What Defines 'Milk?' The FDA Wants Your Opinion

The organization is investigating whether plant-based products should be labeled differently than dairy.

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If milk isn't made from milk, is it milk at all? For the Food and Drug Administration, that conundrum is officially going up for debate. In the United States, plant-based products like almond milk, soy milk, and oat milk have enjoyed free reign to call themselves "milk" despite a not being what the FDA and public might deem as "dairy"—i.e. made from cow's milk. The concept spreads to other application like vegan yogurts and cheeses, which can all be made from nuts and other plants, but are not technically living up to those definitions. In Europe, a court ruled that plant-based products must go by "beverage," "drink," or other substitute terms. While the FDA had previously avoided taking a stand on the issue in the States, yesterday, FDA commissioner Scott Gottleib took a cue from Congress and issued a request for information, asking the public to weigh in on how it views non-dairy milks in the marketplace.

"Consumers should be able to know at a quick glance what type of product they're purchasing for themselves and their families. Implementing clear and transparent food labels and claims is an issue I've made a high priority," Gottleib said in a statement.

The argument from the dairy industry is that calling something "milk" connotes a one-to-one replacement factor, and could lead consumers to assume the same health and nutrition benefits associated with cow's milk would be present in, say, almond milk.

"These plant-based products are sometimes packaged very similarly to those used for milk or yogurt, for example, and sold in the dairy section of grocery stores," Gottleib's statement explains. "However, these plant-based products may not be satisfactory substitutes for all uses of dairy. And some may not be nutritionally equivalent."

According to food business website Nosh, the Plant-Based Foods Association has found that 78 percent of people who drink cow's milk think "milk" is the appropriate terminology for plant-based counterparts because it is describing the intended application and function, rather than the actual liquid in the container. If you've never thought about the concept of milk this way and your mind was just blown, we're with you.

"We've taken the first step in this process by issuing a request for information (RFI) in the Federal Register to solicit comments and feedback from the public to gain more insight into how consumers use plant-based alternatives and how they understand terms like 'milk' or 'cheese' when used to label products made, for example, from soy, peas or nuts," the FDA statement reads. "We're interested to know if consumers are aware of, and understand, the nutritional characteristics and differences among these products—and between these products and dairy—when they make dietary choices for themselves and their families."

Learn more about the FDA's request for information here.

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