Consumers urged to drink milk, not ‘milk’ juice

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Soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk—they’re all labeled as “milk” but are not, in fact, dairy products.

By definition, milk is a nutrient-rich, white liquid food produced by the mammary glands of mammals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is studying the wide variety of plant-based foods that are being positioned in the marketplace as substitutes for standardized dairy products.

The FDA took public comment through Jan. 28 on regulations governing how dairy and non-dairy products, like almond “milk” are labeled. Many plant-based foods use traditional dairy terms in the name of the product, such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Those alternative products, however, are not the food that has been standardized under the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act with the name “milk.”

“Americans have learned that milk is a good source of proteins and nutrients, and until plant-based options became popularized they were buying and drinking real milk,” noted Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Mislabeling of non-dairy products is confusing consumers about nutritional equivalency, leading them to turn away from real milk and dairy products, which is hurting our state’s dairy farmers.”

Sarah Weaver Sharpe, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Greene County, said she has advised consumers to “buy cow milk, not nut juices.” Local foods are one of Sharpe’s specialties, and she tries to educate consumers about the mislabeling of non-dairy beverages. “If people knew the nutritional value of cow milk versus nut milk—one ingredient versus a dozen or more—they would buy cow milk.”

Sharpe recounted a recent conversation with a veterinarian who predicted 25 percent of Virginia dairies will go out of business in the next year or so. “Central Virginia dairies are going out of business left and right,” she noted. “Prices farmers are getting for milk can’t cover their bills.”
Banks explained that dairy farmers are struggling in a difficult economy. “Plant-based imitation dairy products are one of many factors weighing down farm milk prices,” he said. “Other factors include U.S. and global milk production increases outpacing demand for milk and dairy products.

“In the United States, dairy farmers are producing more milk with fewer cows, thanks to improvements in herd genetics and management, and dairy exports have become significant. However, a relatively strong U.S. dollar in recent years makes U.S. dairy more expensive to buy in global markets. We’re also experiencing significant changes in the domestic farm-to-retail milk chain that have upset some long-standing regional market alliances and disrupted milk demand.”

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