Dairy Debate: Should Nondairy Beverages Be Labeled as ‘Milk’?

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Story at-a-glance -

  • A recall involving Almond Breeze suspected of containing dairy milk has again stirred the debate about how the U.S. FDA defines “milk”
  • The FDA commissioner has gone on record saying, “Almonds don’t lactate,” citing federal regulations specifying liquids sourced from lactating cows as the only beverages permitted to bear the label “milk”
  • While the FDA is concerned many Americans are missing out on protein and other beneficial nutrients by choosing nondairy alternatives, lactose intolerance, casein allergies and other sensitivities prevent a large portion of the population from enjoying cow’s milk and dairy-based products
  • Regardless of what the government says, the best milk for you is the type your body can tolerate; my personal favorite is raw, organic, grass fed milk

By Dr. Mercola

The recall of more than 145,000 containers of almond milk suspected to be tainted with dairy milk has again stirred the debate about how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines “milk.” The FDA and American dairy industry contend beverages sourced from plant materials such as almonds and coconuts do not meet the criteria necessary to be labeled as milk.

FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb has gone on record saying, “Almonds don’t lactate,” citing federal regulations suggesting liquids sourced from lactating cows be the only beverages permitted to be referred to as milk.1 Given Gottlieb’s comment (and penchant for the obvious), you may enjoy the featured video, which takes a satirical look at “almond milking.”

While the recalled containers of vanilla Almond Breeze are important news given the potential danger posed to anyone with a milk allergy or lactose intolerance, the bigger concern for American consumers relates to food labeling.

Is it really necessary to differentiate dairy milk from alternative milk-like beverages originating from almonds and other plant foods? After years of passively allowing nondairy beverages to be labeled as milk, why is the FDA finally acting to uphold its antiquated labeling rules?

Dairy-Tainted Almond Milk Recalled, Stirs Debate About Alternative ‘Milk’ Beverages

In early August 2018, HP Hood LLC voluntarily recalled more than 145,254 half-gallon refrigerated cartons of Vanilla Almond Breeze due to the possibility the product may contain cow’s milk, a known food allergen not listed on the label.

The affected containers feature a use-by date of September 2, and were shipped to retailers and wholesalers in 28 U.S. states.2,3

While the beverage is safe for anyone who can tolerate regular dairy products, the contaminated beverages pose a risk to consumers who have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance. At least one allergic reaction has been reported to date.4 According to Time, the recall stirs the debate about the labeling of alternative “milk” beverages:5

“The dairy debacle comes in the midst of a debate over whether beverage makers can call nondairy products ‘milk,’ since the FDA’s current ‘identity standards’ for milk refer to lactating animals.

The FDA is in the process of deciding whether it will amend that definition or require companies to stop using the word ‘milk’ in reference to drinks made from soy, almonds, coconuts, oats and other common nondairy alternatives.”

Speaking at the POLITICO Pro Summit in July 2018, Gottlieb noted the FDA would be issuing a guidance document with respect to any forthcoming changes to its policies related to milk labeling.6 (The current policy, which has been revised multiple times, was put in place in 1977.7)

Changes are expected to be well-received by dairy groups, many of whom are struggling with falling prices and global oversupply.8 You may not realize milk has a standard definition designed to be enforced by the FDA. Given the reference to lactation, it’s clear nondairy alternatives such as almond milk and coconut milk technically do not qualify as “milk.”

Although the FDA’s definition of milk fills an entire page, the first sentence disqualifies nondairy alternatives in plain language: “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”9

Dairy Groups Unhappy About Plant Products Being Labeled as Milk

As you may imagine, dairy industry groups are not happy about what they perceive to be the misuse of product names such as “milk” when applied to nondairy alternatives like almond or coconut milk.

With respect to the FDA activity, Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), a pro-dairy group established in 1916 that acts as a frontrunner for 27 major U.S. dairy cooperatives,10 asserts the FDA “must stop turning a blind eye toward violations of food labeling laws. It needs to use more enforcement and less discretion as dozens of brands flagrantly violate government requirements.”11

As mentioned in the video above, the NMPF and other industry groups have repeatedly urged federal regulators to enforce U.S. food labeling laws to restrict the use of dairy-related terms to products originating from farm animals.

Sorting out the labeling discrepancies is important to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, one of the authors of a farm bill introduced to Congress in 2017, in part because of the many challenges facing American dairy farmers, such as low milk prices, uncertainty in export markets and the impact of Canadian milk pricing.12 In a statement issued by the NMPF, Mulhern said:13

“After years of inaction in response to our complaints about these labeling violations, Gottlieb’s announcement the FDA is intending to act on this issue is very encouraging.

The marketing of nondairy imitators must comply with federal standards of identity, and consumers should not be misled these products have the same nutrition as real milk, yogurt, cheese and other actual dairy products.”

‘DAIRY PRIDE’ Bill Seeks to Ban the Use of Dairy-Related Terms for Nondairy Products

A bill dubbed the “DAIRY PRIDE Act,” which is actually an acronym for "Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Every Day,"14 was introduced in both houses of Congress in January 2017 by Baldwin and Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont. The bill, part of a much larger package of agriculture-related legislation, seeks to ban the use of terms such as “cheese,” “milk” and “yogurt” for nondairy products.15

Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, a state long known as America’s Dairyland, says using the term "milk" to describe plant-based foods amounts to mislabeling according to FDA rules. “Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy's good name for their own benefit which is against the law and must be enforced,” says Baldwin. “Mislabeling of plant-based products as ‘milk’ hurts our dairy farmers.”16,17

Despite the bill gaining little traction in Congress, Baldwin and Mulhern continue to press Gottlieb and the FDA to issue new guidance to the industry and declare its intent to enforce labeling according to existing regulations.

According to ABC News, the FDA “will open a docket ‘very soon’ and solicit public comment to help develop a guidance document that would enforce the new standards.”18 They note the process may take a year or more and will most certainly face challenges from nondairy beverage producers and consumers alike.

Does the Mislabeling of Nondairy Products Amount to Consumer Fraud?

As a staunch defender of real dairy products, Mulhern has gone as far as suggesting the lack of FDA enforcement around alternative beverages such as almond, coconut and rice milk has resulted in “rampant consumer fraud” due to “the inferior nutrient content of these nondairy products.”19

Mulhern calls out the lack of protein in almond and rice milk, for example, noting regular dairy contains about 8 grams of naturally occurring protein per serving.20

The NMPF suggests there are “significant public health implications” due to the fact dairy alternatives, unlike real milk, vary widely in their nutritional profile, whereas real milk, with the exception of fat content, maintains a consistent nutritional package from brand to brand.21

While I would like to believe Mulhern is concerned about the welfare of the American public, as a representative of an industry group, it’s obvious his primary concerns revolve around advancing the interests of the dairy industry, especially as it relates to market growth and profits.

For that reason, I don’t buy what I perceive to be feigned concern by Mulhern, as expressed in an NMPF news release. He stated:22

“Consumers who purchase these imitations are not receiving the same level of nutrients found in cow’s milk, and that contributes to Americans falling short of the recommended amount of vitamins and minerals for a healthy diet. The FDA must act on this matter or else see the further decline of proper nourishment of our children and families.”

The more likely reason for the NMPF’s concern relates to the bottom line: Dairy alternatives are siphoning off market share and profits once neatly controlled by the dairy industry. Given the growth expectations for nondairy products, it makes sense dairy groups are hoping for some help from the FDA to draw consumers back to their product.

A Renub Research study published in January 2018 suggests the alternative dairy market is on track to exceed $34 billion by 2024 due to increasing consumer preferences for casein- and lactose-free products.23,24 As you may imagine, every dollar spent on nondairy alternatives is perceived to be a takeaway from the dairy industry, which is still adjusting to the depth and breadth of the competition plant-based alternative products pose. As stated by PR Newswire, highlights of the Renub report suggest:25

  • Roughly two-thirds of adults worldwide are lactose-intolerant, and in Africa and Asia the figure is around 90 percent, underscoring the need for nondairy alternatives26
  • Following a dairy-free diet can be beneficial, and this lifestyle has become increasingly more popular worldwide
  • Demand for fortified dairy beverages and foods is expected to fuel continued growth of the dairy alternatives market
  • The potential danger of cross contamination and the higher cost of dairy alternatives are two factors that may negatively influence the growth of this segment

What Is the Best Milk for You?

The easiest way to determine the best milk for you is to listen to your body. If you feel ill after drinking dairy milk, chances are good you may suffer from lactose intolerance, a casein allergy or another type of dairy sensitivity. Rather than eat and drink illness on yourself, your best strategy is to simply avoid traditional dairy products.

Replacing milk and other dairy products with nondairy substitutes is a matter of personal choice. If you don’t miss drinking and eating milk-based products such as cheese, ice cream and yogurt and can obtain requisite nutrients from other foods, you can easily forgo nondairy alternatives.

However, if you cannot imagine life without eating certain types of foods — like ice cream or yogurt, for example — then by all means, find a substitute. Nondairy alternatives are especially helpful when you need milk-free options for use in recipes.

Keep in mind that many who believe they cannot drink regular cows’ milk actually do fine when drinking raw, organic grass fed milk, which is far easier on your digestive system. Raw, grass fed A2-only milk may be even more ideal.

Regardless of the type of “milk” and “milk-based” beverages and foods you choose, be sure you are consuming enough calcium, protein and other vital nutrients from dairy or nondairy sources. When choosing nondairy alternatives, particularly for consumption by children, be sure to read product labels and watch out for artificial ingredients and added sugar.

Due to the unique needs of their developing bodies, it is important to ensure your kids are getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals, as well as sufficient amounts of high-quality fat and protein, on a daily basis.

Raw Milk: A Source of Superior Nutrition if You Can Tolerate Dairy

Nondairy alternatives aside for a moment, if you are able to tolerate milk, I highly recommend you drink raw milk from organic, grass fed cows. You are sure to enjoy the thick, creamy taste and the many beneficial nutrients raw milk provides, such as calcium, enzymes, omega-3s and probiotics.

The best raw, unpasteurized milk comes from healthy cows raised on open pasture where they are free from herbicides and other toxic chemicals known to negatively affect the quality and taste of the final product.

If you’re new to raw milk, you should note the appearance of grass fed organic milk is quite different from the milk you may have purchased from the grocery store. It usually has a yellowish color resulting from the carotenoids in the grass. It is one of the healthiest beverages around and far superior to the pasteurized variety. Most also agree it has a superior taste compared to pasteurized milk.

Final Thoughts from the Nation’s No. 1 ‘Health’ Agency

In the months ahead, the FDA has committed to addressing the “dairy versus nondairy” issue openly and thoroughly. The first public stakeholder meeting was held in July 2018.27 About the process, Gottlieb stated:28

“We will not be doing this in a vacuum. We’re going to have an active public process for reviewing our standard and how consumers understand the use of terms like ‘milk’ on both animal-derived and plant-based products.

We want to see if the nutritional characteristics and other differences between these products are well-understood by consumers when making dietary choices for themselves and their families.

We must better understand if consumers are being misled as a result of the way the term ‘milk’ is being applied and making less informed choices as a result.

At the FDA, we have a unique chance to empower individuals who are using nutrition to improve their health and the health of their families, and to leverage diet and nutrition as a tool for impacting the burden caused by chronic disease.”

The true test of the FDA’s commitment to the American public will only be seen in the action they take. If and when the FDA opens up the lines of communication for citizen input, I encourage you to share your opinions about nondairy alternatives. By speaking up and working together, we can continue to influence government agencies like the FDA.