FDA publishes guidelines for labeling plant-based milk

It seems these days you can make milk out of anything. But should companies be allowed to call the liquid made from oats, coconuts and soybeans “milk”? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released draft guidance on how food and beverage companies should label and identify plant-based dairy products that are marketed as dairy alternatives.

The draft guidance suggests that companies can still use the word milk to market these milk alternatives, but they should also include a statement explaining how the product compares nutritionally to cow’s milk. One possibility is that culture alternative milk labels may state that the product “contains less vitamin D and calcium than milk” or “contains less protein than milk”.

[Related: Magnetic microrobots could zap the bacteria out of your cold glass of milk.]

The FDA writes that consumers “understand that plant-based milk alternatives do not contain milk.” The draft cites a survey of consumer comments collected by the agency, in which about 75 percent of participants said they knew the products weren’t made with dairy. The focus group research also showed that labeling these products as ‘milk’ is ‘strongly ingrained in consumer vocabulary’.

“It’s especially important to get enough nutrients in milk and fortified soy beverages for children to grow and develop, and parents and caregivers should know that many plant-based alternatives don’t provide the same nutrients as milk,” said Susan T. Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a statement. “Food labels are an important way to support consumer behavior, so we encourage the use of voluntary nutritional information to better help customers make informed choices.”

The Good Food Institute, which advocates plant-based products, objected to the addition of cow’s milk labeling, “the guide incorrectly admonishes companies to make a direct comparison”, even though the key nutrients must already be listed. Meanwhile, CEO of animal-free meat company BetterMeat Paul Shapiro praised the move on Twitter.

In response, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) issued a joint statement saying that “the misguided rule will harm American dairy farmers and our rural communities.” Idaho and Wisconsin, both states with large dairy industries and a vested interest in selling cow’s milk, are pushing for better labeling of alternative dairy products. In 2017, Baldwin introduced the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which would require the FDA to enforce the federal definition of milk as “milk secretion…obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” The law has yet to be passed, although it will be reinstated in 2021.

According to the FDA, one in three households in the United States reported purchasing alternative dairy products in 2016, and plant-based dairy sales increased from $1.5 billion to $2.4 billion from 2016-2020.

According to the Department of Agriculture, consumption of cow’s milk has fallen by almost half over the past 50 years. As non-dairy milk has become more popular, the bovine milk industry has questioned the right of the plant-based dairy industry to call their projects milk.

The FDA monitors “identity standards,” legally binding definitions of products so consumers know what they’re getting when they buy something. Another example is how some cheeses, like Kraft Singles, are labeled as a “cheese product” depending on the pasteurization and production process.

In 2018, the FDA began a strategy to update these standards “in light of marketing trends and the latest nutritional science,” but milk already has a complicated history with identity standards. The FDA previously said that milk can be generally described as “the milk secretion, substantially free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

For two decades, the dairy industry has raised concerns about FDA oversight of the definition of milk given the rise of plant-based milk alternatives. Dairy producers have argued that plant-based milk companies are “quickly and loosely playing with standardized dairy terminology,” arguing that this usage is inaccurate because the plant-based alternatives don’t have the same taste or nutritional profile as milk.

[Related: The almond milk craze could be bad news for bees.]

In response to the new draft policy, said Jim Mulhern, head of the National Milk Producers Federation The Washington Post that the proposal is a “step towards labeling integrity” that recognizes the “complete lack of nutritional standards prevailing in plant-based beverages.” He criticized the proposed guidance on terminology, stressing that “dairy terms are intended for genuine dairy products and not plant-based scammers.”

Debate is likely to continue as some nutritional studies question the superiority of cow’s milk over plant-based alternatives. A review of 2020 The New England Journal of Medicine on how Milk and Human Health found that cow’s milk does not prevent bone fractures, a common reason for proposing milk as a healthy drink. The study found higher rates of hip fracture in countries that consumed the highest amounts of milk and calcium.

“In reality, some plant-based milks are probably superior to cow’s milk,” Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of the study, told CNN. He added that soy milk contains more healthy essential fatty acids than cow’s milk and that consuming soy phytoestrogens during adolescence may reduce the risk of breast cancer.

The FDA is currently accepting comments on the new draft guidance, and in a statement, FDA Commissioner Robert Carliff said, “The draft recommendations issued today should result in clear labeling for consumers to give them the information they need for a conscious eating and conscious shopping require decisions about the products they buy for themselves and their families.”

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