Marketing

A frothy showdown between dairy and plant-based milk

The dairy industry says plant-based beverages don’t deserve to be called milk, but they hold up well in WaPo’s comparison.
article cover

Aaron Steckelberg/the Washington Post

· 3 min read

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.

The dairy industry’s ongoing effort to restrict beverages made from almonds, oats, and other plants from calling themselves “milk” suffered a setback in 2023, when the FDA ruled that they could continue labeling themselves as such.

Part of dairy brands’ objection has been strictly definitional: They argue that milk is produced by animals and, as former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb memorably put it in 2018, “an almond doesn’t lactate.”

Dairy farmers and brands also have argued that cow milk is nutritionally superior to non-dairy alternatives. “Everybody wants to be milk,” stated a 2023 commercial that mocked plant-based milk from the California Milk Processor Board, best known for its “Got Milk” campaign. “It remains the undefeated real healthy tasty beverage champion.”

Entangled in competing corporate interests and consumer preferences, the dispute over which of the beverages is superior may never be settled. But that didn’t stop the Washington Post from entering the fray (and whey) on March 21, when it published an interactive feature under the headline, “Dairy vs. plant milk: Which is better?”

One way or the udder: The feature imagines the contest as a basketball game between Team Dairy Milk and Team Plant Milk, and they compete in 12 categories, with teams scoring points in an adorable animation that follows the reporting in each category.

It’s a nuanced comparison, since there are several types of plant milk—and for dairy, whole, skim, and nonfat versions.

The article declares dairy milk the winner when it comes to vitamins, protein, froth formation, cost, and (unless it’s chocolate) lacking added sugars.

Plant milk scores baskets when it comes to higher fiber and lower fat content, averting heart disease, environmental impact, water usage, and animal welfare.

They tie on calcium since coconut and almond milk have more than dairy milk, while soy, rice, and oat have less. Also a tie: allergies and intolerance, since dairy milk, tree nuts, and soy are all common allergens.

And the winner is…

Spoilage alert: It’s a tie. In the metaphorical game, readers choose whether dairy milk or plant milk should take the final game-winning shot.

It’s an entertaining presentation without the rancor so common in stories about these two product categories. But that didn’t stop those who commented on the article from sticking to their guns.

As commenter Donald Egle wrote, “Plant ‘milk’ is about as exciting as turkey ‘bacon.’”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.