What’s the alternative?

There’s been lots of discussion lately about alternatives – or non-dairy – milks and whether they should be allowed to use the word “milk” at all. A lot people in the dairy sector are getting pretty excited about the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considering how it will enforce the definition of milk on beverage companies that use the word on products that don’t come from a cow or any other animal. As is the case here in Australia, FDA regulations already specify that milk is a lacteal or mammary secretion of milking animals. The issue is these standards of identity haven’t been enforced, and FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb is considering whether they should be. “An almond doesn’t lactate,” has been the widely reported quote from Gottlieb.

Similarly to the industry here, the US dairy sector is keen to have these standards of identity enforced for milk and other dairy terms. The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) believes using dairy terms including milk for plant-based alternatives is misleading consumers. While no one would argue that consumers encountering a pack of soy milk are confused about whether the product comes from a cow, there could be some confusion about the nutritional value being offered. While plant-based milks are alternatives for usage, they are not exact substitutes for nutrition. To support its claims, the NMPF conducted a survey of 244 plant-based beverages from the Washington DC area and found that none delivered equivalent nutrition to real milk.

One dairy global processor – Danone – has come out in favour of the status quo regarding product names. According to Danone, dairy and plant-based products are clearly labelled with nutrition facts so people can choose the one that suits their dietary needs and preferences. Of course, like many other processors, Danone has evolved to follow the diverse demand trends and markets both dairy and plant-based beverages and products.

It is galling for many in the dairy industry, and perhaps farmers in particular, that plant-based competitors use words like milk and cheese to convey – to most consumers – an aura of health, nurturing and familiarity. Particularly as these alternatives continue to erode the market for the real thing. In the US, the dairy industry has an unlikely ally in the fight for milkTM! PETA also thinks plant-based beverages deserve to be distinguished from “udder secretions”. To PETA milk is a “four letter word” …. nothing gets past these people!!

A new Morning Consult/Politico poll in the US suggests some consumer support for enforcing the definition of milk, with 46% of surveyed adults saying the term shouldn’t be used to describe non-dairy beverages. The poll of 2,203 people found support for not using milk on plant-based beverages was highest in the 65 plus age group at 66%, but lowest in the 18 to 29 grouping at 39%. Which group do you think is more likely to purchase plant-based beverages?

Between 2012 and 2017 US sales of non-dairy milk increased 61% in the US to an estimated US$2.11 billion according to Mintel, while dairy milk sales have fallen 9%. The Mintel researchers found one in five US consumers were consuming less dairy for health reasons – a concern for an industry that has positioned itself on a nutrition platform. The other interesting finding was that 90% of plant-based milk consumers also purchase dairy, so choices may not be quite as binary as we would imagine.

It’s debatable whether removing the word milk from these products would prevent the march of plant-based beverages. As well as health concerns, consumers are turning to plant-based beverages that they believe are more ethical, better for the environment, and because of lactose intolerance – whether that’s real or perceived. Innovation is another driver, while almond, coconut and soy remain the most popular milk alternatives, hardly a month goes by before something else gets “milked” – pecan, quinoa, hazelnut and flax are recent examples! It has almost become a point of hipster pride to be consuming the latest obscure milk from a macadamia or Himalayan goji berry.

Some of the perceptions around the environmental credentials of plant-based alternatives are questionable – especially almonds – and could be challenged. Dairy also has to keep its own sustainability house in order, and tell the story effectively. The ethical issues for hard-core vegan types will never be addressed. Milk has been a staple for centuries because of its health benefits – a nutritional package designed by nature. This often gets lost with the waves of new “superfoods” on the block. It’s innovation that is lacking for a category that has been taken for granted and is under siege. It’s innovation that will keep “real milk” relevant for many consumers now and in the future – not regulation of the name. Even if this battle is won, dairy needs to stay focussed on the war.