Nut Milk is Not Milk…Or Is It?

Alternative milk’s rising sales and the slow fall of the dairy industry may be to blame. Photo by Harry Wyman | The Signal

Those stuck in Atlanta’s seemingly never-ending traffic during their commute have likely come across one of the many strange billboards looming over the interstate. 

The signs are hard to miss, with big, bold letters announcing an equally bold claim: “Nut milk is not milk.”

The billboards, which feature a simple black background and white letters, reportedly stand over Savannah, Columbus, Valdosta and Warner Robins, Georgia. An unknown individual or organization pays for the signs.

Several Reddit users called attention to the billboards as early as December 2020. Another post about the billboards gained over 40,000 upvotes and 67 “awards.” Awards are a Reddit feature that users can purchase for real money to honor exceptionally useful or entertaining posts.

“This makes me laugh every time I pass it,” the post read. 

The signs may seem like a joke, but nut milk’s rising threat to the dairy industry is not.

According to a study by research group Mintel, alternative milk sales rose 61% in the past nine years, and 50% of Americans now add a gallon of alternative milk to their cart each time they go grocery shopping.

While soy milk was once the only option for those looking for an alternative to cow’s milk, consumers can find a range of alternative kinds of milk in stores, including oat milk, almond milk, banana milk and pistachio milk.

Nearly all alternative milk is more environmentally friendly than dairy milk since producing them former requires significantly less water and land. According to Nielsen, 75% of millennials describe themselves as eco-conscious and change their shopping habits accordingly, perhaps contributing to alternative milk’s rising sales.

While alternative milk sales increase and options grow, a USDA Economic Research Service report claims that each generation of Americans born after the 1930s consumes less dairy milk. 

The dairy industry took a blow when Dean Foods, America’s largest dairy producer, filed for bankruptcy in November 2019 after losing 80% of its stock in one year.

Faced with dropping sales and low public interest, dairy groups pushed the Trump administration to prevent alternative milk companies from calling their products “milk.” 

Citing concerns over nut milk and cow milk’s different nutritional profiles, the groups claimed nut milk producers should label their products “imitation milk.”

During former president Donald Trump’s administration in 2018, the FDA toyed with the idea of disallowing plant-based milk manufacturers from using the term “milk” on their products. 

“An almond doesn’t lactate, I must confess,” ex-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said at a 2018 press conference as he explained the proposed change. 

The FDA gathered public comment on the change, and the Institute for Justice submitted a statement stating that the new rule would “confuse consumers, harm small businesses. . . and raise serious First Amendment concerns.”

Months before Gottlieb left office in April 2019, an individual took the issue to court, insisting that almond milk company Blue Diamond misled consumers by calling its product “milk.” In an unpublished opinion, the Ninth Circuit stated that labeling almond milk as “milk” is not deceptive since a reasonable consumer would not confuse the products. 

Whether nut milk is milk, consumers’ behavior suggests they see it the same. Every gallon of nut milk consumers buy replaces a gallon of cow’s milk at a one-to-one rate, and alternative milk sales increase every year.