FDA, Milk up Your Mind

Áine Dillon

Spanning over the last few decades, there has been controversy growing in Europe and the United States about how plant-based milk alternatives can label their products. The debate surrounds which vowel the plant-based milk alternatives can use (milk with an ‘i,’ or mylk with a ‘y’). According to the Department of Agriculture, milk consumption has dropped 37% since 1970, and cow milk sales dropped from $15 billion in 2011to $12 billion in 2016. With the growing popularity and variety of plant-based milks, the cries from the dairy industry seem to be growing louder. The dairy industry is opposed to plant-based milks spelling milk with an ‘i,’ claiming that using the word ‘milk’ implies that the beverage has similar nutritional properties or taste to cow’s milk. However, will changing the vowel used in milk aid consumer knowledge? Or is it a ploy by the dairy industry to weaken their plant-based competitors?

Merriam-Webster defines milk as “a fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young.” Scott Gottlieb, former FDA Commissioner, stated “An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.” Using this definition of milk, it is clear that beverages made from almond, soy, cashew or hemp do not fit this definition. However, the dairy industry argues that a consumer may believe that almond milk has the same nutritional value as cow’s milk. What the FDA wants to avoid is having confused parents buying almond milk for their children, thinking that has the same nutritional value of cow’s milk, and the child having life-lasting conditions from being malnourished. Even though research shows that drinking milk is a good source of nutrients for children, there are many other ways to get the same nutrients, and recent studies have concluded that drinking milk is not necessary for children. Even further, many plant-based milks are fortified and contain many of the essential nutrients that cow’s milk offers, although none contain all the nutrients found in milk. 

However, the dairy industry claims that using the word milk implies that the beverage has similar fat, protein, salts, lactose, enzymes, vitamins to cow’s milk. However, simply looking at the nutritional value of the beverage compared to cow’s milk would exclude other milks that come from animals (such as goat’s milk or sheep’s milk). The question becomes if every type of milk (animal or plant-based) has a different nutritional makeup, why exclude the plant-based milks from using the ‘i,’ while allowing animal-based milks to use the ‘i.’ Similar rules by the FDA include defining butter to be dairy-based, therefore excluding oil-based spreads like margarine from using the word butter. However, if a food is not trying to be ‘butter’ then they can use the word. Therefore, peanut butter is still allowed to use the word butter because it is not intimidating butter. 

In 2013, a case was brought to a U.S. District court about the legality of products being labeled as soymilk or almond milk, and if they were misleading. The judge presiding on the case, Judge Samuel Conti, stated “Under plaintiffs’ logic, a reasonable consumer might also believe that veggie bacon contains pork, that flourless chocolate cake contains flour, or that e-books are made out of paper.” The judge concluded soy milk and almond milk are accurate descriptions of what the beverage is and are not misleading. 

Some argue that while labeling plant-based alternatives as milk with an ‘i’ is correct, plant-based alternatives companies should embrace the ‘y’ in mylk. Maybe they can be an indicator for consumers that this beverage does not come at the cost of forced pregnancies and inhumane treatment. Additionally, the change from i to y may not make a difference in sales either as the change most likely will not affect people who already consume non-dairy milks. Over the last 15 years there has been a 300% increase in veganism, and an estimated 70% of the world’s adults are lactose intolerant. Further, more people are aware of the ethical implications of consuming dairy due to the cruel treatment cows endure to produce milk constantly. The ethical, environmental, or dietary reasons for abstaining from drinking milk or consuming milk products will not change, no matter what vowel is used. However, it does enforce the idea that plant-based milk alternatives are lesser, or do not deserve the title of being milk. Further, more changes may come. Vegan butter, ice-cream and cheese might also need to change if the FDA finds milk to only apply to milks from animals. Currently, the FDA does allow for plant-based milk alternatives to use the ‘i,’ but growing concerns from the dairy industry may eliminate that choice. 

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