Let’s Talk Food: Are plant-based “milks” really milk?

There recently has been much ado about plant-based “milks” and whether they should be called milk.

The dictionary states milk is “an opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young.”

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In March, the Good Food Institute in Washington, D.C., submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a 59-page petition for the agency to issue a new rule to end the debate about whether plant-based milks can be called “milk.”

The dairy industry thinks plant-based companies should avoid the word altogether, while startups argue it’s OK so long as they aren’t trying to pass their products off as conventional milk.

Right now, consumers have the option in the refrigerated dairy case to buy cow milk or soy, almond, cashew, hemp, flax, coconut and rice varieties.

The dairy farmers’ two-decade campaign of “Got Milk?” is under siege as Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation said, “You haven’t ‘got milk’ if it comes from a seed, nut or bean. In the many years since we first raised concerns about the misbranding of these products, we’ve seen an explosion of imitators attaching the word ‘milk’ to everything from hemp to peas to algae.”

Plant-based milk alternatives make up a $2 billion industry, which is double from 10 years ago. That’s compared to the $13 billion milk industry, which although high, dropped 17 percent.

The battle over milk is long-standing, as in March 2000 the nation’s largest milk producer, Dean Foods, submitted a letter to the FDA saying it had no problem with the term “soy milk.”

Nigel Barrella, an attorney for the Good Food Institute, stated, “Companies have a First Amendment right to use product names that are clear to their consumers.”

There is a Dairy Pride Act, which is getting bipartisan support from a handful of congressional lawmakers hailing from dairy producing states, that if passed would require non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds, plants and algae no longer be labeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt and cheese.

So the latest news from the FDA is the announcement by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb that the agency is on a “fast track to take a fresh look” at the labeling of products that are substitutes for dairy products.

The FDA issued a request for information to solicit comments and feedback from the public on how consumers use plant-based alternatives and how they understand terms such as “milk” or “cheese” when used to label products made.

The public has 60 days to respond.

But this does not solve the crisis in America of the getting people to drink more milk, as consumption has dropped more than 37 percent since the 1970s.

We have reasons for drinking various forms of “milk” and, aside from flavor, here are the reasons you might choose one or the other:

• Whole cow’s milk naturally contains calcium and Vitamin D and does not have to be fortified.

• Soy milk is a good source of protein, vitamins A and B-12, potassium and isoflavones. The potential health benefits of isoflavones include protection against age-related diseases such ascardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, hormone-dependent cancer and loss of cognitive function. It could be fortified with calcium and Vitamin D, so check the label.

• Almond milk is low in calories and has lots of Vitamin E.

• Cashew milk is packed with vitamins including E, K and B6, minerals, antioxidants, copper, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, iron and selenium. One cup of cashew milk has 50 percent of your daily requirements for Vitamin E, which helps protect against the sun’s rays.

• Hemp milk has more iron than cow’s milk and is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which promote a healthy heart and brain and help lower blood pressure.

• Flax milk in high in fiber and alpha linoleic acid, needed to prevent heart attacks, lower cholesterol and reverse hardening of blood vessels.

• Coconut milk gets 93 percent of its calories from the fats in coconut, and has more potassium than cow’s milk.

• Rice milk is for the person with the most allergies as it is the most hypoallergenic of all the milks.

I am one of the 97 percent of Asians (Africans also have the same percentage) with lactose intolerance, so I am happily able to have choices of “milk.”

Foodie bites

• The Hawaii Community College Culinary Arts Program’s Cafeteria is open this week. Call 934-2559 for menu choices and takeout orders. The Cafeteria is open 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

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If you want to place your order for Thanksgiving, call 934-2559 for pick up from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Nov. 21. Available are a turkey plate for $9.95, a prime rib plate for $14.95, a 9-inch pumpkin pie for $9.95 and a dozen rolls for $5.

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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