Fake milk labeling a problem, writer says

(Journal stock photo.)

Like most people with a smartphone, Google displays stories on my phone that may interest me. I tend to look at lots of agricultural stories. One particularly random story showed up last month. It involved James Cromwell, the actor from the movie “Babe.”

One day, Mr. Cromwell decided that Starbucks had crossed the line and discriminated against him because he is a vegan by charging more for alternatives to milk. He and a few others super glued their hands to a Starbucks counter in New York City. While this sounds completely ridiculous, it also highlights the problem of proper labeling of milk alternatives.

While I like to refer to these beverages as nut juice, Mr. Cromwell considers them “milk.” The flavor I am most familiar with is almond. I just want to be clear, I like almonds. I eat them in their original form as a nut and use them in cooking. One of my favorite cereals has oats and almonds in it, but of course, I put real dairy milk on it.

The issue I have with alternative beverages is packagers using the term “milk” on the label. I visited multiple brands’ websites and even spoke with customer service at one company. The first thing companies do is add the word almond, oat, or whatever flavor they are trying to promote. By law, these companies are supposed to list ingredients by the percentage of what is contained in the product. Let’s use almond milk as an example. The first ingredient listed is almond milk, but then in parenthesis, they list filtered water and almonds. What the term filtered water really means is they blend water with almonds and then filter the solid pieces out.

I watched a video online of a person making homemade almond milk, and all they did was add soaked almonds in a blender with water at a 1:4 ratio. Then they strained it to remove the almond pulp. That is why filtered water is part of the ingredients. They also list ingredients such as gellum glue, sunflower lecithin, and calcium carbonate. These ingredients make it thicker and more stable so as not to separate. Not all recipes for making these beverages are exactly the same but are very similar.

A 2015 lawsuit in the United Kingdom was brought by consumers to find out what percentage of a brand of almond milk was actually almonds. The UK brand, Alpro, had to disclose that their product is only 2% almonds. What these drinks seem to be is flavored enriched water.

Labeling does matter. Many consumers buy products because of the advertising and colorful packaging. In the coming years, consumers are going to be inundated with more alternative foods sporting labeling to make them seem like established products. We need better food labeling rules in this country, and that will only happen when consumers start demanding labeling honesty.

—Bruce Shultz, Raynesford, Montana, is vice president of the National Farmers Organization.