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Plant-Based Beverages: Is it Time to Let it Go?

February 6, 2020


Anna-Lisa Laca


“Plant-based industrial food processors typically go to great lengths to try to replicate real milk by grinding seeds, nuts or grains into a powder, adding water, whiteners, sweeteners, stabilizers and emulsifiers, possibly blending in some vitamins and minerals, and then marketing the resulting concoction using dairy terms,” Balmer explained. ( Mike Mozart / CC BY 2.0 /MGN )

This fall I took my daughter to see Frozen II with her cousins. It was her first movie, and she loved the experience (especially the root beer). But there’s only so much sitting a 2-year-old can muster and she became restless to say the least. We persevered, and it’s a memory she still brings up occasionally — most recently, when I returned home from a trip to Phoenix for the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) annual meeting. 


As you might expect, plant-based beverages were a hot topic of conversation at the meeting. What you might not expect is the conversation buzz centered on the idea of moving past the debate about whether these beverages can or should be called milk.


The opinion among processors is, in the words of Elsa, “let it go.” It was suggested several times that perhaps the money spent on litigation and enforcement of the law in regard to plant-based beverages and the standards of identity would be better spent on dairy product innovation. 


The very same week, the National Milk Producers Federation’s executive vice president, Tom Balmer, testified to a congressional subcommittee about the need for transparency in food. Allowing non-dairy products to use dairy terms to promote goods with wildly different nutritional values has undermined public health and flouts FDA’s own rules, Balmer said. 


“Plant-based industrial food processors typically go to great lengths to try to replicate real milk by grinding seeds, nuts or grains into a powder, adding water, whiteners, sweeteners, stabilizers and emulsifiers, possibly blending in some vitamins and minerals, and then marketing the resulting concoction using dairy terms,” Balmer explained.


Federal laws do state a product labeled as milk comes from a cow or certain other lactating animals, and that other dairy products are likewise made from animal milk. The Dairy Pride Act, introduced in March 2019, seeks to force FDA to uphold the law. 


The law would designate foods that make an inaccurate claim about milk contents as “misbranded” and subject them to enforcement of labeling rules. It would require FDA to issue guidance for nationwide enforcement of mislabeled imitation dairy products within 90 days of its passage and would require FDA to report to Congress two years after enactment. 


The question becomes, will that keep consumers from calling it milk? Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO and founder of Chobani, thinks the proverbial cat is out of the bag. Consumers are already confused, he said at the IDFA meeting. “And to the people sitting in this room who bottle these products, it’s your fault. You should have never let them call it milk in the first place.” 


dairyherd.com