Almond milk. Rice milk. Soy milk.
The proliferation of plant-based “milk” products has been increasing in recent years as more and more consumers choose them. At the same time, the consumption of actual milk is in decline. The paradox has been catching notice and reignited an old fight over the sale of non-milk products as milk.
Believe it or not, “milk” has an actual definition according to the federal government. The Food and Drug Administration defines milk as: Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.
Just before Christmas, 32 Congressmen wrote a letter to the FDA’s Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D. asking him to enforce that definition. In the letter, the Congressmen explain the difficulties facing the dairy industry today, particularly that milk prices have dropped by 40% since 2014. The letter asks that the FDA support dairy farm families by putting an end to the illegal and misleading use of the word “milk” on plant-based products that do not contain any milk.
Most recently in the new year, Senator Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) proposed the “DAIRY PRIDE Act” The act asks the FDA to enforce its definition of the word “milk” and prohibit plant-based products from using the word on its products. The proposed Act points out that the consumption of milk is recommended by the federal government, and provides nutritional qualities not found in plant-based products. The Act gives the FDA 90 days after passage to begin enforcement.
One persistent argument made by those opposed to changing the name of non-milk products is that consumers aren’t actually confused by the labels – no one buys almond milk and thinks it contains cow’s milk. Well, duh. The problem isn’t that people think these products contain cow’s milk, but that they consider these products as some type of milk. It isn’t milk. Coconut water is not milk, no matter which way you look at it.
As the daughter of soybean farmers, one might think that I am sympathetic to the arguments for the plant-based “milk” products. But, quite the contrary, I do see labeling these products as milk misleading. The use of the word is just plain incorrect. These products obviously claim the word because milk is a popular product and one that consumers purchase on a regular basis (what goes with cereal? milk! chocolate cake? milk! what do you put in your coffee? milk!). But its use is like selling grapefruit juice as orange juice because the latter is more favored by the consuming public.
It is also against current federal regulations. If the FDA is going to have a definition for the word “milk,” then it needs to enforce it. Otherwise, consistent disregard for the marketing rules and regulations causes the public to lose confidence in their integrity.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure removal of the word will actually be effective now. Almond milk is just considered a real thing, even f you cannot milk an almond. People have accepted these plant-based products as a form of milk, and changing the name might not change the perception. Perhaps over time it would work, but for now we’re probably stuck with the idea.
Nonetheless, I would support the FDA enforcing its own definition of milk, and asking producers of plant-based products to remove it from their labeling. No, this action would not save dairy farm families. It certainly isn’t the most pressing issue facing agriculture. But, because it is misleading, I commend the actions of those trying to make the change.
John L Kemmis says
I hated English, writing, grammar, vocabulary and the sort when I was growing up. It was like the subject was an as-needed tool for me. Mostly un-needed. But now that I am older, well nearly 65 and really older, I find that today’s culture sometimes bends the meaning of words to a point where the words become nearly meaningless.
Maybe it is part of the practice of “being acceptable to everyone” or is it “being everything to everyone.” If it looks like milk, pours like milk, used like milk, we can call it milk. No?
I find it interesting that health conscious women purchase drinks like almond milk thinking they are healthy, which they might be healthy. On the other hand, they are quite highly manufactured and refined like other chemicals. Only most of these ingredients are natural foods or derivatives thereof. A lot of science has gone into their manufacture and production. I thought highly manufactured foods were out of favor with the health conscious. No?
The real question may be, “What should we teaching our children?” Teaching them that milk comes from cows or from tree nuts? Teaching them that almond milk is milk extracted from almonds? Teaching them that milk is a white fluid that we pour over cereal and sometimes make ice cream from?
At Mass last Sunday, the Deacon began his homily with a quote attributed to Confucius, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names.”
We should reflect on that saying as the controversy over the definition of milk continues. Personally, milk comes from a cow (or goat) and is consumable by man. End of discussion.
Bob Lenowitz says
Milk has been used as a term for plant based liquids for a very long time. Check the etymology of the word milk for more details… https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/milk
The fda defines it as only from a cow because the dairy industry lobby wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jeffrey Quick says
If we’re going to use the FDA definition, then what are we going to call “goat dairy drink”, since it sure isn’t milk? I’m suspicious of attempts to legislate language; it’s way too much like the Academie Francaise. People refer to these “adulterated water products” as milk. They’ve been doing so since the dawn of the health food movement.
And why are we calling “skim milk” milk? It might as well be one of those “adulterated water products”.
Do you oppose any kind of marketing regulations then?
Jeffrey Quick says
Assuming that was directed at me…
My instincts are to oppose them on principle. in the real world, free speech collides with freedom of associations, in matters such as appelations controlees. I don’t mind if champagne (AC) or Parmagiano-Reggiano (AC) is defined a certain way, as long as I can call the dry sparkling wine that I can afford “champagne” or the stuff in the green can “Parmesan”. Budweiser, Blue Moon, and a plethora of exotic microbrews are not “bier” under the Reinheitsgebot, but I don’t think that even Germans would have an issue in personally calling such drinks “beer” In short, if people need to gather together to sell others on why their product is unique or superior (and I think they do), they should use the least invasive way of making their point. (We’ve seen this same issues with standards of identity, where on maker had to call their tomato-based condiment “table sauce” because it contained honey instead of HFCS.) For example, since we’ve got a “Got milk?” campaign, why can’t we have a “NOT milk” campaign, where we learn why “bovine-produced beverage” is nutritionally superior to “vegetable-based milk substitute”, and let the consumer sort it out?