VIDEO dispatches from Expo West 2017

Kite Hill weighs into plant ‘milk’ debate: ‘Do electric cars not get to call themselves cars because they don’t have a combustion engine?’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Almond milk Milk

An electric vehicle uses a very different propulsion system to the internal combustion engine, but it also has four wheels, and gets you from A to B, which to most consumers, makes it a 'car.' So isn't it time to apply the same logic to plant-based 'milk' 'cheese,' and 'yogurt'? asks the CEO of almond-fueled brand Kite Hill.

Brand owner Lyrical Foods makes almond milk from nuts and water, and then cultures it using proprietary cultures and enzymes to separate it out into solids and liquids, just as traditional cheese makers do.

Its products (almond milk cheeses, cream-cheese-style cheeses, chilled ravioli, and yogurts) are now in several thousand stores including Whole Foods, Sprouts, and The Fresh Market, and rolling out into Target, Kroger and Safeway/Albertsons stores.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Expo West show in Anaheim, CEO Matthew Sade said the fact that the FDA is not cracking down on firms using terms such as ‘almondmilk’​ (although standards of identity dictate that ‘milk’ refers exclusively to the lacteal secretions of dairy cows) is likely because there is no evidence that consumers are being misled (a view backed up by some federal judges​ in the case of soy- and almond-milk).

The FDA needs to step in an provide clarity for all stakeholders

As leading plant-based dairy brands (Silk, Almond Breeze) have recently been targeted in a new wave of false advertising lawsuits on this issue, and legislators are urging the FDA to enforce dairy standards of identity via the Dairy Pride Act​, however, the FDA now needs to actively intervene such that all stakeholders are crystal clear on its position, he argued.

While some commentators believe that the FDA's apparent lack of interest in enforcing "antiquated​" standards of identity should be taken as a sign that it's OK to start using terms such as 'vegan cheese,' or 'almond ice cream,' plaintiff's attorneys and state lawmakers may beg to differ, said Sade, who currently uses terms such as ‘artisan almond milk products’ to describe his dairy-free cheese to avoid legal hot water.

“The mandate for the FDA is to avoid consumer confusion and to do what’s in the best interests in consumers… I would suggest that they ​[the FDA] just clarify the fact that absolutely no one is being misled ​[by the use of dairy terms in plant-based products].

We just want to be able to use terms that consumers recognize at a glance

But does he have any sympathy with the dairy lobby, which says it is simply asking for the FDA to enforce the law?

When standards of identity were originally conceived, adulteration was rife, and consumers were being duped by cheap knock-offs purporting to be dairy products, said Sade. But modern plant-based food brands such as Kite Hill are not 'purporting' to be dairy products, he said. They just want to be able to use terms that consumers understand so shoppers know at a glance what their products are.

 “Dairy products serve a purpose in your day,”​ he said. “What they ​[dairy companies] are actually suggesting is that if the product did not come from a lactating mammal, then it’s not milk, and what I would say is that is entirely false.

“Do electric cars not get to call themselves cars because they don’t have a combustion engine? They transport you from here to there and use new, better cleaner technology and what we have is a product that does the exact same thing.”

Click HERE​ to get the National Milk Producers’ perspective on The Dairy Pride Act.

kite hill yogurt

Vegan cheese, yogurt is much harder to make than almondmilk, soymilk

Asked whether dairy-free cheese was a tougher sell than dairy-free milk, he said: “The reason ​[that consumers of plant-based milks] have not all historically migrated to other categories – yogurt, cheese, butters – isn’t because there isn’t a desire to have them but because products in these segments are technically much more challenging to make…

“But for the first time a company like Kite Hill is able to make a cultured product… that has the taste and texture that people want, and for that reason what we’re going to see is that these other segments ​[dairy-free cheese, yogurt etc] will claim their fair share of the category at much much greater speed than we’ve seen to date."

Kite Hill cream cheese-style spread

Kite Hill​ - a San Francisco-based brand on a mission to disrupt the dairy case with its cultured nut milk products – closed an $18m fundraising round led by 301 INC (General Mills’ business development and venturing unit) and CAVU Venture Partners in May 2016.

Founded by vegan chef Tal Ronnen, cheesemaker Monte Casino and Stanford biochemist Dr Pat Brown, brand owner Lyrical Foods makes almond milk from nuts and water, and then cultures it using proprietary cultures and enzymes to separate it out into solids and liquids, just as traditional cheese makers do.

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The plant lobby needs to be honest with itself and with consumers

Posted by Jaye,

Cameron, no one confuses peanut butter with butter because one is a white/yellow fat with delicate dairy flavour used for things like baking cakes and frying eggs, while the other is a brown savoury paste used primarily for spreading on bread or making satay sauce. It's pretty obvious to anyone that they are nutritionally different and furthermore, peanut butter is not marketed as a replacement for real butter. Plant-based "milks" are white liquids used in coffee or for pouring over breakfast cereal. Real dairy milk is a white liquid used in coffee or for pouring over breakfast cereal. Plant-based "milks" are marketed as replacement products for real milk. So your argument that no one will confuse the nutritional quality of the two products is extremely weak at best.
Your comment about the term "almond drink" proves the point. Without calling it "milk" no one will make the mistake that it's nutritionally the same as real milk. By calling it "almond drink" people will be forced to ask themselves, 'is this product really milk?'. Of course people should be free to choose either plant-based products or real milk, but they should not be misled into thinking that they are nutritionally equivalent products.

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Thanks but no thanks, Dairy Lobby

Posted by Cameron,

The dairy lobby's claim that terms like "soy milk" and "almond milk" are confusing is absurd. Why would consumers assume that, just because they have "milk" in their name, these products are nutritionally equivalent to cows' milk? I don't assume peanut butter is nutritionally equivalent to butter.

It would be MORE confusing if the FDA enforced this law than if they changed it. What would we call almond milk? "Almond drink"? That doesn't tell me anything about what I'm buying.

And did anyone notice that, under the current FDA definition, you can't even call GOAT milk "milk"? Doesn't seem like a useful definition to me.

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People know that plant-based milks are not the same as milk - and that's exactly why they buy them

Posted by Liz,

I've seen no evidence to support the idea that consumers "assume nutritional equivalency" between plant-based milk and dairy milk. In fact, the differences between the nutritional labels are a huge part of what is spurring the growth of these products. Health-conscious consumers are looking for low-calorie, low-fat, cholesterol-free, and hormone-free alternatives that still taste creamy and delicious -- and that's precisely what plant-based milks offer.

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