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You can call almond milk 'milk,' but there's a catch, the FDA says

Alex Bitter   

You can call almond milk 'milk,' but there's a catch, the FDA says
  • Almond milk and other plant-based drinks can be labeled "milk," the Food and Drug Administration said.
  • But the products' labels should specify how their nutritional profile is different from cow's milk.

Oat milk, soy milk, macadamia-nut milk. Food companies can call it all "milk" on their labels under proposed guidance that the US Food and Drug Administration released on Wednesday.

But if they do, they should explain the nutritional differences between their plant-based milk and cow's milk, the FDA said.

The number of brands and kinds of plant-based milks have proliferated over the last several years. Many of these products call themselves "milk" on their carton or bottle. That choice has drawn complaints from the US dairy industry, which argues that the term should only apply to animal milks.

The FDA's draft guidance acknowledges that consumers understand that plant-based options aren't the same as animal milk, the Agency said in a press release. The FDA wrote the guidance after reviewing public comments that it started gathering in 2018.

It also recommends that plant-based milk makers include a statement on their label clarifying the differences between their product and cow's milk. "For example, the label could say, 'Contains lower amounts of Vitamin D and calcium than milk,'" the FDA said.

The proposed rules are not final, and companies do not have to follow them, though many food companies follow FDA guidelines closely. The FDA will accept comments on the rules until April 23.

"We applaud FDA's recognition that consumers understand the difference between plant-based milk and cow's milk and that shoppers choose to purchase plant-based milk specifically because it is not cow's milk," Madeline Cohen, senior regulatory attorney at the Good Food Institute, which advocates for plant-based brands, said in a statement.

But the Institute pushed back on the FDA's suggestion that companies should compare the nutritional value of their products with cow's milk. "The guidance is premised on the idea that consumers are somehow confused by plant-based milks' nutrition, despite the fact that FDA already requires key nutrients to be included on the Nutrition Facts panel," Cohen said.

The National Milk Producers Federation, which represents the US animal milk industry, said the proposed guidance would allow plant-based companies "to continue inappropriately using dairy terminology."

On Twitter, former FDA Comissioner Scott Gottlieb said that the proposed guidance "strikes careful balance" between plant-based and animal milks.

"Even though almonds don't lactate, almond milk can still be called milk," he wrote.

Milk was the largest plant-based food category in 2021, with sales totaling $2.6 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association. Meat came in second at $1.4 billion. Brands like Oatly, Chobani, Planet Oat, and Silk have introduced new products and grown sales in recent years.

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