One name does not fit all

From allergies to ethical reasons, plant-based products posing as equally nutritional dairy substitutes have grown in popularity in many instances due to shrewd marketing and the decadent use of the term ‘milk’ on the labels.

From almond milk to rice yogurt, the labeling of plant-based protein substitutes has been a free-for-all in the dairy case and the baking aisle.  Combine this with the falling fluid milk consumption and farmgate milk prices that compare to those of the 1980s and it’s no wonder dairy dispersals are filling sale calendars and multigenerational farms are hanging up the milkers one last time.

Meanwhile, party politics are creating a deeper divide in Washington, D.C. except on one issue: Milk labeling. This is one policy position that has garnered agreement from both Republicans and Democrats in the halls of Congress.

In a letter to Commissioner Califf of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), thirty-two politicians on both sides of the aisle stressed the importance of accurate labeling of plant-based proteins that serve as milk substitutes. They strongly believe that the use of the term “milk” by manufacturers of plant-based products is misleading to consumers, harmful to the dairy industry and a violation of milk’s standard of identity. They requested that the FDA exercise its legal authority to investigate and take appropriate action against the manufacturers of these misbranded products.

Federal standards of identity stipulate that milk and related foods must be made from animal sources to use these established dairy terms. Plant-based products have no real dairy ingredients and therefore spur the misconception that they have the same nutritional value as a real dairy product.

Beth Briczinski, Vice President, Dairy Foods & Nutrition at National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) weighed in on the debate, “We have never said the products shouldn’t be allowed in the market.  But the reason why the government has standards for many foods is so that imitation products cannot pass themselves off as something they are not, particularly when their nutritional content varies widely, and is often inferior to the product they are imitating.”

When comparing protein content of the various plant-based milk substitutes the content varies. In once eight-ounce glass of milk there are eight grams of protein. This far outweighs the same eight-ounce glass of almond milk that provides one gram of protein or coconut milk that contains five grams of protein or rice milk that is a mere 0.7 grams of protein in an eight-ounce glass.  Soy milk comes closest to real dairy protein with 6-10 grams of protein per eight ounces.

Dairy producer and almond grower Steve Maddox of Maddox Dairy in Riverdale, California agrees that labeling a plant-based product as a dairy product is misleading to the public. “Even as an almond grower, I have a big issue with misleading the consumer and it starts with labeling. Almond milk is not a milk replacement because it doesn’t replace the nutrients,” Maddox said. “They are misleading the consumer in two ways, they are not only calling these alternative products milk but they are saying they have as much protein in them as milk and they don’t.”

Maddox also noted that what many consumers don’t realize is that almond milk is made from the almonds that are less than desirable or basically the waste almonds that would have been discarded otherwise.

New regulations are not what the members of Congress are asking for, just enforcement of present regulations. Briczinski explains, “We’re not asking for new laws or regulations, just the acknowledgement that plant-based foods should not be able to create and use new terms such as almond “milk”, soy “cheese” and rice “yogurt” that are in conflict with existing definitions that clearly define milk as an animal-based substance.”

The enforcement of dairy specific terms and resulting product labeling is actually much stronger in other comparable English-speaking nations.  Briczinski explained, “The same almond ‘milk’ brand is sold in the U.S., Canada and the UK.  But only in the U.S. is the term “almond milk” displayed, where in the other two countries it is absent from the label.  This is the type of change we are asking the FDA to enforce for our country.”

According the Briczinski, FDA has said very little and done relatively nothing regarding mislabeling of plant-based dairy substitutes. Although in the past, when Congress had raised an issue, they were more likely to listen.   She commented, “The only enforcement action in the recent past is that the FDA did challenge the maker of Muscle Milk back in 2011 to change some of the wording on that product’s label – although the overall name of the product hasn’t changed.  That’s why congressional action is helpful, because it’s harder to ignore.”

Regarding the growing market share for plant-based dairy substitutes, Briczinski remarked that these imitators have capitalized on a lax regulatory system to elbow their way into a market, using dairy-friendly terms, imagery and packaging to position themselves as substitutes.  “What people may fail to grasp is that the vegetable alternatives are imitations, but not an acceptable substitute from a nutritional standpoint.  That’s what has been lost in the debate:  the most popular types of plant beverages pale in comparison to real milk in terms of protein content, of often many other vitamins and minerals,” said Briczinski.

Will the FDA take a stand on this issue? Based on experience, Briczinski concluded, “FDA has stonewalled repeated requests to step up enforcement on this issue.  The good news is that it’s much harder for FDA to ignore a congressional request, so we are more optimistic there will be a formal response.  Hopefully, one that involves a defense of the existing milk labeling standards.”

–Melissa Hart

This article was published in the February 2017 issue of the Michigan Milk Messenger.