In today’s Finshots, we talk about the problem of semantics and the rise of the plant-based milk industry.


The Story

According to the Britannica, Milk is a liquid secreted by the mammary glands of female mammals to nourish their young for a period beginning immediately after birth. The Handbook of Food Chemistry will tell you milk is a liquid combination of fat, protein, enzymes, vitamins, and sugar produced by mammals to nourish their offspring. Closer home, India’s food regulator FSSAI thinks “Milk” is the normal mammary secretion derived from complete milking of a healthy milch animal (or in other words milk-producing livestock)

And while there are subtle differences in how these agencies define milk, they all agree on one thing. Milk and mammals go hand in hand. But over the past decade or so, a new burgeoning industry is staking claim to the word “milk” without the whole mammal equation and it’s upsetting a lot of people.

Think — Almond milk, or Soy milk or oat milk. Almonds, Soy and Oats don’t lactate. But you could still process these nuts and cereals to derive a homogenous mixture that looks and feels like milk. It’s plant-based and many people look at these products as viable alternatives to cow milk.

And look, they have some very compelling arguments to back their claim. The dairy industry is known to be exploitative and cows are treated quite miserably in these dairy farms. Also, lactose intolerance is a massive problem that plagues roughly 65% of the world’s population and plant-based milk solves both these problems quite effectively. In fact, it’s partly one of the reasons why the industry is now worth $2 billion globally.

But the dairy industry and food regulators aren’t particularly happy about this development. For instance, Amul has been pretty miffed about the fact that these manufacturers call their plant-based alternatives, milk. Some reports suggest they are even considering taking these companies to court. And only recently, FSSAI weighed in on the issue by announcing that they were considering a ban on the use of dairy terms such as “milk” and “cheese” for plant-based products.

Funnily enough, when quizzed about what these products should be called instead, FSSAI head noted — “the term ‘beverage’ can be used in the nomenclature of the soya-based product analogous to milk”

His contention and the contention of many other dairy farmers is simple. If you keep branding these products as milk, regular people might think plant-based milk is just “cow’s milk” with nutty flavours. And since there is scope for a lot of confusion here, it’s best to not call them milk. Call them a beverage, instead. That’ll solve all the problems.

However, the plant-based milk industry believes otherwise.

They claim, research suggests that a majority of Indians (over 70%) can identify the source of cow’s milk vs plant-based milk and there’s no confusion here at all. They believe forcing manufacturers to rebrand would cripple an up and coming industry and it would have an overall detrimental impact on both producers and consumers.

But here’s the thing. Even if that were true, there is another more pressing concern here.

As an article in the Vox notes —

In a study published last year in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, researchers reported that no plant-based milk product matches the nutrients provided by cow’s milk, but noted that soy milk was the most balanced in terms of nutrition. Other scientists have counseled caution in swapping cow’s milk for plant-based milk, particularly for children.

“Nondairy milk beverages vary in their nutritional profiles,” according to a 2017 paper in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. “These should not be considered nutritional substitutes for cow’s milk until nutrient quality and bioavailability are established."

This is the crux of the milk industry’s argument for stricter labeling rules; consumers aren’t necessarily confused about where plant milk comes from, but the term “milk” evokes a nutritional profile that these milk alternatives don’t meet.

So if people continue to believe that plant-based milk can offer them everything cow’s milk does, that can be quite problematic.

Anyway, what do you think?

Should these plant-based alternatives be called milk or should they find another name?

Let us know your thoughts on Twitter.

Until next time...

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