yogurt’s popularity in the US exploded in the 1980s. In 1981 and again in 1982, the agency established a standard for foods labeled as yogurt, excluding items loaded with emulsifiers such as gelatin, dextrose, and locust bean gum; in 2009, a newer proposal allowed such ingredients, but the initiative never passed. With the addition to the market of “yogurts” made of everything from cashews to almonds, the rules have simply gotten too fuzzy, the dairy industry says, and it wants some updated terminology.

“What’s the rule? I mean, make a rule,” Bailey Wood, a spokesman for the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), told the AP.

The process of standardizing the definition of a food can be surprisingly complicated. Apart from the recent examples of “milk” and “meat,” another seemingly straightforward but ultimately fraught endeavor was defining the term “peanut butter,” a process that took the FDA almost two decades to accomplish. According to the AP, the agency first proposed a peanut butter standard in the late 1950s, after spreads like Jif and Skippy—which contained some nuts but also a whole bunch of added sugars and fats—hit the market. The FDA came into conflict with The Peanut Butter Manufacturers Association, and it wasn’t until 1970 that the conclusion that any product labeled “peanut butter” needs to be at least 90 percent peanuts.

Any change in the definition of the word “yogurt” will take some time, as the FDA reviews the market and decides which combinations of ingredients are fit to bear the label. As of yet, it’s unclear whether those silky soy and milked-nut concoctions will be included or excluded, but the dairy industry seems to be pushing for the latter, as John Allan of the IDFA told the AP yesterday.

“You can’t make something completely out of the line and call it yogurt.”