Got (Plant-Based) Milk? New FDA Guidance for Plant-Based Milk

Natalie Jakubowski

Associate Editor

Loyola Chicago School of Law 2024

Plant-based milks have been on the rise congruently with the movement towards living a plant-based diet and lifestyle. The FDA calls these products Plant-Based Milk Alternatives (PBMA). There are many different PBMA’s on the market, because there are a wide array of sources that can be used to produce PBMA’s and methods for processing. Some of the most popular examples of PBMA’s include oat milk, almond milk, and soy milk, but there are many PBMA’s made from other nuts, seeds, and alternative sources. PBMA’s are currently in the news because the FDA has just released draft labeling guidance (guidance) and recommendations for nutrition fact labeling. This draft guidance applies to any PBMA that uses “milk” in its name. The FDA’s draft labeling guidance will likely help educate more consumers on PBMA’s and their nutrition facts, hopefully leading to generally more informed consumers and labeling transparency.

How are PBMA’s categorized?

PBMA’s and milk are comprised of different ingredients, although the milk and PBMA products are commonly used in similar ways. These PBMA’s are made by extracting liquid from the source product to make a consumable drink similar to milk. PBMA’s typically label themselves as “milk” although they are an alternative. Due to this labeling, many dairy companies have complained that these alternatives that use milk on their labels are misleading. Opponents of alternative milk have led movements to pass legislation that would define milk solely as cow’s milk, excluding plant-based alternatives. However, guidance from the FDA disputes this and permits PBMA’s to be labeled as milk. Courts have ruled that plant-based milk alternatives labeled as “milk” are not misleading to consumers. The FDA also has a list of requirements for a label to be “misbranding”. I agree with the FDA that it is clear the PBMA’s are not trying to “masquerade” as milk. For example, a quick glance at some of these PBMA’s reveals that their packaging often includes photos of the alternative source (such as a nut or an oat) or have the alternative source written boldly on the label.

PBMA’s vary in taste, and many people have a specific PBMA preference out of the variety of options. Further, PBMA’s vary in nutrient composition, and the only PBMA that is close enough in composition to real milk is soy milk. Although there is the notion that PBMA’s are healthier, some products do not provide the same amount of nutrients that milk does. For example, PBMA’s are typically deficient in protein, vitamin, calcium, and potassium as compared to milk. Consequently, PBMA’s can also be high in saturated fats and added sugars.

With this new guidance, the FDA hopes to provide clarification to consumers when they are reading the labels of PBMA’s. This new guidance will be helpful in choosing from the wide variety of options that are available and making an informed decision, as well as being educated on what to look out for on nutrition labels. Consumers can be more informed on how their milk alternative of choice compares to the nutritional benefits of traditional milk.

Critiques of the new guidance

While this draft guidance pushing for more nutrition transparency has many benefits, especially for consumers, some organizations and producers have critiques. The Good Food Institute believes that the guidance for nutrition labeling is arbitrary since the nutritional facts are already stated on the label. Interestingly, others point out that the new FDA guidance does not apply to alternatives that do not label themselves as “milk”. Thus, it is unclear whether producers will choose to label their PBMA’s as something different than “milk” instead of having to comply with the proposed guidelines.

Another concern of the draft guidance is regarding space constraints on labels. The FDA is proposing that PBMA’s that label themselves as “milk” must list additional nutritional facts so that consumers can see how the product compares to that of cow milk. However, producers are concerned with how much space such additional nutritional facts may take up which could increase packaging and labeling costs.

Expanding guidance for plant-based alternatives

Currently the draft guidance only applies to plant-based milk alternatives. However, there are many emerging plant-based dairy products now on the market that aren’t just milk, like dairy-free yogurt or vegan butter. The FDA states that they are beginning to draft guidance for these products as well.

As someone who is vegetarian and most of the time chooses plant-based alternatives to dairy products like milk, yogurt, and butter, I think that drafting this guidance is helpful for consumers. Further, I think that it will inform more consumers of what alternative products are out there and providing more information to becoming more health-conscious and environmentally conscious.