For thousands of years, the words milk and cream have meant a fluid from the mammary glands of a female animal used as food by people in liquid form and as butter, cheese and yogurt. Today, that definition has been blurred by those wishing to apply dairy terms to identify and sell liquids derived from vegetables and marketed as non-dairy alternatives.
Increasing demand for plant-based products—especially among vegans, vegetarians and others who consume soy-based alternatives to cheese and nut-based alternatives to milk—has created a variety of new food choices in supermarkets. However, these products are not foods that have been officially standardized using names like “milk” and “cheese” leading to consumer confusion.
Many dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and certain cheeses, have standards of identity established by regulation, which require certain components and ingredients. These categories have long been recognized by the American public to identify the dairy foods described in the standards.
At the same time, dairy names have appeared in the labeling of plant-based products as part of the product’s name. However, these plant-based alternatives may not be satisfactory substitutes for all uses of dairy, and some may not be nutritionally equivalent.
This 20-year battle has mushroomed from a war of words to include numerous lawsuits filed by the dairy industry in recent years. Targets include those capitalizing on the popularity of the traditional milk market to sell look-alike options with names like almond, coconut, banana, oat, walnut, cashew, hazelnut, hemp, pea, potato, flax and rice “milk”. These vegetable drinks are often packaged in similar cartons and bottles as dairy milk and placed next to cow’s milk on store shelves.
In response to this ongoing debate, last September the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a call for public comment on the issue of dairy vs. vegetable products using “milk” in their names. The comment period ended on January 28, 2019 and some 11,077 responses were submitted.
While no date has been set, FDA Public Affairs Specialist Deborah Kotz said the FDA is reviewing these comments now and is expected to issue a formal policy statement later this year.
The FDA is concerned that the labeling of some plant-based products may lead consumers to believe that those products have the same nutrients as dairy products, even though nutritional content in non-dairy products can vary widely.
The FDA believes it is important to better understand consumers’ expectations of these plant-based products compared to dairy products – which is part of the rationale for seeking public comment.
“While we have always complied with strict state and federal standards of identity requirements for our dairy products, the FDA has not always enforced its identity criteria for labeling,” said Christine Camozzi, co-owner of Valley View Dairy in Petaluma.
“It’s frustrating to see plant-based products piggybacking on the cow’s milk name. These non-dairy products should be labeled properly. Consumers today are not as well informed and think all products called “milk” have the same nutritive value.”
However, all so-called “milks” are not equal. There is a significant difference between dairy and vegetable alternatives. Reports indicate a person’s intake of potassium, riboflavin and protein will be less from plant-based beverages than from cow’s milk. Dairy milk also contains vitamins A, B1, B12, C, D, and riboflavin, plus niacin and folate, in addition to minerals (calcium, phosphorus) that support bone formation and enzyme functions, according to dietitians in Canada and the U.S.
A CBC article report on a new joint statement from the Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society says plant-based milks are “inappropriate alternatives to cow milk in the first two years,” citing their lack of protein, lack of fortification (most cow’s milk is fortified with a subset or all of vitamin A, D and C), sugar content and potential to “displace hunger”.
Meagan Bridges, a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Support Specialist with the University of Virginia Health System, conducted an extensive analysis of most plant-based “milk” options.
She concluded that consumer awareness is important when plant-based substitutes are used to fully replace cow’s milk in the diet. Her findings appeared in the January 2018 issue of Practical Gastroenterology.
She said dairy foods are often good sources of important nutrients, including protein, vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorus. As some plant-based milks are very low in these nutrients, consumer awareness is important when dairy-free alternatives are used as a direct replacement for cow’s milk in the diet.
She found that only soy milk comes close to containing protein in an amount comparable to cow’s milk, while almond milk only contains one gram of protein per 8 oz. cup. She said protein from animal sources is generally of higher quality than plant-based proteins due to its more complete array of amino acids.
The nutritional needs for children differ from those for adults and there are reported cases of nutritional deficiencies and growth-related issues associated with children drinking vegetable milk-like products, some of which contain added sugar.
Furthermore, dairy alternatives fortified with vitamins and other nutrients still may not equal the qualities and amounts required as a recommended daily allowance for nutrients such as calcium.
Some dairy industry concerns are related to the loss of market share due to the rise in vegetable- based “milk” competition, as well as due to the decline in the U.S. per-capita consumption of fluid milk, which has fallen by more than 37% since the 1970s. Conventional milk sales dropped by 17% to $13 billion in 2016 alone, as reported by Euromonitor.
“This has had a huge impact. We’ve seen a definite decline in consumer purchases of fluid dairy milk, as well as yogurt sales either declining or remaining flat prior to December 31,” said Susan Bianchi, co-owner of Bianchi Dairy in Valley Ford, CA. “Cheese sales seem to be more stable.” Bianchi believes one remedy would be to phase out the use of “milk” for non-dairy products.
“Labeling and re-labeling are costs of doing business, and firm’s change their brand strategy all the time, along with their packaging. Another solution might be to place non-dairy items on separate shelves or sections, with banners saying, ‘Dairy Case’ or ‘Non-Dairy Beverages’ as is a similar signage practice in many supermarkets for organic versus non-organic vegetables.”
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, has been reported as saying, “Soybeans do not lactate.” He went on record July 18, 2018 saying that the FDA would enforce its definition of the term milk by admitting “the question is really more about how we (FDA) have been enforcing our own standards of identity.”
The FDA defines milk products as “Food made exclusively or principally from the lacteal secretion obtained from one or more healthy milk-producing animals, e.g., cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo….”
Gottlieb said consumers should be able to know at a glance what type of product they’re buying for themselves and their families.
“Implementing clear and transparent food labels and claims is an issue I’ve made a high priority. We’ve outlined these goals in a new, multi-year Nutrition Innovation Strategy released in March 2018 designed to help consumers identify healthier options. ”
He noted that, in the past, FDA rules did not allow disclosure of these features in a consistent format that let consumers easily access this information, or that made it easy for food manufacturers to compete to offer these options.
While no one knows exactly what stance the FDA will eventually take, speculation centers on the probability of new mandatory labeling requirements that include more details on content, ingredients and nutritional values. Some would like to see a complete ban on the use of “milk” for non-dairy products.
Gottlieb was also quoted as saying that if the FDA decides to take the “milk” out of almond milk, it could face legal challenges citing commercial free speech rights.
Some plant-based drink producers have elected to avoid the potential nomenclature impasse by not including “milk” as key titles on their product labels. Instead, some are using terms such as Almond Breeze, MALK, SILK, and Non-Dairy Beverage, to mention a few.
The use of dairy names for non-dairy foods is not just an issue within the U.S. Last July GRIST reported that France has banned vegan foods from borrowing terminology from animal products, meaning no more soy milk or vegan bacon, stating that its decision was based on consumer confusion.
Meanwhile, the Dairy Pride Act, drafted by the dairy industry, has received support from both sides of the congressional aisle, chiefly from lawmakers in dairy states like California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. If passed, this law would require non-dairy products to no longer be labeled using dairy terms.
Christine Camozzi said consumer awareness and education are vital, and humor can be used to make a point. She said the California Milk Advisory Board developed advertising that showed two cows, one happy and the other sad, talking to each other. The happy cow says, “Have you been put out to pasture?” The sad cow replies, “No one wants our milk anymore.” The smiling cow says, “That’s just nuts.”