A one-word substitution – from “fake” to “alternative” – in last Saturday’s print edition of this column launched a lively social media discussion on fake foods.
Many favorite fakes have been well-marketed to develop brand loyalty regardless of nutritional value. Nobody reads the dietary label on a Twinkie or a can of Spam before reaching for comfort food. Homemade macaroni with four cheese casserole has a hard time competing with the blue box for kids’ approval.
And “alternative milk” rides the aura of good health promoted for a century by images of contented cows and wholesome dairying families.
Fake milk does fill a niche for people who can’t tolerate milk but still want to whiten their coffee, enjoy a bowl of cereal or follow a favorite recipe without triggering a health crisis. They are essential for mothers like Amanda Lassman, of Reardan, whose daughter has a rare condition called FPIES (Food Protein-Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome). She’s forced to be a diligent label reader, working with a clinical dietitian to find the right functional substitute for each typical milk use.
“I can’t think of any fake food we eat any more, other than the vast assortment of ‘fake milks’ in our fridge,” Lassman said. “My biggest issue with milk alternatives for little kiddos is that they’re so low calorie and low/no protein.”
Most consumers don’t have a clinical dietitian on call to advise them on food equivalency. They rely on clear food safety regulations, consistently enforced. According to the FDA, milk is the beverage “obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” The FDA has interpreted the definition in guidance documents to include the “lacteal secretions” from alternative dairy animals such as sheep and goats.
According to the FDA, milk does not include look-alike liquids from nuts, hemp, oats, rice, almonds or other plant-based nondairy beverages marketed as substitutes for milk.
“You scream, I scream, we all scream for soybean emulsion” isn’t going to sell a lot of frozen soy milk cones. The other white beverage products have adopted dairy language to describe nondairy beverages by creating compound words. It’s a legalistic way to get around FDA labeling regulations intended to inform and protect consumers.
And fake milk marketing is driving dairy producers madder than a cow who’s missed her milking time. After several years of fruitlessly pressing the FDA to enforce its own regulations, they turned to Congress. The bipartisan DAIRY PRIDE Act was filed in January 2017 for the purpose of “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday.”
The acronym is a substitute for the semantic secretions of one or more industry lobbyists. While DAIRY PRIDE didn’t pass, the directive to the FDA to act was rolled into the 2018 omnibus bill.
It’s not just about milk sales. The National Milk Producers Federation admits “alt-milk” is less than 10 percent of the white beverage market. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, bottled water is the No. 1 competitor for milk in the beverage case. It’s a matter of pride mixed with fear about misleading marketing diluting the long-term value of the branding of milk, cheese and cream as healthy sources of protein and tasty treats.
The marketing campaign to build acceptance of “lab meat” cultured in a vat has started. There will always be holistic differences between meat from cattle finished in a feed lot in Brazil, a range-fed cow managed as part of a healthy ecosystem in Washington, and a burger grown from a few animal cells in a factory anywhere. Many consumers will want to know the difference, although the same people who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows will probably remain clueless.
Multinational corporations and the World Trade Organization have effectively gutted Country of Origin labeling that used to inform consumers on where animals are born, raised and harvested for meat. Livestock producers have learned from the failure to protect COOL and the dairy industry experience, asking USDA to get out in front of regulating fake meat.
Meanwhile, consumers who do know where chocolate milk comes from can keep reading labels and connect directly with local producers whenever possible.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.