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Big Dairy Wants Plant-Based Milk To Stop Calling Itself “Milk”

Welcome to the next front in the war between old and new food systems.

Big Dairy Wants Plant-Based Milk To Stop Calling Itself “Milk”
[Photo: Flickr user Mike Mozart]

The first reference to “soybean milk” in the U.S. showed up in 1897. “Almond milk” appears in medieval cookbooks. But a new bill argues that calling any non-dairy product “milk” confuses consumers.

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The DAIRY PRIDE Act (“Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake Of Dairy Everyday”), sponsored by Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, says that any non-dairy product that calls itself “milk” should be considered misbranded, and subject to enforcement by the FDA.

[Photo: Flickr user jm3]

The bill comes a month after a coalition of House members sent a letter to the FDA urging it to take action against “fake milk.”

Technically, FDA regulations define milk as the “lacteal secretion” of a cow. But the FDA hasn’t gone after products that use milk as part of a longer name, as in Silk’s “soymilk” or Almond Breeze’s “almondmilk.” In 2015, a federal judge ruled that Trader Joe’s “soy milk” doesn’t mislead consumers into thinking it’s the same as cow milk.

Non-dairy manufacturers argue that “milk” is common usage. “To us, this attempt to legislate the word ‘milk’ as dairy-only comes a little late, and doesn’t make sense considering plant-based milks have been around not only for several years but for centuries,” says Molly Spence, a spokesperson for the Almond Board of California.

The dairy industry, for its part, says that non-dairy products are hijacking their marketing, particularly around nutrition. It’s a case they’ve been trying to make to the FDA since 2000, when the National Milk Producers Federation began petitioning the agency about the use of “soymilk.” The pressure is greater now–as the dairy industry has been shrinking, sales of products such as almond milk have quickly grown.

This battle might sound familiar: For the last few years, eggless-mayo company Hampton Creek has been battling with the egg industry and large mayonnaise manufacturers about what legally constitutes mayo. The two sides came to a somewhat convoluted agreement in December 2015.

The Cheese Reporter, one industry newsletter, explains:

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. . . Silk Almondmilk contains all of one gram of protein per one-cup serving. So the dairy industry has spent over 100 years touting the protein content of milk, only to have pretenders such as Silk come along with plant-based “milk” products that contain very little protein. That strikes us as pretty misleading.

Adam Lowry, the former Method co-founder who now runs Ripple, a startup with a plant-based milk made from peas, agrees that nutrition should be part of the definition–but that wouldn’t rule out all non-dairy alternatives.

“Milk is just a liquid defined by a certain composition of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats,” he says. “The dairy industry relies on a cow’s digestion and lacteal secretion to turn plants into cow’s milk. We just make it straight from the plants. It takes far less carbon and water that way, it’s more humane, and without the saturated fat and cholesterol that comes in cow’s milk.”

He goes a step further, saying that if “milk” has to pass a purity test, then conventional dairy milk might not deserve the name either.

“What cow’s milk is today is a far cry from what it was when humans first started calling it milk,” he says, noting that typical dairy milk is filled with artificial hormones. “If the dairy industry wants to keep the word ‘milk’ for itself, then we should define milk as it was before the extraordinary human interventions that make it something very different than it used to be.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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