Name That Product: Almond Milk or ???

Almond Milk
Almond Milk

The Natural vs. Natural Flavors

Food labeling unquestionably influences our purchasing decisions. Whether the persuasion is due to descriptive labels, such as organic and natural, or something more substantive, e.g., milk, labeling has a substantial impact on consumer spending.

Recently, the use of the label “milk” is causing a stir amongst certain special interest groups. The controversy hinges on the ability of plant-based dairy substitute manufacturers (almond milk, soy cheese, coconut yogurt) to label their products as milk, cheese, and yogurt—as opposed to something more abstract and possibly more apt (Liquid-Nut-Derivative, perhaps?). This labeling practice has been permitted for years, but there may be a change on the horizon with a proposed legislative Bill.

In January, 2017, Congress introduced the DAIRY PRIDE ACT (Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act).  This bill would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) to consider any food mislabeled “if it uses a market name for a dairy product . . . and the food does not meet the criterion for being a dairy product.”  The criterion for a dairy product is set forth in federal regulation 21 CFR 131.110 as the lacteal secretion, practically free from colustrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”  I’m not a food chemist, but I’m pretty sure that almonds, macadamias, and soy do not come from the lacteal secretion of a cow.  Thus, if this Bill is passed, any product labeled as almond milk would be considered misbranded, and prompt food manufacturers to drop the label lest they subject themselves to legal penalties.  And this enactment will fulfill its purpose in preventing plant-based dairy substitute manufactures from profiting off the “milk name.”

But whether this labeling change will actually make a sizable difference in consumer spending is unknown.  If I had to speculate, I would predict that a less informed consumer who relies less on the substance of the food and more on the labeling authority might be swayed, as the beverage will now carry a foreign label and not the all-so-familiar “milk” title.  However, I don’t believe the informed consumer will be deterred, as the value of Almond Milk comes from it being a dairy substitute, and its mere designation as something non-milk won’t change that.

In any event, special interest groups have fired back in response to this Bill, encouraging people to voice their opposition to DAIRY PRIDE. These groups make a normative argument: labeling these products as “milk” is a long-standing practice that has achieved a vital place in our society—as the government has incorporated the term soymilk, for example, into its regulations and nutritional assistance programs—and effecting a substantial labeling overhaul would be unnecessary.  There has also recent been litigation surrounding this issue, with one class-action Plaintiff asserting that the labeling misleads the consumer into believing the plant-based milk is nutritionally equivalent or better than cow’s milk.

This controversy ultimately warrants a further inquiry into the similarities between plant-based milk and regular milk, and whether plant-based milk can in good faith be labeled as milk in the first place. Many of these “milks” have caught fire in the past for including various emulsifiers, natural flavors (not even close to what they seem), thickening agents, and other food-processing aids that are harmful.  For example, many almond milks and other plant-based substitutes contain carageenan, which can harm our gut-lining as well as trigger an inflammatory immune response similar to that your body has when invaded by pathogens.[1]   The utility of carageenan and similar chemical constituents comes from its food-thickening character, which allows us to feel like we aren’t just drinking almond infused with water. Unforuntately, this is exactly what we’re doing when we consume almond milk, which brings me to my next point.

One source estimates that an entire carton or jug of almond milk contains roughly 39 cents worth of almonds.  If this estimate is correct, consumers are paying $3.99 or more for filtered water, additives and preservatives, like carageenan, with a couple of almonds spliced in for good measure.  There is also the broader ecological concern with consuming almond milk when it’s estimated that a mere 16 almonds requires 15.3 gallons of water.

Now, environmental issues aside, I personally don’t have an issue with this apparent rip-off.  As long as I avoid the brands with carageenan, I’m happy paying $3.99 for some watered down almond-liquid, as I believe it’s a better alternative to dairy or other beverages I would make my smoothies with.  But should a processed beverage that is essentially preservative-infused water be characterized as “milk”?  This question may require a broader inquiry into our society’s conception of milk so that our expectations aren’t being undermined, but a common-sense approach would answer this question in the negative, I think.  Milk has a long-standing role in our society and has been considered a nutritional pillar in the household.  Could labeling a product that is categorically dissimilar to this dietary staple mislead consumers into believing the health benefits are similar ?  Could this lead to additional uncharacteristic labeling efforts by unscrupulous food-manufacturers in today’s day-and-age when there are exceedingly complex advances in food technology?  I think these are important questions that deserve attention when Congress votes on the DAIRY PRIDE ACT.

Additionally, I’m interested in the economical effect a labeling change could have on consumer purchasing and the plant-based alternative industry—currently a $1.4 billion market.  But whether this bill will get passed and, more importantly, whether the FDA will vigorously enforce the amendment is still up in the air.  Until then, enjoy your plant-based milks but keep in mind that our almond cheeses, coconut yogurts, and soy ice creams may carry a very different label in the future.

[1]; (“exposure to carageenan causes inflammation.”)

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