They’ve gotten away with calling their products “milks” for decades, but the makers of soy milk, rice milk and other plant-based dairy-beverage substitutes may no longer be permitted to, well, milk their lactose-related terms of en-dairy-ment.
The dairy industry wants the milk moniker all to itself. Only milk is milk, the dairy interests say – and everything else is just, well, vegetable juice.
The National Milk Producers Federation has written to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration asking that the term “milk” be reserved for cow’s milk, although it would also permit the word to describe goat, sheep or other “mammalian lacteal secretions.”
The group wants the FDA to require that plant-based beverages be labeled something else, such as “drinks,” “beverages” or (spit take!) “imitation milk.” That's cold.
Unlike a decade ago -- the first time the dairy industry made this request of the federal government -- milk interests are taking their battle to the streets as well. For example, the federation has launched a Facebook page titled “They Don’t Got Milk.” And the group’s spokesman decried “the bastardization of dairy terms” to USA Today.
The challenge posed to milk by plant-based beverages is much stiffer than a decade ago. Soy milks, led by the Silk brand, have become a $1-billion industry. New types of plant-based milk substitutes are proliferating, including almond milk and even hemp milk. And almost without exception, these products have acquired a reputation for healthfulness in large part because they lack the animal fats of dairy milk.
Clearly, plant-based beverage brands also have benefited from the use of the term “milk” over the years because consumers have associated them with the good things about dairy milk – color, texture and mouthfeel – but not with the negative. Anything the purveyors of real milk can do to interrupt those associations will only be to their favor.
Meanwhile, consumption of so-called "real" milk by Americans has continued to decline over the last quarter-century as consumers, especially young people, have abandoned it for soft drinks, energy drinks, bottled waters and other beverages.
Overall, the dairy industry has managed to hold its own because of the continued popularity of other milk-based products, including cheese and ice cream, and the rise of yogurt.
And lately, dairy-farmer and industry groups have mounted a nascent effort to redeem the reputation of milk.
New research, for example, has questioned the wholly negative nutritional reputation of saturated fats in milk. Some savvy dairy brands also have seized on the growing reputation of chocolate milk as the ideal post-workout “recovery beverage” for athletes.
Milk may be down, but it’s not out.