Does almond milk come from cows?
The Food and Drug Administration appears to think consumers may not know the answer to that question.
This isn't a joke. In fact, the FDA just sought public comments to determine whether plant-based products using dairy-related terms such as "almond milk" and "vegan mozzarella cheese," create confusion among consumers. There's a real possibility that these products will have to change their names.
Consumers know that almond milk doesn't come from cows. The entire purpose of the word "almond" in the product name is simply to inform consumers that the product isn't cow's milk.
Unlike a product such as "chocolate milk" that describes a flavor of cow's milk, consumers don't think "almond milk" is almond-flavored cow's milk.
The FDA is also concerned that consumers may think products like milk and almond milk have a similar nutritional profile. But consumers aren't going to think the nutrition of distinct products are the same just because they include a common term in its name – and if they did, they have nutritional labels to inform them otherwise.
There's an underlying assumption that dairy products are nutritionally superior to plant-based products. Tell that to people who are lactose-intolerant or the many people who want to avoid the high calories in milk.
Ironically, if the FDA did require name changes, the FDA would be creating the very consumer confusion that it allegedly wants to prevent. Consumers are already familiar with the names of products such as almond milk. If those products were called "almond drinks" or whatever new name was adopted, that's when there'd be confusion.
Besides the absurdity of this entire issue, the FDA doesn't need to meddle for one simple reason: Businesses selling these plant-based products have the incentive to inform consumers that their products are not "milk" or other dairy products. And this is exactly what they do.
Products such as almond milk are popular in large part because they are not "milk." Many consumers don't want to use animal-based products. They may have a concern for animal welfare or the environment and deem using these plant-based products as a way to address these concerns. They may have health reasons for wanting to avoid dairy.
The differences between the plant-based products and dairy products are precisely the selling point for these products.
These products include dairy-related terms to help consumers understand the potential uses of the product. For example, the use of "milk" in "almond milk" informs consumers that they can use the product in cereal, their coffee, and other situations. It conveys valuable product information. In other words, the use of these terms in these products helps consumers.
For well over a decade, the dairy industry has been trying to get the FDA to take action on the use of dairy terms in plant-based products. The FDA has not wasted its time and resources on the issue, until now.
There would be one winner if the FDA did prohibit these plant-based products from using dairy-related terms like "milk." It would be the dairy industry, not consumers.
These name restrictions are a useful way to limit competition and undermine innovative products that can help meet the needs of consumers.
The dairy industry is right to recognize the competitive threat that these plant-based products may represent to the industry. However, it isn't the role of the FDA to devise protectionist schemes. Under federal law, its role when it comes to product names is to protect consumers, not the market share of food producers.
Like with other industries, the dairy industry should compete and differentiate itself from its competition. It should highlight the benefits of dairy compared to plant-based products, such as the higher protein content of milk.
Consumers benefit from the competition and new products coming onto the market. They certainly don't benefit from the FDA prohibiting the use of informative product names that are neither misleading nor confusing.
This piece originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee