Should Almond Milk Be Allowed To Call Itself "Milk"?

Milk is having an almond-flavored identity crisis.

When someone says "almond milk," you probably know what they're talking about — that white, nutty, possibly sweetened drink that comes in something that looks like a milk carton and is stocked in the dairy aisle.

But if you ask the dairy industry, you'll hear a different story. Almond milk, it insists — along with other alterna-milks made of soy, coconut, cashew, or hemp — is a deceptively marketed product, and an insult to real milk from cows.

In defense of cow milk against its nut-based impostors, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont in January introduced the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which sounds pretty self-explanatory (pride, dairy products), but actually is an acronym for the "defending against imitations and replacements of yogurt, milk, and cheese to promote regular intake of dairy every day." Seriously.

According to a summary of the bill, the fact that the impostor milks get to call themselves milk "hurts dairy farmers that work tirelessly to ensure their dairy products meet FDA standards and provide the public with nutritious food. It has also led to the proliferation of mislabeled plant-based alternative products that contain a range of ingredients and nutrients that are often not equivalent to the nutrition content of dairy products."

It's an ongoing battle — lawsuits against alterna-milk makers Silk WhiteWave and Trader Joe's have claimed that the label "soy milk" was misleading. Both were dismissed.

Amid all this alleged confusion and chaos in the dairy aisle, consumption of plant milks has skyrocketed. Sales of almond milk grew 250% from 2011 to 2015, while Americans are drinking less dairy milk. In support of the Dairy Pride Act, one farmer said in a statement: “Finally after all these years, it’s about time someone stands up for the American dairy farmer."

But Big Soy isn't backing down. On Thursday, the Good Food Institute — a nonprofit that advocates for plant-based foods — filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration to defend the right of plant-based milk producers to continue calling their beverages "milk," insisting it's a free speech issue.

"If FDA (or Congress) were to heed such calls and target new (and old) non-dairy alternative products for selective enforcement, it would violate the First Amendment rights of the producers of these products to label and describe their products in a truthful and clear manner consistent with consumer expectations," the GFI petition states.

The FDA already has very clear definitions of all sorts of foods, including milk, and what foods can bear the "milk" label. Specifically:

Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows. Milk that is in final package form for beverage use shall have been pasteurized or ultrapasteurized, and shall contain not less than 8 1/4 percent milk solids not fat and not less than 3 1/4 percent milkfat. Milk may have been adjusted by separating part of the milkfat therefrom, or by adding thereto cream, concentrated milk, dry whole milk, skim milk, concentrated skim milk, or nonfat dry milk. Milk may be homogenized.

But the GFI believes an exception is warranted. After all, according to the FDA, anything called "bread" should be made mostly with wheat flour, but we'd never think of exiling cornbread or potato rolls from the Bread Kingdom. "Noodles" are, in the regulator's definition "ribbon-shaped," despite all the other forms of noodle out there; and while "butter" is supposed to be more than 80% milk fat, the market understands the basic truth of peanut butter.

Milky plants have a rightful claim to the word, the GFI argues.

"These compound constructions are so thoroughly lexicalized that they often appear in dictionaries as part of the first or second definition of the word 'milk,' and the overwhelming majority of consumers refer to these products by these names," according to its petition.

Other everyday foods go through identity crises — and furious legal battles —as alternatives are introduced in the market. Unilever sued vegan mayo company Hampton Creek for calling its product Just Mayo when "mayo" by definition should be made from eggs. Unilever eventually dropped the suit and launched its own eggless product, which it called "Hellmann’s Vegan Carefully Crafted Dressing & Sandwich Spread."

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