Is Alt-Milk Still Milk? Inside the Food Lexicon Debate the FDA Has the Final Ruling On

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Pop quiz: What's the definition of milk? It's not a trick question; it's one the Food and Drug Administration has been debating for months as alt-milk (or "mylk") is surging in popularity, expanding the definition past the traditional cow's variety. Next question: What's meat? It's a term Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods insists on using for their vegan products as well as being sold right next to the "real" stuff. Is lab-grown meat still meat?

As the lexicon of meat and dairy alternatives expands, it has policy makers furrowing their brows. Not everyone is so clear on the ins and outs of vegan eats, says the U.S. government, which is claiming that plant-based brands may be confusing consumers by labeling their products with words like "milk" and "meat." And the way this plays out could have some pretty big implications for the names of your favorite fridge staples.

Here's what's going down: Back in July, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it'd be taking a closer look at the labeling of non-dairy milk products, saying that calling them "milks" when they don't actually come from animals is misleading to consumers. The agency soon added that the definition of yogurt would also be up for review. And earlier this month, the American Butter Institute entered the fray, with a letter to the FDA requesting that plant-based brands not use the word "butter" to describe their dairy-free alternatives. (Nut butters excluded. Phew!)

This isn't totally bizarre—the FDA actually does have some rationale for cracking down on food descriptions, based on existing regulations. "Many dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and certain cheeses, have standards of identity...which require certain components and ingredients in these foods," explained FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, in a September 2018 statement. For instance, the agency defines milk and cream as "the lacteal secretion...obtained by the complete milking of one or many cows," and it gives strict rules about the amount of milk solids, fat, and added vitamins that may be present. (Last summer, Dr. Gottlieb commented that "an almond doesn't lactate," and based on this definition, he's got a point.) The regulation for yogurt also specifies that it's to be made from dairy milk, and the same goes for butter and cheese, with added labeling directives for processed cheese products.

One of the agency's main concerns is that people may think plant-based dairy alternatives have the same nutritional profile as products that come from an udder, and that calcium and vitamin D deficiencies could result if people are relying on milk for those nutrients. (Not to say that that vegan products aren't nutritious—in fact, many of them are fortified with vitamins and minerals, just like cow's milk often is—but the agency argues that there's a lot of ingredient variation between brands, whereas dairy is more standardized.)  "It is important that we better understand consumers’ expectations of these plant-based products compared to dairy products," Dr. Gottlieb said.

In five years' time, will we have learned a whole new vocabulary for the contents of our fridges? Or will this new generation of food brands be able to claim its linguistic place alongside its OG cousins?

Meat is also coming under scrutiny by the government. In this case, however, it's not so much the plant-based brands that have people up in arms, but the new wave of sustainable, "cultured" meats being grown in a lab. The US Cattleman's Association has already voiced its opposition to sharing the "meat" label with this category of products, which are created by taking actual cells from an animal and turning them into real beef and poultry. (Science!) These meats aren't on store shelves yet, but brands like Memphis Meats and Future Meat Technologies have plans to launch within the coming year.

The government argues that these discussions are meant to create clarity in the grocery aisle. But if words like "yogurt" and "beef" are reserved for only those foods that were sourced in the most traditional sense, a whole new kind of confusion will arise—namely, what will we actually call our cultured coconut cream and lab-grown steaks? In five years' time, will we have learned a whole new vocabulary for the contents of our fridges? Or will this new generation of food brands be able to claim its linguistic place alongside its OG cousins?

Could the term "almond milk" disappear from cartons forever? Here's what you need to know.

FDA food name controversy
Photo: Getty Images/D3sign

Vegan products are having a moment—and not everyone is happy about it

You may wonder why all of this is happening now, when alt-meats and vegan dairy products have been around for decades. Well, it's partially because the plant-based food scene is positively booming, and it's impossible not to pay attention to it. "We have all of these analogs that are now replacing animal products and ingredients...relying on technology and science and a lot of experimentation, innovation, and entrepreneurial energy," says Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing at food and beverage product development firm CCD Helmsman. "And so now, we’re running into this problem of identification, which is a very familiar one in the food industry."

Indeed, this isn't the first time we've seen a battle between traditional food products and modernized alternatives. "The first real battle with substitutes was between margarine and butter, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," says food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson. "There was a butter lobbying group to protect dairy farmers, and they [pushed through] legislation pretty early on that you couldn’t call margarine 'butter.'" Nut- and soy-based meat substitutes came on the scene as high-protein alternatives to meat during World War I and the Great Depression, she adds. But they didn't fully take hold until the 1970s, when vegetarianism started trending in the U.S. Back then, they were mainly marketed to a niche audience, and the meat and dairy industries didn't pay them much mind—until now.

"It's only recently that these companies are trying to appeal to a consumer base that is not vegetarian, and that's when the more animal-based terminology [like milk and meat] comes into play," says Wassberg Johnson. And the politically powerful meat and dairy lobbyists, who are not-so-secretly in support of many of these labeling campaigns, aren't having it.

In certain states, they've already been successful in persuading lawmakers to crack down on labeling lingo. Back in May, Missouri passed a bill prohibiting companies from marketing their products as "meat" if they don't come from livestock or poultry. (A handful of detractors, including Tofurkey and the American Civil Liberties Union, have since clapped back with lawsuits.) North Carolina's 2018 Farm Bill called for a ban on plant-based drinks that are labeled as milks (although ten other Southern states need to sign on in order for it to be enacted), while California has a regulation banning non-dairy products from being labeled as cheeses.

Are the traditional dairy and meat industries threatened by the strength of the alt-milk and alt-meat markets? Some experts believe that's what's behind all of this—sales of plant-based meats did grow 20 percent between 2017 and 2018, and non-dairy milks have been seeing an even more dramatic rise. Mintel research shows that alt-milk sales have skyrocketed 61 percent since 2012, while overall sales in the dairy milk category have fallen 15 percent in that same time frame. "When [alt-milks] were only shelf stable, the dairy people weren’t as worried about them," says Nielsen. "But now that they're taking over a very large part of the refrigerated case, [dairy companies] are seeing an impact on their business and are acting in a protectionist way."

That said, Wassberg Johnson doesn't believe these strong sales figures mean we're all giving up on animal products completely.  "I don’t think that’s going to happen because Americans have been conditioned to really love dairy and meat," she says. Indeed, Mintel's data shows that whole milk sales are bucking the overall dairy decline, growing 8 percent in the past five years, while meat consumption has also been on the rise in America since 2015. And according to the Plant Based Foods Association, 40 percent of consumers have both plant-based and cow's milk in their refrigerators. Translation: There's probably no need for anyone on either side of the pasture fence to panic.

FDA food name controversy
Photo: Getty Images/Bonfanti Diego

What's next in the FDA food labels controversy?

On the dairy front, the FDA has invited the public to weigh in on their understanding of plant-based dairy alternatives, which will help the agency decide how to proceed with the labeling question. (You have until the end of November 2018 to send them your thoughts.) And when it comes to meat, the FDA and USDA will be meeting later in October to discuss labeling standards for alt-meats—both plant-based and lab-grown varieties. But until a final decision is made, there are a few things that could happen.

First, we may start seeing new words being coined for meat and dairy alternatives—similar to "mylk", "nice cream," "chick'n," and other terms that are already in heavy rotation among the vegan set. "I suspect some of the newer products will just start thinking of different names from the get-go and have fun with it," says Nielsen.

We're already witnessing this in the market: Oatly and Forager Project call their yogurts "Oatgurt" and "Cashewgurt," respectively, and Malk is an example of a nut-beverage brand that's trademarked a whole new word for its product ("malk"), so that it never has to use the word "milk" in its messaging. "Malk is a combination of the words 'milk alternative,'" says CEO and founder August Vega, who adds that this was done in an effort to differentiate the product from other nut milks—not to appease the FDA. "People understand it’s not a dairy product. The people who are looking for alternatives are looking for them specifically."

The other possibility? The FDA could rule that plant-based brands can keep on using traditional terminology, as long as they're clearly stating their ingredients. This is what Oatly is hoping will happen, as they feel it's less confusing for the public. “We believe that labels exist to make it easy for consumers to understand the product they’re buying and how to use it," says  Mike Messersmith, the brand's US general manager. "To that end, we use the term ‘oatmilk’ here in the States because it has been the established standard for this category for decades and accurately describes what the product is made from and how to use it in a really simple way. Oatly thinks consumers are way smarter than they are seemingly being given credit for by people pushing for these regulations.”

A recent survey by the International Food Information Council indicates this may be true. It found that 75 percent of respondents—a group made up of both dairy and non-dairy consumers—understood that alt-milks don't contain dairy. (They were more confused about the source of lactose-free milks, which aren't part of this discussion because they come from cows.) Things are slightly trickier with lab-grown animal protein, however. A Consumer Reports survey showed that 40 percent of people don't think this type of food should be called meat. Another 40 percent said that they're fine with the meat designation, but they want its lab-grown status to be clearly labeled.

Regardless, there's some precedent that suggests brands could keep using existing names for their products. It's happened before—after being targeted by Unilever and the American Egg Board in 2015, the FDA allowed vegan mayonnaise brand Just Mayo to keep its name after it promised to emphasize its egg-free status on the jar. Nielsen, for one, is in support of this solution. "As long as you have your ingredients labeled really clearly, I think it’s almost impossible to question what it is," she says.

This is what Beyond Meat has been doing. Executive chairman Seth Goldman tells me "plant-based" is intentionally set in a large typeface on the brand's packaging—a tactic that's appeased regulators in Missouri, despite its new meat-marketing law. He goes on to say that the brand isn't considering dropping the word "meat" from its name. "At Beyond Meat, we define 'meat' in terms of composition, and none of the core elements of meat—protein, fat, etcetera—are exclusive to the animal," he says. "We source protein, fats and minerals from familiar, plant-based ingredients such as peas and coconut. Then, following the architectural blueprint of meat, we rebuild meat from the ground up. If our products have the same compositional structure, deliver the same nutritional values, and offer the same delicious and satisfying sensory experience, why shouldn’t that be called meat?"

No matter what happens, experts don't think this will be damaging to the plant-based food industry. "Regardless of if it’s called 'almond beverage,' 'mylk,' or 'milk,' the need for these products in the market is not going to die down," says Vega. Doug Radi, CEO of flax-based "dairy" brand Good Karma, concurs, and he fully supports the use of the word "milk" for products like his. "[Alt-milk] consumers are looking for an alternate solution, be it for lactose intolerance, dairy allergies, environmental concerns, vegan or vegetarian lifestyle choice, or for overall health and balance," he says. "Because purchases of these products has reached the mass market, and the labeling of these products is factually correct and does not imply it’s milk from a cow, we believe it’s unlikely a consumer would be misled or confused by the current naming approach."

And given the fact that we're all learning more and more about what's in our food, Nielsen thinks this all may be a moot point soon. "Younger consumers are very savvy and very educated, and I think in another five to ten years we wont be having these fights anymore," she says. Bring on the banana milk.

Did you know you can create a delish bacon dupe from rice paper? And this new vegan egg substitute tastes just as real as it looks.

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