If It Doesn't Come From an Animal, Is It Milk?

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Almond milk is low in protein compared to some of its counterparts, but it has a wide range of other nutrients. (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Is soy or almond milk truly milk? It depends on the definition of milk, and it looks like that definition could receive similar consideration that the definition of mayonnaise received when Unilever asked the Federal Drug Administration to look into Hampton Creek's use of the word "mayo" on its eggless "Just Mayo" product. Unilever argued that labeling an eggless product as mayo was false advertising.

Along those lines, 32 members of Congress, many of them from large dairy states, wrote a letter to the FDA in 2017 telling the agency to "order manufacturers of plant-based drinks to find some other name," according to NPR. With the backing of the National Milk Producers Federation, an organization that represents dairy farmers, the letter says it is "illegal and misleading" for these products to be called milk and cites the FDA's definition of milk as "the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows (21 CFR 131.110)."

Looking at that definition, I wonder if it's time to change it. This definition not only excludes plant-based milks, it excludes goat milk, sheep milk and other mammal milk that humans consume as traditional milk, to say nothing of ingredients in foods, particularly cheese. A strict interpretation of that definition would not only make it illegal for makers of almond milk to label their product as milk, it would also make it illegal for the ingredients list on goat cheese to list "goat milk" as an ingredient.

Should only cow's milk be labeled as milk, or should the definition include other kinds? If so, should it include only milk from animals or should it also include plant-based liquids that are used like animal milk?

Making milk political

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told Politico in a July 2018 interview that the FDA plans to crack down on the use of the word milk and will make changes to it's "so-called standards of identity policies for marketing milk." Gottlieb didn't give specifics as to when the changes would be made but admitted that current products labeled as milk don't fit the FDA's definition. "An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess," Gottlieb told Politico.

Dairy milk sales have been in decline in recent years. According to Mintel, its sales decreased 7 percent in 2015 and are expected to continue to drop through 2020. Sales of non-dairy milk were up 9 percent in 2015 and are expected to continue to increase.

If sales of milks like soy, almond, coconut and hemp continue to increase while dairy milk sales continue to decrease, it wouldn't be surprising if this letter from members of Congress isn't just the first step in pressure being put on the FDA to limit the use of the word "milk."

Personally, I'm not mislead when I see alternative milk products labeled as milk. I know they don't come from an animal. The word "milk" has been associated with them for a long time, and the practice is accepted by consumers.

Perhaps the FDA does need to look into the use of the world "milk," but the agency should look at it from all sides and consider expanding the definition instead of making it illegal for plant-based milks to use the term.