A battle over whether plant-based drinks can be called “milk” may soon be over, curdling the hopes of dairy farmers who want the FDA to rule that milk comes exclusively from animals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidance this week saying manufacturers of almond, soy, oat and other plant-based milk alternatives can continue to use the word milk as part of product titles, though they can’t just say milk. They have to specify “soy milk” or “rice milk” or “oat milk,” for example.

Store shelves feature a number of milk alternatives, including “soy, rice, almond, cashew, coconut, flaxseed, hazelnut, hemp seed, macadamia nut, oat, pea, peanut, pecan, quinoa and walnut-based beverages,” the FDA guidance says. Most of them use the word “milk.”

The FDA said that consumers understand those products do not contain milk from animals and are comfortable with the word being used for plant-based beverages. The agency noted that in many cases, that the plant-based products are not dairy milk is precisely why some purchase it.

Nutritional differences

But the FDA wants consumers to understand that there are nutritional differences, as well. So the guidance calls on those producing milk alternatives to include nutrition information on the packaging that directly compares the product to cow milk to help consumers make smart nutrition choices.

Per NPR, “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.”

“Food labels are an important way to help support consumer behavior, so we encourage the use of the voluntary nutritional statements to better help customers make informed decisions,” Susan Mayne, director of the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a press release.

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According to CNN, “In the future, the label on alt-milks could state ‘contains lower amounts of vitamin D and calcium than milk’ or ‘contains less protein than milk.’”

Other nondairy products like cheese or yogurt that are made from plants are not subject to the guidance.

Swift reactions

Reaction on both sides was quick.

The National Milk Producers Federation hailed the call for transparency on nutrition, saying the FDA “guides manufacturers of plant-based beverages to disclose their nutrient inferiority and acknowledged the public health concern of nutritional confusion over such beverages.”

Jim Mulhern, federation president and CEO, lauded the labeling recommendation, but added that “the decision to permit such beverages to continue inappropriately using dairy terminology violates FDA’s own standards of identity, which clearly define dairy terms as animal-based products. We reject the agency’s circular logic that FDA’s past labeling enforcement inaction now justifies labeling such beverages ‘milk’ by designating a common and usual name. Past inaction is poor precedent to justify present and future inaction.”

He vowed to continue to work with Congress to pass the “Dairy Pride Act, which would direct FDA to enforce its own rules and clarify that dairy terms are for true dairy products, not plant-based imposters.”

The Good Food Institute, which promotes plant-based products, didn’t like the extra nutrition labeling recommendation that requires a “direct comparison with cow’s milk,” noting that key ingredients and nutrients are already listed on existing labels.

Not everyone agrees cows’ milk sets the standard for nutrition, either, CNN reported. While the FDA guidance “assumes that cow milk is the superior standard, might human milk not be a better standard?” the article quoted nutrition researcher Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“The requirement for the same protein content as in cow milk is dubious, as protein intake has not been recognized as a critical issue for children,” he added. “If anything, the amount in human milk would be a reasonable standard.”

There’s a lot at stake financially on both sides of the milk-naming issue.

Per NPR, “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 Jan. 28, compared to $2.5 billion for nondairy milk, according to NielsenIQ.”

The comment period on the draft guidelines ends April 23.