Dairy-free milk can legally be called “milk” according to the FDA, But, There Is One Little Catch

Consumers may use the term “milk” interchangeably with vegan milks, and the FDA will not object to this. However, there has been pushback to the draft labeling guidance, which uses milk from cows as an example of healthy eating.

Almond milk and soy milk have been household names for some time now. This month, the FDA officially acknowledged these “milk” phrases as permissible on labels for items that do not contain dairy in its draft advice on labeling dairy replacements.

The idea that businesses using these names include optional nutrition declarations that compare vegan milk to dairy milk as a standard has been met with strong criticism, despite its broad use and widespread recognition.

How would that manifest itself? Use the phrase “contains a lesser level of [insert nutrient] than milk,” as recommended by the FDA. Current Dietary Guidelines, which continue to urge the frequent intake of dairy products despite persistent resistance from groups noting the suggestion as detrimental for numerous reasons, led to this proposal from the FDA.

Madeline Cohen, Senior Regulatory Attorney at the nonprofit Good Food Institute (GFI), said in a statement that while the guidance recognizes that consumers are already familiar with plant-based milks, it misguidedly advises companies to make a direct comparison between their plant-based milks and cow’s milk.

Although the FDA already requires important minerals to be stated on the Nutrition Facts panel, “the recommendation is built on the concept that consumers are somehow misled by the nutrition of plant-based milks,” said Cohen.

Furthermore, as Cohen points out, there is no one dairy standard because there are so many varieties of milk available, including low-fat chocolate milk with 2% milk.

Although the FDA has never mandated a certain nutrient content for cow’s milk, Cohen claims that the advice does just that by comparing plant-based milks to a single standardized milk product. Furthermore, the recommendation encourages transparency regarding nutrients that are not under-consumed by Americans but are over-consumed by particular populations, such as protein.

Instead of using terms like “oat milk,” which are universally recognized and appreciated by customers, “this strategy incentivizes corporations to employ less descriptive terminology,” Cohen explained.

Vegan milk is not a source of consumer confusion.

The demand for non-dairy alternatives to milk has skyrocketed in recent years. The Food and Drug Administration reports that in 2016, one-third of American households bought plant-based milks, contributing to $1.5 billion in sales. In 2010, only one-fifth of American homes bought plant-based milks. Plant-based milk sales increased rapidly, reaching $2.4 billion by 2020.

This expansion coincided with a coordinated effort by lawmakers in dairy-producing states to introduce the “Dairy Pride Act,” which would prevent the use of misleading “dairy words” on products made from plants. In contrast, the FDA has issued draft guidance making it clear that consumers are not confused about these terminology.

According to the FDA, “milk” is deeply ingrained in consumers’ language when describing and discussing about plant-based milk replacements, as evidenced by the agency’s own focus groups. Results from the focus groups showed that “most participants were not confused about plant-based milk alternatives containing milk and refer to plant-based milk alternatives as’milk.'”

Because the FDA has finally admitted this, it’s evident that the Dairy Pride Act was driven less by a desire to shield consumers from confusion than by a desire to safeguard dairy industry profits at the expense of corporate free speech.

While it’s true that the nutritional value of the many different plant-based milks (made from bases including oats, soy, macadamia nuts, and more) varies, the FDA draft guidance’s suggested comparison to a dairy standard is out of touch with how modern customers choose dairy-free products.

Consumers are looking for alternatives to dairy milk due to their values, and while disclosure on labels is vital, many people have religious or ethical objections to drinking cow’s milk.

Although plant-based goods do not qualify as “dairy” in the conventional sense, Buckstaff argues that consumers will be more likely to purchase them if they are located in the dairy aisle. Consumers are more likely to try a new product if it uses the same language as what they already own. This is because they will view it as a suitable replacement for their current purchases.

“While nutritionally speaking, plant-based milk and animal-based milk differ in many respects, plant-based milk is driven by consumer values,” he said. “This includes everything from the consumer’s desired diet (vegan, flexitarian) to their social causes (sustainability, animal welfare).

Unfair to vegan businesses?

There are about three hundred businesses that focus on plant-based products that make up the Plant Based Food Association (PBFA). It issues a warning that the FDA’s proposed advice unfairly disadvantages plant-based dairy products by assuming that they are inferior to some dairy milk standard, despite the fact that many dairy products contain specific nutrients as a result of fortification.

In a statement, PBFA CEO Rachel Dreskin praised the FDA for recognizing the growing demand for plant-based milks due to the many health benefits they provide to humans and the earth.

Dreskin said that the proposal’s proposed regulations for plant-based goods were inconsistent with the regulations for other foods on the market.

For the benefit of its member companies, PBFA plans to submit comments to the FDA on its proposed guidance.

With the FDA’s help, “we look forward to sharing our views with FDA in the coming weeks to ensure the greatest outcome for our members, for our industry, and for consumers looking for solutions that correspond with their needs and values,” Dreskin added.

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