Last week, the House of Representatives introduced its much-anticipated 2018 farm bill — and not a moment too soon. While the rest of the nation clawed its way to pre-recession productivity, the farm economy has suffered a prolonged five-year contraction.
At this early juncture, the bill promises to ease at least some of the burden on dairy farmers. Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, gave his support for the legislation given its role improving dairy insurance coverage and expanding tools for price risk management. Sure, federally sponsored agriculture risk management programs can attempt to account for the risk of unforeseen hardship, such as drought causing a spike in feed prices, or an oversupply of milk causing prices to plunge below profitability. But what about those threats originating from within the agricultural community itself?
At an estimated $16.3 billion, the global market for non-dairy milk alternatives is booming. According to market research firm Mintel, products such as almond milk, soy milk and coconut milks are on a five-year high, growing more than 60 percent during the same time frame when most farmers of other commodities struggled to maintain their income.
The success of milk alternatives — let’s call them “fake milk,” given that these beverages market themselves as “milks” — is unsurprising given today’s health-conscious consumer. After all, fake milks are marketed as having more calcium and vitamins than conventional milk, for being lower in calories, and free from saturated fats and cholesterol. But the health halo around fake milk doesn’t shine as bright as consumers may think.
Unless a consumer exclusively purchases the unsweetened version of their preferred fake milk, their cups are going to contain a large dose of sugar. In order to compete with the flavor profile of milk, the plant-based alternatives almost have no choice. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that a healthy diet should source no more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugars.
For the standard 2,000-calorie diet, that means consuming no more than 200 calories from added sugar. Comparing market leader Silk’s Vanilla Almondmilk to the unsweetened product, Silk adds roughly 13 grams of sugar per one cup serving — that’s more than 60 percent of the beverage’s total calories. It’s more than a tablespoon of pure sugar in every cup — roughly half of what you’d find in a similarly sized portion of Coca-Cola.
But the big difference there? No one is pouring Coke over their Cheerios as a healthy alternative to milk.
One percent milk contains a similar amount of lactose, the sugar found in milk. According to nutrition commentator and registered dietitian Dana Angelo White, milk has a lot more to offer from a nutritional standpoint. Milk naturally provides other important nutrients like protein, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin B-12. The proteins take longer to digest, causing a less dramatic spike in blood sugar, and “make you feel fuller for longer, providing a greater satiety value.”
But what about fake milk’s frequent claim that it contains more calcium or vitamins than milk? Whole almonds and soybeans do pack a calcium punch, but their fake milk endpoint doesn’t fare quite as well. Namely, because products like almond milk and soy milk contain far less almonds and soy than consumers expect.
Silk and Blue Diamond almond milk brands have faced scrutiny in recent years for substituting thickening agents such as gellan gum and locust bean gum for real almonds. For these products, much like the fake meat also masquerading as healthy veggie burgers, their plant-based namesake contributes little to the final product.
In reality, “almond milk” contains 2 percent or less actual almonds. The nutritional content comes from fortification, or mixing vitamins and minerals into fake milk to up it’s appeal. Scientists also worry that in addition to contributing to weight gain more than unfortified products, fortified foods may rewire our natural cravings so that we have a lessened desire to eat nutritious food in the first place.
Yet in large part, legal scrutiny goes unnoticed in most of the “natural” movement. I would wager that you’d likely find fake milk in refrigerators throughout the movement.
Far be it for any conservative to call natural market competition a threat. But if makers of fake milk can produce a good that is safe and affordable, the competition is good for everyone. Prices go down and people have greater choice in what they pour over their cereal each morning. But being transparent is critical for any burgeoning industry, lest it too become subject to the criticisms of modern nutritional activists. It’s also important that government regulators and the public at large know what’s in their “milk” so they can make informed choices about their food.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.
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