Plant-Based Milk Alternatives Can Be Called Milk, Per New FDA Guidance

New draft guidance released by the FDA says that non-dairy milk alternatives, such as almond milk or oat milk, can still be called milk.

Whether it’s oat-based, it’s made with almonds, or it comes from a cow, plant-based milk alternatives and dairy milks alike can all be called milk, according to a new statement from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Draft federal rules released by the FDA on February 22 say that manufacturers of soy, oat, almond, and other plant-based dairy milk alternatives that label their products “milk” can continue to use the name.

Cropped shot of person pouring plant-based milk over cereal
AsiaVision / Getty Images

“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,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, MD, in a statement.

It’s important to note that this draft isn’t a formal ruling—it’s meant as a guideline for manufacturers of these beverages, but it’s non-binding, meaning dairy and plant-based milk manufacturers won’t face penalties for not abiding by the guidelines. Instead, this ruling simply provides the FDA’s current view on the naming of plant-based milk alternatives.

This draft guidance was released because, after receiving more than 13,000 comments from consumers, the FDA concluded people understand “milk” as a term used for many different products. In the new draft guidance, the FDA also recommends that plant-based products with the word “milk” in their names include a voluntary nutrient statement indicating how the product compares with cow’s milk.

cashew milk in glasses with striped straws
Matt Clark

The two sides involved in the ruling—the dairy milk side and the plant-based milk side, essentially—predictably have conflicting opinions regarding the new draft guidance. The National Milk Producers Federation released a statement in response to the draft guidance, supporting nutritional information being front and center on non-dairy milk labels. Still, in the new statement the Federation said it takes issue with the reasoning that plant-based products can use the word “milk” because it’s a commonly used word.

On the other side, The Good Food Institute, a group in support of the consumption of plant-based products, objected to the guidance regarding additional labeling. “The guidance misguidedly admonishes companies to make a direct comparison” with cow's milk, it said in statement as reported by the Associated Press, even though key nutrients are already required to be listed.

The popularity of non-dairy milk has risen in recent years, with one-third of U.S. households purchasing them in 2016, according to the FDA. From 2016 to 2020, sales of plant-based milk products rose from $1.5 billion to $2.4 billion. The most popular type of plant-based milk product is almond milk, followed by oat milk, soy milk, and coconut milk. Other less common options include potato, pea, hemp, and cassava milk.

If you’re considering switching from dairy to plant-based milk but want to maximize the nutrition you’re getting from your new milk, check the nutrients and contents of your chosen product. When it comes to calcium, iron, vitamin D, and protein, dairy milk has more than any plant-based beverage, unless it’s been fortified. Also, plant-based milk products may have stabilizers, sugars, or other additives to improve their texture and flavor. Read the nutrition facts label and ingredients carefully to determine if a brand or type of plant-based milk is right for you.

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  1. “Nutrition Requirements for Fluid Milk and Fluid Milk Substitutions in the CACFP, Q&As.” Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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