Got Milk? It Might Depend on Whether It Came From a Cow or a Plant


Containers of soy, almond and cashew milk are displayed on a shelf at United Market on July 7, 2016 in San Rafael, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Almond or soy milk might give you a great milk mustache, but they'll never appear in a "got milk?" ad. That's because the U.S. dairy industry says neither one is the real deal. After years of Big Dairy protesting the co-opting of the term "milk," the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in July 2018 that it will be scrutinizing the topic, and will eventually decide whether or not plant-based milks can call themselves "milk." The deadline for comments from the public is Nov. 27, 2018.

The debate is serious stuff, at least for the $38.1 billion U.S. dairy industry, which has seen demand for milk decline. A report by market research firm Mintel said total U.S. dairy milk sales had dropped 15 percent between 2012 and 2017.

Meanwhile, customers are clamoring for alternatives such as almond, soy, coconut, rice and other plant-based milks. Non-dairy milk sales ballooned 61 percent from 2012 to 2017, with almond milk the overwhelming favorite, capturing 64 percent of plant-based milk sales. Mintel speculated that the switch in preference seemed tied to consumer belief that these plant-based milks were healthier than dairy-based milks. (It should be noted that dairy milk still commanded some $16.12 billion in sales versus $2.11 billion for plant-based milk for 2017.)

Which Is Healthier?

The U.S. dairy industry says it's going after "milk imposters" to help consumers. "Mammals produce milk, plants don't," Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation told CBS News.

Countered Matthew Ball, spokesman for the Good Food Institute, a group that lobbies for plant-based foods in a Wisconsin State Farmer article: "No one is buying almond milk, or soy milk, thinking that it came from a cow."

The dairy industry also doesn't like the perception that cow's milk is not healthy. An article produced by the American Dairy Association, titled "5 Reasons to Always Choose Cow's Milk Over the Alternative," states that cow's milk includes key nutrients like calcium and phosphorus and vitamin B12, not found in plant milks, as well as a higher quality of protein than plant-based milks.

But plant milks are not necessarily void of nutrients or unhealthy. Almond milk, for example, may contain just 2 grams of protein (per 8 fluid ounces or 236 milliliters) versus 8 grams for whole cow's milk, but it also has just 1 gram of carbohydrates, 0 sugar and 40 calories, compared to 12 grams of carbs, 12 grams of sugar and 150 calories for the cow's milk.

Unsweetened soy milk is one plant-based milk that is a protein powerhouse, packing 7 grams of protein into an 8-ounce serving, nearly identical to the protein found in whole cow's milk, and with just 80 calories.

The Legal Side of the Debate

The dairy industry points out that plant-based milks don't meet the FDA's own official definition of milk, which reads, in part: "Milk means the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows...."

In a July 2018 letter to the FDA, Sheila Harsdorf, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, wrote, "As food innovations continue to emerge, it is essential that standards of identity and labeling requirements are clear and enforced to maintain the integrity of the agricultural industry and clarity in the marketplace for consumers."

The FDA admitted in a press release that plant-based milks don't meet its definition of milk, and that it has a history of non-enforcement in this area, which is one reason it decided to study the issue. In addition, the FDA said it is worried that parents may assume plant-based milk is nutritionally equal to cow's milk.

Its press release referenced a case report indicating a toddler who developed rickets — a disease caused by a lack of vitamin D — after being given a soy-based product in lieu of cow's milk. It also noted several other case reports showed young kids who were fed rice-based "milks" developed kwashiorkor, a nutritional disorder caused by a lack of protein in the diet.

But the plant-based milk industry is pushing back. In his own July 2018 letter to the FDA, John Cox, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America, wrote, "The term 'soymilk' is not false or misleading. Consumers are accustomed to using products with names similar to other foods, such as peanut butter, almond butter, or apple butter. As we all know, these products don't contain dairy-derived butter, but no one is confused as to the contents of either product."

Cox and others also point out that plant-based milks have been around for millennia. The Chinese were drinking soy milk as far back as 25 C.E. Almond milk was ubiquitous around the globe during the Middle Ages. And coconut milk has been used in Southeast Asian, African and Indian cuisine for centuries. All of these products have been referred to as "milk" for centuries even though they come from nuts, beans or fruits.

Where the debate ends is anybody's guess. It took nearly 20 years for the FDA to come up with a definition for peanut butter.


More to Explore