These days, it seems like you can make milk out of anything. But should companies be able to call the liquid made from oats, coconuts and soy beans “milk”? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released draft guidance on how food and beverage companies should label and identify plant-based milk products marketed as milk alternatives. 

The draft guidance proposes that companies can continue to use the word milk to market these dairy alternatives, but they also should include a statement that explains how the product compares nutritionally with dairy milk. One possibility is that culture alt-milk labels state that the product “contains lower amounts of vitamin D and calcium than milk” or “contains less protein than milk.”

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The FDA writes that consumers “understand that plant-based milk alternatives do not contain milk.” The draft cites a survey of consumer comments gathered by the agency where roughly 75 percent of participants reported knowing that the products were not made with dairy. Focus group research also indicated that calling these products “milk” is “strongly rooted in consumers’ vocabulary.”

“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, in a statement. “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.”

The Good Food Institute, which advocates for plant-based products, objected to the extra labeling writing “the guidance misguidedly admonishes companies to make a direct comparison” with cow’s milk, even though key nutrients are already required to be listed. Meanwhile, chief executive of animal-free meat company BetterMeat Paul Shapiro praised the move on Twitter

In response, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) issued a joint statement saying that the “misguided rule will hurt America’s dairy farmers and our rural communities.” Idaho and Wisconsin, both states with large dairy industries with a vested interest in selling cow’s milk, have been pushing for better labeling of alternative milk products. In 2017, Baldwin introduced the DAIRY PRIDE Act which would require the FDA to enforce the federal definition of milk as the “lacteal secretion … obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” The bill has yet to pass, despite being reintroduced in 2021.

According to the FDA, 1 in 3 households in the United States reported purchasing alternative milk products in 2016, and sales of plant-based milk products rose from $1.5 billion to $2.4 billion from 2016 to 2020. 

Consumption of cow milk has decreased by nearly half in the past 50 years, according to the Department of Agriculture. As non dairy milks have surged in popularity, the cattle milk industry has been challenging the right of the plant based milk industry to call their projects milk. 

The FDA oversees “standards of identity”, legally binding definitions of products so that consumers know what they are getting when they purchase something. Another example is how some cheeses, like Kraft Singles, are labeled “cheese product” depending on pasteurization and production processes. 

In 2018, the FDA began a strategy to update these standards “in light of marketing trends and the latest nutritional science,” but milk has already had a complicated history with standards of identity. The FDA previously said that milk can generally be described as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” 

The dairy industry has raised concerns for two decades regarding the FDA’s policing the definition of milk amidst the rise of plant based dairy milk alternatives. Dairy producers have argued that plant-based milk companies are playing “fast and loose using standardized dairy terms,” arguing that this language use is inaccurate since the plant-based alternatives don’t have the same taste or nutritional profile as dairy milk. 

[Related: The almond milk craze could be bad news for bees.]

In response to the new draft guidelines, Jim Mulhern, head of the National Milk Producers Federation, told The Washington Post that the proposal is a “step toward labeling integrity” that acknowledges the “utter lack of nutritional standards prevalent in plant-based beverages.” He criticized the suggested guidance on terminology, emphasizing that “dairy terms are for true dairy products, not plant-based impostors.”

The debate is likely to continue as some nutritional studies are challenging dairy milk’s superiority over plant-based alternatives. A 2020 review by The New England Journal of Medicine on how milk and human health found that dairy milk did not prevent bone fractures, a common reason for suggesting milk as a healthy beverage. The study found higher rates of hip fractures in countries that consumed the highest amounts of milk and calcium.

“In reality, some plant milks are likely to be superior to cow milk,”  Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of the study told CNN. He added that soy milk has more healthy essential fatty acids than cow’s milk and that eating soy phytoestrogens in adolescence may reduce the risk of breast cancer.

The FDA is currently accepting comments on the new draft guidance and, in a statement, FDA Commissioner Robert Carliff said, “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.”