The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.
Remember when all milk came from cows? Those were the good ol’ days. You could go to the store, walk proudly up to the dairy case and choose between skim, 2% or whole. Maybe even chocolate.
Unfortunately, that was long ago. I walked into our local grocery store recently and took note of how many of the products in and around the dairy case weren’t even dairy. Talk about confusion. And talk about a weird marriage.
There are any number of self-proclaimed health food sites that list non-dairy alternatives. The site www.healthline.com lists the nine best non-dairy substitutes for milk. Soy milk leads the list, followed by almond and coconut. The next three are oat, rice and cashew, followed by macadamia, the always interesting hemp milk (which no doubt pairs nicely with chocolate brownies) and quinoa. I just heard of pea milk, although the manufacturers might want to market is as milk made from peas and hope the ‘s’ never gets left off.
So how did we get here?
It’s pretty basic. People in America have choices when it comes to food. You’ve probably heard the saying “people with plenty of food have many problems; people with no food have just one.” So many choices lead people to make decisions based on suspect information. Some believe these milk alternatives are more nutritious than real milk, or they believe that dairy animals are treated poorly and feel morally obligated not to drink that milk. If food was hard to come by and not as plentiful, as it is in many parts of the world, those choices would not be available.
Consumer choice creates markets and competition – it’s the American way. Sure, awesome technology makes it possible to get some kind of liquid from quinoa and turn it into a white substance people can actually drink. But that whole process was developed because marketing people thought consumers would buy the resulting product.
The real genius comes from tying the “juice” from these products to the milk brand. Anyone that knows anything about branding knows why this happened. Milk’s brand has been golden in the marketplace. Nature’s most nearly perfect food. Scads of vitamins and nutrients made from cows quietly munching in a lush meadow. The brand has been pristine. So manufacturers of the milk alternatives stuck the word “milk” at the end of “soy” and never looked back.
The fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) let it happen is probably more due to the under-the-radar nature of the initial products. No one could have imagined the success of these plant-based squeezings. It was only when these products started to become a real threat that folks in the dairy industry took notice. The National Milk Producers Federation has petitioned FDA to crack down on the use of the word milk on non-dairy products. They are making headway – the most recent spending bill approved in the House and Senate directs FDA to take action against mislabeled imitation dairy foods.
The whole situation has created a rather unseemly marriage. Companies have created products based on a perceived consumer demand for non-dairy milk products, while tapping into the brand equity inherent in the word milk. But that’s how it is when you are fighting for market share.
Admittedly some people can’t drink milk from cows, and the Healthline website points that out while admirably talking about the nutritious benefits of real milk. Milk and some dairy products don’t sit well with my teenage daughter. Others have milk allergies or are lactose intolerant. For them the milk alternatives are quite beneficial.
One alternative that isn’t an alternative, and is quite beneficial, is Fairlife. There has been some conversation that Fairlife is actually a milk alternative, which of course is blatantly false. It’s made from cows. A processing method makes it higher in protein and slightly more nutritious than regular milk. The argument that people are buying Fairlife instead of milk is like saying people are buying Cheerios instead of cereal.
Back to the real alternatives. In my opinion, if companies want to make a nutritional product from some kind of nut, go for it. Just call it what it is, and not what it isn’t. It’s not milk.
What do you think? Do you think non-dairy milk alternatives should be called milk or something else? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org