Should Soy Milk Really Be Considered “Milk”?

published Jan 5, 2017
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(Image credit: NaturalBox)

When you have your morning coffee or cereal, what kind of milk do you normally add to each? Do you reach for regular cow’s milk, or do you go for one of the many (many) different kinds of plant-based milks now available? A few years ago most people might have answered cow’s milk, but the popularity of plant-based milk — like almond and soy — has changed the tide.

With this growing trend, a new question has emerged: Should these plant-based beverages really be called “milk”?

Milk is currently having an identity crisis, with lawmakers questioning what “milks” are worthy of being called one. Some members of Congress have started a bipartisan crusade against plant-based milks — or “fake milk,” as they call it — calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to crack down on milks that don’t come from cows.

“We strongly believe that the use of the term ‘milk’ by manufacturers of plant-based products is misleading to consumers, harmful to the dairy industry and a violation of milk’s standard of identity,” reads the letter to the FDA.

The letter also states: “While consumers are entitled to choose imitation products, it is misleading and illegal for manufacturers of these items to profit from the ‘milk’ name. These products should be allowed on the market only when accurately labeled.”

Instead of being called milk, which these lawmakers argue is reserved for cows, the FDA is being asked to make plant-based milk manufacturers pick a different name. What they fail to address is whether milk of non-cow mammals (say, goats and sheep) will continue to have the right be called milk.

Most primary dictionary definitions of milk describe it as the liquid that comes from female mammals to feed their young. The Oxford Dictionary, for example, describes the noun as “an opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young” and the Merriam-Webster defines it as “a fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young.”

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

That said, both dictionaries also include secondary or tertiary broader definitions describing milks from alternative sources. Plant-based milks — soy, almond, rice, coconut, hemp — are called “milk” because they serve as non-dairy substitutes to milk and can be similar in consistency, taste, and nutritional value. And, according to the Soyfoods Assn. of North America, reports the LA Times, the term “soymilk” has been placed on labels for over 100 years, so one could argue that changing the label could further mislead the consumer.

The motive of the 25 members of Congress seeking change may have less to do with the integrity of product labeling and the identity of cow’s milk, and have more to do with the dairy industry, which has seen a drop in product prices and consumption over the years.

“In recent years, there has been tremendous growth in the sale of plant-based products often labeled as “milk,” states the letter. “A recent Neilson survey revealed that in the past five years, sales of certain plant-based grew 250 percent to more than $894.6 million. By contrast, sales of milk fell 7 percent in 2015.”

What’s in a name? A whole lot of dairy-related politics.

So, what do you think? Should plant-based still be called “milk”? If you had to give soy milk another name, what would it be?