Should Plant-Based Beverages Be Called Something Other Than Milk?

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Supporters of almond, soy and other plant-based milks are pushing back against a new congressional campaign aimed at forcing these “fake” beverages to drop the “milk” branding.

Nicole Negowetti, policy director at the Good Food Institute, says terms such as “almond milk” and “soy milk” clearly and accurately describe these plant-based beverages. The institute promotes plant-based alternatives to animal products like dairy milk.

Glass of Plant-Based Almond Milk on Wooden Table | Vitacost.com/blog

The congressional effort, in the form of a Dec. 16, 2016, letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “is a thinly veiled attempt to appease the dairy industry, discount consumer choice and undermine competition,” Negowetti says. “No reasonable consumer would confuse soy milk or almond milk with cow’s milk. In fact, demand for plant-based milks is on the rise precisely because consumers are seeking out dairy-free options.”

In June 2016, the Good Food Institute sued the FDA in an attempt to gain clarity regarding the term “soy milk.” The institute accuses the FDA of flip-flopping over use of the “soy milk” label, with the agency appearing to endorse it on the one hand and penalizing it on the other.

In the letter, more than 30 members of Congress urged the FDA to look into manufacturers of plant-based milks such as almond, soy, rice and coconut. The congressmen claim these “imitation” products are falsely being marketed as milk, when only animal-based milk should be labeled that way. Several of the lawmakers represent top dairy-producing states such as California, New York and Wisconsin.

“While consumers are entitled to choose imitation products, it is misleading and illegal for manufacturers of these items to profit from the ‘milk’ name,” the letter says. “These products should be allowed on the market only when accurately labeled. We urge FDA to enforce this matter by requiring plant-based products to adopt a more appropriate name that does not include the word ‘milk’.”

Supporters of this viewpoint believe that consumers are being misled by confusion over the labeling of animal-based milk and plant-based milk, and that dairy farmers are being hurt financially.

In early 2016, market research giant Nielsen reported that while U.S. sales of almond milk had soared 250 percent over the past five years, sales of traditional milk had plunged by more than $1 billion. Almond milk is America’s leading non-dairy milk, posting U.S. sales of nearly $895 million in 2015, according to Nielsen.

“You haven’t ‘got milk’ if it comes from a seed, nut or bean,” Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, says in a news release. “In the many years since we first raised concerns about the misbranding of these products, we’ve seen an explosion of imitators attaching the word ‘milk’ to everything from hemp to peas to algae. We don’t need new regulations on this issue; we just need FDA to enforce those that have been on the books for years.”

Since the 1930s, milk legally has been defined as “the lacteal secretions of a bovine mammal,” the Good Food Institute says. However, in the decades since then, makers of plant-based beverages have adopted the “milk” moniker.

Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, says most “dairy imitators” such as almond milk are “nutritionally inferior” to traditional milk and aren’t adequate dairy substitutes.

Supporters of plant-based milk think otherwise.

Molly Spence, North America regional director for the Almond Board of California, says that in the case of almond milk, it’s proven to be a “satisfying alternative” for people seeking to avoid lactose, reduce consumption of animal or soy products, or cut calories. Many types of almond milk contain fewer calories than a lot of dairy milk or other plant-based milks, she says, and most are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

“According to historians, almond milk was often the milk of choice for medieval cooks because it was not subject to spoilage like animal milk and was acceptable for religious fasting or meat-free days,” Spence says. “Those same reasons — shelf life and consumer choice — still hold true today.”

Leading the charge against the labeling of plant-based beverages as milk is U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. The other congressmen who signed the letter opposing “fake” milk are:

  • U.S. Rep. James Comer, Kentucky Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, Connecticut Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Susan Delbene, Washington Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, Wisconsin Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, Minnesota Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, Connecticut Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, Ohio Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, Wisconsin Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna, New York Republican
  • U.S. Rep. John Katko, New York Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, Wisconsin Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, New Hampshire Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, Washington Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, Pennsylvania Republican
  • U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, Michigan Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, Washington Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, Minnesota Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, Wisconsin Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, New York Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, Ohio Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, Wisconsin Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney, Florida Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, Oregon Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, Idaho Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanick, New York Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, Pennsylvania Republican
  • U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, New York Democrat
  • U.S. Rep. David Valadao, California Republican

In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Emily Byrd, communications manager of the Good Food Institute, complained that these legislators are engaging in what she deemed “industry-funded market interference.”

Current legal philosophy surrounding the First Amendment “makes clear that if the government is going to restrict corporate speech, it must be in furtherance of a legitimate government purpose, and helping one industry over another does not qualify,” Byrd wrote. “Restricting the ‘milk’ label would, then, not only be condescending to consumers, but also potentially unconstitutional.”