According to global statistics, 33 percent of New Zealand adults over the age of 20 consider themselves to be lactose intolerant – however, the percentage of those who completely avoid dairy as a result is much smaller. Regardless, figures from Neilsen show that dollar sales of alternative milks grew 7.6 percent in the last year. Almond and coconut milks have been the biggest movers, with sales increasing almost 60 percent over the last two years.

The rise of alternative milks have seen a parallel rise of hand-wringing within the dairy industry over whether or not consumers are getting a fair go, and whether or not they understand that what they’re buying doesn’t have the same nutritional value as dairy milk. Labelling issues are coming to the fore, with the European Union declaring in December 2013 that terms such as milk, butter, cheese, cream and yoghurt can only be used in advertising products which are derived from animal milk. The ruling was reinforced last year, when German plant-based food producer TofuTown was taken to court by a consumer watchdog over their ‘veggie cheese’. The court ruled that “the addition of descriptive or clarifying additions indicating the plant origin of the product concerned, such as those used by TofuTown, has no influence on that prohibition.”

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand defines milk as ‘the mammary secretion of mammals.’

“If the name 'milk' is used in connection with the sale of a food, the food must be milk as defined in the Food Standards Code," a spokesperson from the industry body said.

“There’s a clear difference between plant milk and dairy milk,” said Chris Lewis, Federated Farmers dairy chairman. “Milk has far greater nutritional value – anything else is just a sugary juice. You’d have to drink a lot to get the same nourishment.”

It would be naïve to think that the plant-based milk industry hasn’t had an impact on the dairy industry. However, regulating the definition of milk is a double-edged sword. Despite staunch opposition to non-dairy milk in the past, Lewis said he wouldn’t support legislation that would make it difficult for small suppliers to do business

“We want to work with the government to develop a practical outcome,” he said. “We want to make sure that there’s still a fair balance.”

The Food Standards Code requires foods to be labelled with a name or description that is sufficient to indicate its true nature, according to a spokesperson from MPI. For example, labelling something as ‘soy milk’ or ‘coconut milk’ is clearly not attempting to confuse or mislead the consumer that it is a product of a cow, but indicates it can be used instead of dairy products. Sanitarium currently labels all its dairy-free alternatives with a “clear and appropriate product description”, such as ‘soy milk’, ‘almond milk’ and ‘coconut milk’.

“Our products are labelled this way across packaging, in advertising and on product websites,” said a spokesperson for the company. “The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code clarifies that the name ‘soy milk’ is an acceptable name and that a product named or labelled as ‘soy milk’ need not comply with the compositional requirements of dairy milk.”

The important thing to note is that consumers are very rarely confused. A new survey from the International Food Information Council showed a low level on consumer confusion when presented with dairy and non-dairy milk. The survey found that fewer than 10 percent believed that plant-based milk had the same nutritional value as dairy milk, with over three-quarters of consumers understanding that soy, almond and coconut milk did not contain any cow milk.

“I think for the most part consumers know what they’re buying,” Lewis said. “Instead of more regulation, we should focus on educating consumers.”