First there was meat that came from animals like cows, chickens and pigs. Now there are alternative meats, like Beyond Meat, which is made from plant-based ingredients. Soon there will be other alternatives grown in labs from animal cells that can be made into burgers and nuggets. The wealth of choices raises a new question: should all of these products be labeled as meat?

The producers of alternative meats believe their products are meat — or at least serve the same purpose as meat — so they want to use that name. Many who raise animals for meat don't agree and want the definition of meat to be limited to animal products. This difference of opinion is becoming a louder argument as plant-based meats grow in popularity and lab-grown meats become more available. The U.S. Cattlemen's Association (USCA) has taken this argument to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to Business Insider.

Let the 'real vs. fake' debate begin

A bottle of almond milk surrounded by almonds on a wooden surface If this beverage is made from almonds, should it be called milk? (Photo: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

As technology and creativity make it increasingly possible to create substitutes for traditional foods, the words we use get complicated.

This became a legal issue a few years ago when Uniliver, the makers of Hellman's Mayonnaise, sued Hampton Creek for calling its Just Mayo product "mayo." The lawsuit argued that Just Mayo didn't meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) definition of mayonnaise — "an emulsion of vegetable oil, an acid like vinegar or lemon juice and an ingredient containing egg yolks" — and therefore it should not use the term "mayo" because it is false advertising. In the end, Hampton Creek (which has changed its company name to Just) was allowed to keep the name.

Last year, 32 members of Congress — most of them from large dairy states — asked the FDA to "order manufacturers of plant-based drinks to find some other name" for their milk products, arguing that the FDA's definition of milk specifically states it comes from cows. As of yet, the FDA has not required almond milk, coconut milk and other milk substitutes to stop using the term milk, but I imagine the dairy industry and their representatives in Congress won't just let it go.

And now, there's the question of whether plant-based meats or lab-grown meats can be called "meat."

In addition to a question of words, there's another thing all these issues have in common. The non-traditional, newly created foods are taking money out of the pockets of those who produce traditional mayonnaise, milk and meat.

It will be interesting to see where the legal definitions of food words end up as these foods become more popular with consumers. And I'm curious if consumers will adopt any new legal words, or if they'll insist on calling almond milk "almond milk" even if the FDA says it must be called something else.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Food fight begins over meat and dairy labels
U.S. Cattlemen's Association has filed a petition to USDA arguing that lab-grown and plant-based meat startups shouldn't be able to call their products meat.