Is Non-Dairy Milk Really Milk? According to the FDA, It Might Be

New draft guidelines say plant-based milk can officially be called milk.

Milk pouring into a clear glass sitting on a marble countertop

Kathyrn Gamble/JWalk Studio

The milk alternative you splash into your coffee, bowl of cereal, or favorite baking recipe can continue to be labeled as “milk,” according to recent draft guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration. No matter which non-dairy milk you reach for in the grocery aisle, whether almond, oat, soy, or coconut, it can be branded and marketed as milk as usual, though there are some specifications worth knowing about as a consumer.

What Is the Milk Labeling Argument About?

The debate has been whether plant-based milk companies should be able to call their products “milk” when labeled and packaged for commercial sale. 

Dairy producers have contended that plant-based offerings aren’t an authentic milk item, and labeling them as such causes confusion for consumers as they shop for products in the dairy aisle. 

According to the new  FDA guidance, however,  most consumers are able to tell the difference and recognize that plant-based milk is not derived from cows, when making selections at the store.

What Are the New Guidelines for Labeling?

While non-dairy beverage manufacturers can still call their products “milk” under the new draft rules, the agency recommends that products be clearly labeled with the plant source of the drink, as “soy milk” or “cashew milk.”

The new guidelines also encourage plant-based milk manufacturers to voluntarily label when their product has lower levels of nutrients than dairy milk. Lower levels of calcium, magnesium, or vitamin D would be clearly indicated on packaging for consumer consideration. Currently fortified soy milk is the only plant-based food product included in the dairy category of U.S. dietary guidelines because its nutrient levels are comparable to milk.

History of the Debate and Changing Consumer Habits

The dispute over whether to allow non-dairy beverages to use “milk” on labels has been a discussion for decades, when soy-based beverages entered the market. As more plant-based milk alternatives are introduced and dairy milk consumption continues to decline (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans drink nearly half as much milk as they did in 1970), the debate has only intensified.

Changing dietary habits of consumers, who are opting for beverages made from oats, cashews, quinoa, hemp, or flaxseed for health reasons, concern about the dairy industry’s contribution to climate change, and taste preference are also at play.

The FDA will issue a final decision on the proposed guidelines after another round of public comment. From there, keep an eye on the dairy aisle to see if your favorite milk gets a new look.

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