If milk comes from a plant, can you still call it milk?
Not according to the dairy industry. Facing growing competition from dairy alternatives like almond, soy and coconut milk, the nation's dairy farmers are fighting back, with an assist from Congress. Their goal: to stop companies from calling their plant-based products yogurt, milk or cheese.
Dairy farmers say the practice misleads consumers into thinking that nondairy milk is nutritionally similar to cow's milk.
A bipartisan group of 32 members of Congress is asking the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on companies that call plant-based beverages "milk." They say FDA regulations define milk as a "lacteal secretion" obtained by milking "one or more healthy cows." Proposed legislation from Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., a state known for its cheese, suggests a slightly broader definition. Their bill would require the FDA to target milk, yogurt and cheese products that do not contain milk from "hooved mammals."
"The bottom line for us is that milk is defined by the FDA, and we're saying to the FDA: Enforce your definition," Welch said.
But critics say consumers know exactly what they are buying when they choose almond or soy milk instead of dairy milk.
"There's no cow on any of these containers of almond milk or soy milk," said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group representing 70 companies. "No one is trying to fool consumers."
And what about other nondairy products with dairy names? Will milk of magnesia, cocoa butter, cream of wheat and peanut butter have to change their names as well?
Plants over animals
Cow's milk was once one of America's most iconic beverages. But Americans drink 37 percent less of it today than they did in 1970, according to the Department of Agriculture. Mintel, a market research firm, found that negative health perceptions were driving the decline in sales of cow's milk.
Meanwhile, dairy milk alternatives made from almonds, soy, cashews and coconuts have exploded in popularity in recent years. Plant-based milks, with brand names like Almond Breeze and Silk, are sold in the dairy aisle and still represent a fraction of the beverage market, but sales continue to grow.
Much of the growth in plant-based milk sales has come from the rising popularity of almond milk. Last year, Starbucks, the world's largest coffee chain, announced that it would begin offering almond milk to lighten its espresso drinks, to meet customer demand. The chain said it was one of the most-requested customer suggestions of all time.