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DC FFA Ag Issues team asks, ‘What is milk?’ when considering plant-based milk products
March 23, 2018

By Jennifer Von Ohlen
Staff Writer

DASSEL, COKATO, MN – In browsing the dairy section of the local supermarket, shoppers will see a variety of milk products available, from regular dairy milk to almond to soy. This school year, however, the Dassel-Cokato FFA chapter agricultural issues team is asking whether or not plant-based dairy products can legally be labeled as milk. Their project is titled, “Got Milk? What is Milk?”

Agricultural issues is a FFA career development event (CDE), where a chapter’s team selects a controversial topic to explore and research. They are then expected to develop a 10-page portfolio on the topic and a 15-minute presentation, which explores both sides of the argument. These presentations are required to be publically shared a minimum of five times.

During these presentations, the team is not allowed to arrive at a conclusion – that is for their audience to decide.

Got milk? What is milk?

In opening the conversation about whether plant-based drinks can properly be considered milk at all, student Abigail Mills (neutral) mentioned the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act. It was proposed by Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Representative Peter Welch of Vermont.

Also known as the Dairy Pride Act, the document states that plant-based beverages, such as coconut or soy milk, cannot be marketed under the milk label. This would re-enforce the US Food and Drug Administration’s standards for milk, which is officially defined as being, “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

Representatives Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin have co-signed the act.

Part of the reason this just recently became a subject of debate – despite evidence that soy milk has been around since the 11th century and almond milk since the 13th century – is because of decreasing sales in regular dairy milk.

In fact, the Got Milk? ads that aired from the mid-1990s until 2014 were launched as part of a campaign to encourage consumers to purchase more dairy milk.

A possible factor as to why dairy milk is “. . . losing interest [is] because there are these fake milks flooding the market and ruining it,” stated Adam Hendrickson (pro-dairy).

One of the main concerns with this is whether customers are bypassing dairy milk because they believe the plant-based counterparts can provide the same (or better) nutrition.

Student Eric Meredith (pro-dairy), however, shared that there is a difference in nutritional value between the two mediums, despite what some may think.

“Cow’s milk contains nine basic nutrients, while the plant-based milks contain six or less basic nutrients,” he said. “Dairy milk may be higher in calories than most plant milks; however, it contains more protein and less fat than plant-based milks . . . Almond milk contains just one gram of protein. Coconut milk, none at all. Soy milk is getting close, but six grams of protein still doesn’t compare to the eight-to-nine grams of protein in dairy milk.”

Since the nutritional value between plant-based and regular dairy milks are not identical, it could potentially be one of the reasons less than 5 percent of females (and only 20 percent of all Americans) meet daily dairy recommendations.

Emily Miklasz (pro-plant-based) argued, however, that just because the dairy product is most commonly what comes to mind when people refer to milk, it doesn’t mean plant-based consumers are confused about what they’re purchasing.

“A study done by the Soy Foods Associate of North America shows that out of 800 people, none of them believe that there is any dairy in their soy milk,” Emily stated. She also emphasized that most plant-based products have a “big picture” of the base plant right on the carton.

Student Benjamin Miklasz (neutral) added that two districts in California chose to dismiss the claims that plant-based products were misleading, saying that consumer confusion was “highly improbable.”

Although plant-based milk may lack some of the nutrients found in dairy milk, it is known to provide other health benefits.

Soy milk, for instance, is known to improve lipid profiles (which is good for high cholesterol); strengthen blood vessels; help prevent prostate cancer, osteoporosis, and postmenopausal syndrome; and promote weight loss through less sugar and fewer calories, as stated by Emily.

To combat the claim that plant-based milk is not as nutritious as dairy milk, a new product was introduced to the food industry earlier this year that claims to consist of eight to 10 grams of protein and taste the same as dairy milk: pea milk.

Aside from the nutritional argument, Hendrickson wondered: “All other juices derived from a fruit or vegetable are classified as juices. So, why would a select few of these juices that come from plants be considered milk when things like apples are made into juice?”

The students think some of this might have to do with wanting to provide a lactose-free milk option for those unable to consume dairy milk.

Hendrickson shared, however, that the dairy industry looked into this need and created a lactose-free dairy milk so consumers don’t have to cut out the food group entirely.

As a final note in their public presentation, Emily noted that while the International Dairy Food Association (representing 85 percent of the dairy industry) initially supported the Dairy Pride Act, it has since changed its position, and supports letting the market decide for itself.

So, what is milk?

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