Should the FDA require almond, soy, and oat milk producers to remove the word “milk” from their cartons? Are plant-based companies making a profit off the good name of milk? Is truth in plant-based labeling and fairness at stake? These questions have been at the center of controversy of late, driven by dairy farmers’ lobbying groups and sympathetic legislators.
Should the conversation shift to the power of “milk” marketing word choice?
Or, actually, is there a bigger issue here? Should we as consumers be more concerned about whether food and beverages are grown and processed with sustainability and equity in mind?
Should the FDA be Focusing on Plant-Based Milk Issues?
Are there more important and urgent issues the FDA should be worried about right now? Danielle Nierenberg of the Food Tank says, yes, we should be talking about food safety concerns and infant formula shortages.
A blockbuster April 8 investigation by Politico reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich found that “regulating food is simply not a high priority at the agency, where drugs and other medical products dominate, both in budget and bandwidth — a dynamic that’s only been exacerbated during the pandemic.”
But the language of “milk” gets more media attention.
True or false? The prominence of plant-based milk has caused dairy farmers to struggle.
False. Nierenberg says that dairy farmers are “suffering because of years and years of bad policy, subsidies, powerful corporate consolidation, and overproduction.” While dairy farms consolidate, chronic milk overproduction has been balanced by decreases in consumption. “The push to make sure oat milk and almond milk are called ‘beverages’ instead of ‘milk’ is a waste of time and resources and is a distraction from the real matters our policymakers and institutions like FDA should be addressing,” Nierenberg argues.
Many experts agree (here, here, and here) that the FDA is failing to meet US consumers’ expectations on food safety and nutrition. What else should the FDA scrutinize? How about product quality problems? Unsafe food additives? Growth hormones or antibiotics in healthy farm animals? Pharmaceutical industry influence? Controversies over data manipulation?
Peeling Back the Layers of the”Milk” Controversy
An expose that originally appeared in Mother Jones zooms in on the real reason that dairy farmers are wary of plant-based beverage alternatives.
People drink a lot less milk than they did in the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s.
The USDA recognized nearly a decade ago that, since 1970, per capita consumption of fluid milk has fallen from almost 1 cup (8 fl. oz.) to 0.6 cups per day. That hasn’t stopped the National School Lunch Program, which still calls for providing fat-free or low-fat milk to every kid.
WWF’s Food Waste Warriors program calculates that as much as 45 million gallons of milk goes to waste in the US every year in schools alone.
Research also reveals that one 7-ounce glass of dairy milk produces nearly 3 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a glass of rice milk and at least 3 times more than soy, oat, or almond milk. It also requires 10 times as much land as oat milk. Even high water consuming crops like almonds require about half the amount of water it takes to produce the equivalent amount of dairy milk.
Dairy-free alternatives began to soar in popularity during the 21st century and now account for 15% of “all dollar sales of retail milk,” according to the vegan think-tank The Good Food Institute.
Even so, Big Dairy can’t blame the rise of alternatives for the ongoing decline of milk. The numbers tell it all. A 2020 study by USDA researchers found that the “increase in sales over 2013 to 2017 of plant-based options is one-fifth the size of the decrease in Americans’ purchases of cow’s milk.” It concluded that “sales of plant-based milk alternatives are contributing to — but not a primary driver of — declining sales of cow’s milk.”
The Language of Plant-Based Beverages
People think about food and drink in terms of what it feels like to consume them, and this leads to desire. It’s interesting that dairy farmers are firing up their lobbyists to squash plant-based “milk” wording, as people represent food and drink through consumption and reward simulations, especially if those foods and drinks are attractive. In more instances than not, dairy and animal products win every time in positive consumer marketing responses over plant-based or vegetarian fare.
It’s been a quarter century since “Got Milk?” entered the public consciousness. Early in milk marketing research, it became clear that consumers felt an emotional connection to the everyday product. As Fast Company chronicled, during the two decades that Got Milk? dominated the public consciousness, more than 70 commercials ran on television in California alone, and some 350 milk mustache ads ran nationally in print and on TV — at a time when those two media were still all powerful. Any given day, an estimated 80% of all US consumers came into contact with that innocent little question: Got Milk?
The Got Milk? campaign longevity shows how language focused on the eating or imbibing experience increases food attractiveness. Food cues, such as words or images, can trigger rewarding simulations or re-experiences of eating a food, which can lead to desire, especially for more attractive foods. Indeed, viewing food words or images activates gustatory and reward areas in the brain reminiscent of tasting food.
Food labels that emphasize sensory and hedonic features (e.g., “crispy,” “decadent”) rather than health features (e.g., “fiber-packed,” “nutritious”) increase choices of and liking of vegetable-based dishes — presumably because such labels trigger rewarding consumption simulations, which then affect actual eating experiences.
Sustainable foods are less likely to be described with indulgent language. Animal food social media posts, for example, contain language that is likely more appealing to mainstream consumers because it refers to the enjoyable experience of eating the food rather than the food being healthy or identity affirming.
According to a summer, 2022 study in Appetite, this pattern reflects the polarization surrounding sustainable foods, which — contrary to the dairy farmers’ drama — may hinder the shift towards plant-based diets needed to curb climate change.
Sustainable Dairy Farmers are the Industry’s Role Models
Not all dairy farmers are in trouble. Smaller, organic dairy operations are finding success; milk-drinking consumers acknowledge their efforts to protect the environment, dairy farmers, and access to a consistent market and consistent pricing.
The Food Revolution Network outlines how concerns about the environment and the future of the dairy industry have led to several partnerships between dairy farmers and companies making plant milk. Hälsa, Miyoko’s Creamery, and the Swedish oat drink company Oatly have all announced programs to help dairy farmers transition to crops like oats and cashews that can be used to make plant milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt.
Several dairy companies have added plant milks to their portfolios. Minnesota-based Live Real Farms launched blends that contain 50% dairy milk and 50% almond or oat milk, and HP Hood LLC, one of the largest and oldest dairy companies in the country, launched Planet Oat Oatmilk in 2019.
After 90 years in the dairy business, Elmhurst Dairy rebranded as Elmhurst 1925 and transitioned to producing cashew, almond, oat, and hemp milks. Heba Mahmoud, vice president of marketing for Elmhurst 1925, attributes the pivot to declining demand for dairy milk and increased interest among consumers in plant-based diets.
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