FDA says plant-based milk labels should indicate nutritional differences

Industry trade groups denounce the suggestion, noting it would place an extra burden on brands.

Megan Poinski, Senior reporter

February 24, 2023

4 Min Read
plant-based dairy products on display at a retail store

In the five years since the Food and Drug Administration started working on guidance for the labeling of plant-based milk, many things have shifted in the space.

As plant-based milk sales have grown—they represented 16% of the entire milk category in 2021, according to data from SPINS, the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute—efforts from 2016 and 2017 to try to force the FDA to ban dairy terminology on any alternative seem nearly insurmountable. Even comments from former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who famously said in 2018 that plant-based alternatives likely violated the standards of identity for milk because "an almond doesn't lactate," seem a bit far-fetched.

The draft guidance issued on Wednesday takes into account both the size and consumer understanding of the plant-based milk market today. But it still recommends quite a lot of labeling changes for some plant-based milk products. Essentially, the recommendation is a plain language label disclaimer that indicates when a plant-based alternative contains less calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, riboflavin or vitamin B12 than dairy milk.

"The draft recommendations issued today should lead to providing consumers with clear labeling to give them the information they need to make informed nutrition and purchasing decisions on the products they buy for themselves and their families," FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a written statement.

The draft guidance highlighted three FDA findings:

  • Plant-based milk alternatives can be labeled as “milk,” but the FDA recommends that these beverages place nutritional disclosures on their packages so consumers can compare their nutritional quality with that of dairy milk, according to draft guidance on labeling published Wednesday.

  • Studies done by FDA showed consumers are not confused by plant-based products labeled “milk,” but many consumers “lack an accurate understanding” about nutrients in plant-based milk, the guidance states. Many consumers think milk from plants is healthier than traditional dairy, or has nutritional content that is similar, the document states. Plant-based milk nutritional levels vary depending on the ingredients used.

  • The debate on federal regulation of labeling plant-based milk has gone on for years, with legislation and litigation seeking clarity on whether items that don’t come from animals could be called “milk.” This rulemaking comes from a 2018 request for information from the FDA, which yielded more than 13,000 comments.

The guidance, however, is not set in stone. Interested parties have 60 days to comment before the FDA considers finalizing it. And even when the guidance is finalized, any labeling it recommends will not be a requirement. However, Good Food Institute senior regulatory attorney Madeline Cohen pointed out in an email, guidance reflects FDA's thinking on the laws and regulations it implements, and companies that do not follow the guidance may be vulnerable to class action lawsuits from consumers claiming their labeling is misleading.

No groups have wholeheartedly endorsed the draft guidance yet, but the International Dairy Foods Association said in a statement that its members have wanted nutritional information that is similar to what the FDA is proposing.

"IDFA will seek to ensure this draft guidance clears up any longstanding confusion about the nutritional quality of plant-based beverages. It is incumbent on the FDA to get this policy right," IDFA Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs Joseph Scimeca said in the statement.

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said in a statement this is "a step toward labeling integrity," but falls short of what the group wants.

"The decision to permit such beverages to continue inappropriately using dairy terminology violates FDA's own standards of identity, which clearly define dairy terms as animal-based products," Mulhern said in the statement. "We reject the agency's circular logic that FDA's past labeling enforcement inaction now justifies labeling such beverages 'milk' by designating a common and usual name. Past inaction is poor precedent to justify present and future inaction."

The Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association, both of which are industry groups for alternative proteins, issued statements saying the guidelines are unfair.

"We commend the FDA's acknowledgement that consumers are affirmatively choosing plant-based milks because of their many benefits for human and planetary health," PBFA CEO Rachel Dreskin said in a statement. "However, we see many suggestions in this proposal that are unfairly burdensome to companies, and frankly, treat plant-based products differently than any other foods in the market."

Dreskin wrote that many of the nutrients in dairy milk get there through fortification, and are not inherent to the product. Further, she continued, the standard of identity for dairy milk does not include nutritional information. Different types of milk—whole, skim, flavored and lactose-free, for example—also have different nutritional profiles. She asked whether the guidance would also apply to dairy milk products that don't meet a baseline guideline.

GFI's Cohen said this kind of guidance—which creates regulatory hurdles just for plant-based foods—goes against sustainability efforts.

"Cow's milk emits more than three times the amount of GHG as major plant-based milks and uses 10 times as much land," Cohen said in an emailed statement. "Favoring cow's milk over plant-based milk will undercut our national goals of reducing methane from agriculture and meeting global emissions targets."

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A version of this piece originally appeared on Food Dive, an Informa sister website. Visit the site for information on manufacturing, packaging, ingredients and more.

About the Author(s)

Megan Poinski

Senior reporter, Food Dive

Megan Poinski is an award-winning journalist who has worked with state and local government reporting in Ohio, Maryland and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Prior to joining Industry Dive, her last journalism job was as a homepage editor at The Washington Post. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from George Washington University and a master’s degree in information management from the University of Maryland’s iSchool.

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