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FDA proposal: Plant-based beverages can still be labeled "milk"

FDA proposes rules for plant-based milks
FDA proposes new rules for plant-based milks 04:16

Soy, oat, almond and other drinks that bill themselves as "milk" can keep using the name, according to draft federal rules released Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration. 

FDA officials issued guidance that said plant-based beverages don't pretend to be from dairy animals — and that U.S. consumers aren't confused by the difference.

Dairy producers for years have called for the FDA to crack down on plant-based drinks and other products they argue masquerade as animal-based foods and cloud the real meaning of "milk."

Under the draft rules, the FDA recommends beverage makers label their products clearly by the plant source of the food, such as "soy milk" or "cashew milk."

The rules also call for voluntary extra nutrition labels that note when the drinks have lower levels of nutrients than dairy milk, such as calcium, magnesium or vitamin D. They would continue to allow labels that note when plant-based drinks have higher levels. Fortified soy milk is the only plant-based food included in the dairy category of U.S. dietary guidelines because of its nutrient levels.

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The new guidelines are aimed at providing consumers clear nutrition information, FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said in a statement. The draft rules do not apply to nondairy products other than beverages, such as yogurt.

Applause and objections over extra labeling

The National Milk Producers Federation, an industry trade group, applauded the call for extra nutrition information on drink labels, but said they rejected the FDA's conclusion that plant-based drinks can be called milk because it's a "common and usual name."

The Good Food Institute, a group that advocates for plant-based products, objected to the extra labeling. In a statement Wednesday, the group said the FDA and "the guidance misguidedly admonishes companies to make a direct comparison" with cow's milk, even though key nutrients are already required to be listed.

The number of plant-based drinks has exploded in recent years and now include cashew, coconut, hemp and quinoa-based beverages. Though the drinks are made from the liquid extracts of plant materials, they are frequently labeled and described as "milks."

In the U.S., almond milk is the most popular variety, but oat milk has been seeing the fastest growth. Still, nondairy sales are dwarfed by traditional milk. Sales of refrigerated cow's milk grew to $12.3 billion in the 52 weeks ending January 28, compared to $2.5 billion for nondairy milk, according to NielsenIQ.

In the past, lawmakers in dairy states have tried to get bills passed that would require the FDA to enforce a federal standard that defines "milk" as the product of "milking one or more healthy cows." Only two states, Maryland and North Carolina, have passed milk-labeling laws, but those laws haven't taken effect because of similar provisions requiring other states to follow suit.

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