Plant-based milk alternatives can be labeled “milk,” according to the FDA draft guidance released last week. However, the guidance recommends that these products include a voluntary nutrient statement that shows how they compare with dairy milk. For example, the label could say, “Contains lower amounts of vitamin D and calcium than milk.”
After receiving more than 13,000 comments about the labeling of plant-based milk alternatives, the FDA concluded that consumers understand that these products do not contain dairy milk. In fact, that’s the reason consumers choose the products.
But, the FDA notes, many consumers may not be aware of the nutritional differences between milk and its plant-based alternatives. Many plant-based milks do not contain key nutrients associated with dairy foods. As of now, only fortified soy beverages are included in the Dietary Guidelines because their composition is similar to dairy milk.
“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,” said Susan T. Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “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.”
Stakeholders on both the dairy milk side and the plant-based milk alternative side criticized the draft guidance.
The dairy industry pointed out that current FDA guidelines define dairy products as coming from dairy animals, meaning the draft guidance contradicts the agency’s own regulations, and emphasized concerns about the nutritional differences between plant-based and dairy products.
Jim Mulhern, President and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation called the draft guidance “a step toward labeling integrity,” but noted that the practice of calling plant-based products milk “violates FDA’s own standards of identity.” Mulhern also wrote that “FDA’s last three Senate-confirmed commissioners – from both parties,” as well as “medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics,” acknowledge that using dairy terms for plant-based products “imply qualities they simply don’t have.”
He urged the FDA to go further in “[treating] plant-based beverage labeling more like the critical issue of nutrition and agency integrity that it is,” because “consumers shouldn’t have to make choices in a marketplace that’s less than fully transparent.”
U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) issued a statement calling the rule “misguided” and pledged to reintroduce their DAIRY PRIDE Act, which would require the FDA to issue guidance for enforcement of products whose labels don’t conform to the FDA’s own regulations. The legislation would also nullify the current draft guidance since it is not consistent with dairy standards of identity.
On the plant-based side, stakeholders applauded the decision to allow the products to be called “milk,” but argued against the recommendation for voluntary nutrient statements.
The Plant Based Foods Association wrote: “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. 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.”
Madeline Cohen, senior regulatory attorney at Good Food Institute, a nonprofit think tank that promotes plant-based and cultivated meat products, commented in an email to Food Industry Executive, “The guidance compares plant-based milks to one standardized milk product even though FDA has never required any particular nutrient content for cow’s milk. Milks such as unfortified skim milk and 2% reduced-fat chocolate milk have significant nutritional differences from whole cow’s milk, yet these products are not required to note them on front-of-pack labels.”
The FDA is accepting comments on the draft guidance through April 24.