The FDA may force plant-based milk alternatives to drop the “milk” from their labels

Say goodbye to oat milk and say hello to oat beverage

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The dairy industry is pushing back against the rise of plant-based milk alternatives, calling on the US Food and Drug Administration to reserve the term “milk” only for drinks that come from the mammary glands of animals. After several years of industry lobbying, the FDA “appears poised to grant the industry its wish,” according to Mother Jones.

The past few years has seen a meteoric rise in plant-based milk alternatives — including drinks made from soy, coconut, almond and oats — which have gone from being niche substitutes for people with health concerns, to a choice available at many coffee shops and found in homes across America.

It’s no surprise that vegan milk alternatives took off. First, there are countless health benefits attributed to them, including a low level of fat and an absence of cholesterol. They also have immense benefits for the environment, with less land and water needed for production and exponentially lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to dairy milk.

The National Federation of Milk Producers argued in 2019, in a letter to the FDA, that referring “almond milk” instead of “almond beverage” was misleading consumers, and in turn “causing harm to our nation’s children and, potentially, other consumers.” For example, the federation alleges that dairy milk has eight grams of protein in a glass, while almond milk only has one gram of protein. The federation claims that disparities such as this could contribute to a “nutritional crisis.”

In April, FDA commissioner Robert Califf spoke before the U.S. Senate, saying he agreed with the dairy industry’s assessment of the issue. In regards to the possible change in FDA policy in allowing plant based milk alternatives to be referred to as “milk,” Califf said, “We’re moving along quickly and it’s a priority to get this done, so I can assure you it will get done.”

The Senate has already put its hat in the ring on this issue, with senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Mike Crapo of Idaho co-sponsoring the “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act” in 2021, which would force the FDA to make plant-based milk alternatives drop their “milk” labels.

Some people see this push as a deflection from the dairy industry. Dairy milk consumption has been slowly falling for decades — long before almond and oat milk hit the scene. As of January 2022, dairy milk consumption is down 42% from where it was 50 years ago. This has come as a result of general changes in American diets, as well as more recent disputes of the actual health benefits of dairy. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the jury is still out on the claim that calcium actually prevents osteoporosis, or the weakening of bones.

Meanwhile, there seems to be no slowing down for the rise of plant-based milk alternatives, particularly oat milk which has had a meteoric rise over the past few years. However, as the dairy industry continues to fight its decades-long decline, it seems that they will stop at nothing to reclaim dominance.