Plant-Based Milk Can Be Called ‘Milk,’ FDA Proposes Draft Labeling Guidance

Amy Gamm
By Amy Gamm
February 23, 2023US News
Plant-Based Milk Can Be Called ‘Milk,’ FDA Proposes Draft Labeling Guidance
A woman shops for oat milk at a supermarket in Santa Monica, Calif., on Sept. 13, 2022. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

Plant-based food companies can now label their alternative milk products, such as oat and almond milk, as “milk,” according to draft labeling recommendations that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released on Feb. 22.

But if companies do call their products “milk,” the guidance recommends they should clearly label the beverage’s plant source, such as “coconut milk” or “soy milk,” along with “voluntary nutrient statements” that explain the nutritional differences between their “milk” and “cow’s milk.”

“Today’s draft guidance was developed to help address the significant increase in plant-based milk alternative products that we have seen become available in the marketplace over the past decade,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf said in a Feb. 22 statement announcing the recommendations, adding that such recommendations to the plant-based food industry should better enable consumers to make “informed nutrition and purchasing decisions on the products they buy for themselves and their families.”

The proposed rules do not apply, however, to plant-based yogurts and cheese, though the FDA said that it is in the “process of developing a draft guidance to address the labeling and naming of other plant-based alternative products.”

The number of plant-based milk alternative (PBMA) beverages has ballooned in recent years. No longer is the alternative-milk industry limited to soy, rice, and almond milks, which were the first non-dairy options to become popular in the United States during the 1970’s and 80’s, according to AG Daily.

Now, alternatives are abundant, including macadamia nut, walnut, pea, peanut, pecan, flaxseed, hemp seed, and quinoa-based beverages—to name a few.

And more and more people are buying them. According to Statistica, the retail sales value for milk alternatives in the United States was $2.9 billion in 2020, while retail sales for cow’s milk was $140.6 billion. By 2025, that figure is expected to reach nearly $3.7 billion in sales.

According to the latest data, the Plant Based Food Association found that plant-based milk is “now soundly occupying 16% of all retail dollar sales” in the 50 conventional food distribution retailers nationwide and 40% in the approximate 2,000 natural retail stores.

Statistica, in a separate January 2023 report, found that almond milk is currently the most sold of all PBMAs in the United States, accounting for a sales value of $344 million. The next most popular alternative milks are oat, soy, and coconut milk.

In their Feb. 22 FDA statement, the agency acknowledged consumers understand that plant-based options aren’t the same as animal milk, based on the thousands of public comments that the agency has received since gathering them in 2018.

However, the FDA is concerned that “consumers may not be aware of the nutritional differences between milk and PBMA products.” Essential vitamins and minerals that are prevalent in dairy products, such as vitamin A, D, B-12, calcium, and potassium, are “currently under-consumed” in the general population.

To date, the only PBMAs included in the dietary guidelines with a nutrient composition similar to animal milk are fortified soy beverages, the agency noted.

The FDA went on to explain that some PBMAs, like oat or almond-based beverages, may be considered a “source of calcium,” but they do not contain an “overall nutritional content” similar to milk and fortified soy, so they are not included in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“Getting enough of the nutrients in milk and fortified soy beverages is especially important to help children grow and develop, and parents and caregivers should know that many plant-based alternatives do not have the same nutrients as milk,” director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Susan T. Mayne Ph.D. said.

Vegetable oils like canola oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, or palm oil are also commonly found in plant-based milks as additives to give a richer, creamier texture.

“Food labels are an important way to help support consumer behavior,” she said.

At this point, the proposed rules are not final, and companies do not have to follow them, the FDA emphasized.

Both Dairy and PBMA Industries Respond to the FDA’s Proposed Guidance

“We applaud FDA’s recognition that consumers understand the difference between plant-based milk and cow’s milk,” senior regulatory attorney at the Good Food Institute Madeline Cohen said of FDA’s announcement, according to Business Insider.

However, AP News reported that Cohen objected to the extra labeling that the agency recommended, saying “the guidance misguidedly admonishes companies to make a direct comparison with cow’s milk, even though key nutrients are already required to be listed.”

The National Milk Producer’s Federation (NMPF) was also lukewarm in its response but for different reasons, calling the FDA’s announcement “a step toward labeling integrity for consumers of dairy products, even if it falls short of ending the decades-old problem of misleading plant-based labeling using dairy terminology.”

“By acknowledging both the utter lack of nutritional standards prevalent in the plant-based beverages and the confusion over nutritional value that’s prevailed in the marketplace because of the unlawful use of dairy terms, the FDA’s proposed guidance will provide greater transparency that’s sorely needed for consumers to make informed choices,” the advocacy organization said.

NMPF also thanked consumers who have already awakened to the “bogus marketing of fake milk manufacturers” that has been “accepted uncritically for far too long,” claiming that “fewer fake dairy beverages” were drunk in 2022 than 2021.

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