Oat, soy and almond drinks can keep the word milk in their names, the Food and Drug Administration proposed this week, in an effort to end a long-running battle between the powerful dairy industry and the plant-based upstarts that have been changing the way Americans consume cereal and flavor their coffee.
Most consumers, the agency noted in its draft proposal, are aware that liquid extracts from plants have no relationship to the udder of a cow.
But in a concession to the nation’s traditional milk producers, the F.D.A. also recommended that the packaging for plant-based drinks make clear the key nutritional differences between their products and cow’s milk. If a carton of rice milk contains less vitamin D or calcium than dairy milk does, for example, the label should provide that information to consumers, the agency said.
Although the new labeling recommendations are described as voluntary, industry experts predicted that most companies would comply. The agency plans to issue a final decision after another period of public comment.
“Today’s draft guidance was developed to help address the significant increase in plant-based milk alternative products that we have seen become available in the marketplace over the past decade,” Dr. Robert M. Califf, the F.D.A. commissioner, said in a statement. “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.”
The F.D.A.’s guidance had been eagerly anticipated by dairy producers and the expansive plant-based food sector, which have been at loggerheads over whether the word “milk” on products that are derived from nuts and grains confuses consumers. The debate, which was kicked off four decades ago by the introduction of soy-based beverages, has taken on greater urgency amid a seismic shift in dietary habits. Products like oat milk continue to enjoy robust growth, while milk consumption has been on a downward trajectory for decades. Americans on average drink nearly half as much milk as they did in 1970, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The growing embrace of beverages made from cashews, quinoa or flaxseed has been fueled in part by health concerns; some people buy them because they are lactose intolerant. And an increasing number of Americans cite either the desire for a vegan diet or dairy production’s contribution to climate change through the manure and methane produced by cows. Animal rights activists have sought to portray dairy farming as inherently cruel, a claim that has been rejected by the industry. For some consumers, the turn toward plant-based products is simply a matter of taste.
Executives in the plant-based food sector had been anticipating a less favorable ruling, given the skepticism expressed by one of Dr. Califf’s recent predecessors, Dr. Scott Gottlieb. In 2018, he famously declared that “an almond doesn’t lactate” — comments that suggested the agency might seek a ban on the word “milk” for nondairy beverages.
Madeline Cohen, a regulatory lawyer with the Good Food Institute, which promotes plant-derived food products, said the F.D.A.’s guidance was a welcome acknowledgment that consumers were savvy enough to know that coconut milk was not produced by lactating animals. “We know that consumers are going out and purposely buying these products,” she said. “No one is purchasing them by accident.”
But she expressed disappointment with the new labeling recommendations, saying they were unnecessary and potentially confusing, especially given that some nutritional components in milk, such as protein and magnesium, are not lacking in the typical adult’s diet. “If anything, some groups of Americans are consuming too much protein,” she said, adding that people who care about the nutritional content of a plant-based drink can read the product’s existing back-of-the-carton label.
Dairy producers had a similarly mixed reaction to the F.D.A.’s proposals. Alan Bjerga, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, expressed disappointment that the word “milk” could remain on cartons of plant-derived beverages. However, he said he thought the new nutritional labeling recommendations might persuade some companies to switch to words like “beverage” or “drink” rather than have to acknowledge that their products have less protein and calcium than plain, old-fashioned milk.
“The fact that the F.D.A. is finally doing something after 40 years is positive for us,” he said.