Is dairy-free milk “milk”?
The debate over labeling dairy (and meat) products that come from plants is dividing the food industry. Sales of nondairy products are driving the plant-based category growth, estimated to surpass $20 billion in sales globally by 2020. As meat and dairy producers struggle against this consumer shift, the USDA is forced to purchase surplus; last year, it bought $50 million worth of dairy in a bid to support the farmers.
In recent years legislation has been introduced that could see major legal battles over standards of identity. FDA’s Scott Gottlieb says the agency will look at whether or not nondairy products can continue to use the terms most consumers identify them with: mainly milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.
The decades-old definitions of foods like milk and its derivatives describe them as originating from the lactational secretions of cows. But evolution has caught up to our food systems at long last; milk can be made from renewable resources like peas, beans, nuts, and seeds, producing significantly less of an environmental impact than livestock. And consumers want variety — oat milk in coffee and almond milk in cereal, for example.
Dairy producers who hold to these definitions in efforts to suppress the market demand may find a thin case according to a recent article in the Smithsonian.
The History of the Term ‘Milk’
“Linguistically speaking, using ‘milk’ to refer to the ‘the white juice of certain plants’ (the second definition of milk in the Oxford American Dictionary) has a history that dates back centuries,” the Smithsonian notes. “The Latin root word of lettuce is ‘lact’, as in lactate, for its milky juice, which indicates that even the Romans had a fluid definition for milk.”
Cultures across the globe “milked” plants likely long before they moved to raising livestock. Cracking coconuts on the beaches of Africa and Australia likely happened thousands of years before Starbucks offered either coconut milk or organic cow’s milk.
Europeans were also in on the nut milk trend.
Ken Albala, professor of history at University of the Pacific and host of the podcast Food: A Cultural Culinary History, told the Smithsonian that almond milk “shows up in pretty much every medieval cookbook.”
While California now produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, the nuts originated in the Middle East, making their way to southern Europe with the Moors in the 8th century. According to the Smithsonian, “their milk—yes, medieval Europeans called it milk in their various languages and dialects—quickly became all the rage among aristocrats as far afield as Iceland.”
Christians even used almond milk to satisfy religious edicts forbidding animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays.
“Almond milk became a nutritious stand-in,” finding culinary applications beyond from the sweet to savory, Albala told the Smithsonian.
What Types of Vegan Milk Are There?
Aside from almond milk, there’s coconut milk. Most often associated with Thai or Indian food, coconut milk is a hit across Asia, but it isn’t alone. Soy milk also enjoyed a centuries-long history in Japan and China before becoming a health food store staple in the 1970s and on, becoming one of the most popular nondairy alternatives around the world.
The dairy-free milk industry is becoming happily crowded, with emerging brands each carving out space for their nut, seed, bean, or pea-based beverages on the market.
California-based Ripple Foods makes milk from yellow peas, and over in Australia, Milkadamia is one of the only companies in the world to make milk from macadamia nuts. According to the brand, the process of making macadamia milk is kind and gentle on the environment; it runs its farms as naturally as possible with holistic farming techniques.
Oat milk is also enjoying a moment, largely thanks to Swedish brand Oatly. Consumers can’t get enough of the brand’s creamy nondairy beverage and it’s struggling to keep up. U.S. customers are so eager for a taste of Oatly, the company was recently forced to open a new processing facility in New Jersey to produce enough product to fulfill demand.
What Can You Use Vegan Milk For?
Just like dairy, drink vegan milk straight from the glass, pour it on your cereal, froth it up in a latte, add to an acai bow, or blend it with fruit for a smoothie.
You could mix it in with vegan cheese for creamy dairy-free pasta sauce or whisk it up to make vegan whipped cream, the options are endless.
What Are The Next Steps for the Vegan Milk Industry?
All of this history and progress may not be enough to sway the FDA and USDA’s positions on “alternative” foods. The agencies are tied to corporate interests, but even name changes aren’t likely to stall the sale of vegan products.
“The FDA may succeed in banishing ‘milk’ from nondairy milk labels, but it’s unlikely to affect consumer habits in a meaningful way,” says the Smithsonian. “If anything, it could be a boon to the plant-milk industry like the ‘vegan mayo wars’ of 2014 ultimately were to eggless spreads.”
Want to make your own nut milk like the Medieval Europeans? Check out the nut milk bags from Milk Your Nuts.
Image Credit: Milk Your Nuts