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Soy, Almond, Coconut: If It's Not From A Cow, Can You Legally Call It Milk?

Companies are selling "milk" derived from a wide variety of plants. The dairy industry isn't happy about it.
Bob Chamberlin
LA Times via Getty Images
Companies are selling "milk" derived from a wide variety of plants. The dairy industry isn't happy about it.

Beth Briczinski has been keeping a list of all the things companies are turning into products labeled as a kind of milk. "There's soy and almond and rice," she says. "Hemp, pistachio, macadamia nut, sunflower."

Briczinski is highly annoyed by these products. She's vice president for dairy foods and nutrition at the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents the original milk producers: dairy farmers.

These other "milk" products, she says, are confusing consumers. She recalls a recent conversation in which one of her friends, who is trained as a food scientist, thought a plant-based product can be called milk "because it has the same nutrients" as milk.

This is exactly what those companies want you to think, Briczinski says. It's why they label their products "milk" and place them in the dairy aisle at the supermarket. But the products are not the same at all. Some milk-like drinks contain very little protein or calcium.

This week, a group of 32 members of Congress, many of them from big milk-producing states, came to Briczinski's aid. They wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, calling on the FDA to order manufacturers of plant-based drinks to find some other name. Democratic Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, a co-author of the letter, points out that the FDA already has a legal definition of milk, and "the FDA regulation defines milk as something that comes from a mammary gland. So we're asking the FDA basically to enforce its own regulation."

Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America, responds to this with a question. "If you break open a coconut, what's inside? Coconut milk."

Updated at 10 a.m.: Several alert listeners wrote to inform us that what's found inside a coconut is coconut water, not coconut milk. Coconut milk is a product that's made from the meat of the coconut.

Chapman says the word "milk," in practice, has a very broad meaning. "It's just a liquid that is taken from a particular protein source — a coconut, a soy[bean], a cow, a goat, a whatever."

This week's letter is only the latest round in a long-running battle over the milk label. In 2000, the National Milk Producers Federation filed a formal complaint with the FDA, asking the agency to crack down on the labeling of plant-based drinks as "milk." Three years earlier, in 1997, the Soyfoods Association of America had asked the FDA to recognize that "soymilk" is the common and accepted name for a product derived from soybeans and water.

So far, the agency has declined to take a stand, and there's little sign that this week's letter from Capitol Hill will change things. An FDA spokesperson told The Salt in an email that the agency "plans to respond directly to the lawmakers on their letter."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 21, 2016 at 11:00 PM CST
In the audio of this story, Nancy Chapman says the liquid inside a coconut is coconut milk. In fact, as the Web version notes, a coconut contains coconut water, not milk.
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
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