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FDA Issues Controversial Draft Labeling for Plant-Based Milks

latte plant-based milk

A whitish liquid by some name being poured into into a cup with coffee.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week issued long-anticipated draft guidance regarding the labeling of plant-based milk products, such as oat milk, almond milk, soy milk or other dairy alternatives.

While the draft upholds the FDA’s definition of the word “milk” — first approved in 1973 as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows” — it would not prevent makers of plant-based beverages from using the word in association with their products. 

However, the draft also calls for voluntary nutritional statements on packages of plant-based milks in cases in which the beverage does meet the same nutritional markers as cow’s milk. 

The FDA is currently accepting comments on the draft guidance. Comments can be submitted here

coffee and milk

Parties on both sides of the milk aisle have expressed concern with the FDA’s draft. 

In a statement last week, the San Francisco-based Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) described the draft as both discriminatory and burdensome for plant-based beverage providers. 

“The FDA’s draft guidance implies that the inherent nutritional content of plant-based milk products are somehow inferior to that of dairy milk products, despite the fact many of the nutrients boasted by animal-based milk are the result of fortification,” the group stated. “This suggestion is not only discriminatory towards the plant-based sector — no other products, including different brands of animal-based milk, are targeted by this guidance — but it also threatens to jeopardize growth of the innovative plant-based foods industry.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Senators from two of the union’s largest dairy-producing states — Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) — called the guidance “misguided” and “ill-advised.”

The senators also announced a plan to reintroduce what they call the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which is designed to give the FDA an enforcement mechanism for the “mislabeling” of plant-based products as milk, yogurt or cheese.

“America’s dairy farmers work hard to produce second-to-none products with the highest nutritional value, and plant-based products should not be getting away with using their good name,” the senators wrote. “This misguided rule will hurt America’s dairy farmers and our rural communities. Since the FDA is failing to enforce its own definitions for dairy terminology and stop imitation products from deceiving consumers, we will be reintroducing our DAIRY PRIDE Act to stand up for America’s dairy farmers and the quality products they make.”

coffee with milk

Blue Bottle Coffee and Stumptown Coffee Roasters are among a handful U.S. coffee companies in recent months that have made plant-based milk, namely oat milk, their default milk option for in-store drinks. 

According to the FBFA, the total plant-based milk category grew 33% over three years ending in 2021, with total U.S. sales that year estimated at $2.6 billion.  

The FDA has been seeking public guidance on the milk-labeling issue since 2018. In its latest draft, the group said it had determined that consumers generally understand that plant-based milks do not contain dairy. Yet the group also noted that consumers may not be aware of the nutritional differences between cow’s milk and specific milk alternatives. 

In its draft, the agency was particularly concerned with how nutritional differences between milk types might affect the development of children. 

“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,” FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Director Susan T. Mayne said. “Food labels are an important way to help support consumer behavior, so we encourage the use of the voluntary nutritional statements to better help customers make informed decisions.” 

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