Sour fight ends with FDA ruling that soy and nut milks can still be called ‘milk’ – Ars Technica

Vegetable milk containers.
Enlarge / Vegetable milk containers.

In the simpler times of 2018 – before the US Food and Drug Administration had to wrestle with emergency authorizations in a deadly pandemic, before it rushed to deal with an outrageous drug shortage. infant formula and before it widely botched oversight of vaping products — the regulator plunged into a tug of war over dairy labeling.

Back then, the dairy industry was dying out watching the cold aisles of grocery stores fill with plant-based impostors – soy “milk” and “almond milk”, rice “milk” and coconut. In 2010, one-fifth of US households purchased such non-moo juices. But in 2016, it was up to a third of households, with scam dairy products driving up annual sales by $1.5 billion. (And the trend continued; in 2020, sales reached $2.4 billion.)

As the issue simmered in 2018, the FDA stepped in to extract some truths and skim the fat. In a particularly clarifying statement, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted that the FDA, in fact, has a definition of milk’s “standard of identity” — and it appears to exclude liquids. plant extracts.

“If you look at our standard of identity, there’s a reference somewhere in the standard of identity to a lactating animal,” Gottlieb said. “And, you know, an almond does not produce lactation, I admit it.”

To be precise, the FDA appetizingly defined milk in 1973 as “the milky secretion, substantially free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows”. Colostrum, in case you were wondering, is a milky fluid produced immediately after birth before full milk production begins.

Gottlieb admitted at the time that he couldn’t quickly or unilaterally wipe the “milk” from almond and soy juice cartons across the country. Instead, the agency should look into the matter, hold focus groups and develop new guidelines. But, based on Gottlieb’s adherence to the cattle-based definition, the outcome seemed like a foregone conclusion. That is to say, just like the blood of a stone, the milk of a nut would be an inaccessible secretion – or so it seemed.

In an about-face, the FDA released the long-awaited draft guidelines on Wednesday with a spit-fire statement: Plant-based milk substitutes can continue to use the term “milk.” The agency has, however, recommended, but not required, that manufacturers of non-dairy milks indicate on their packaging whether their product has a different nutrient content than cow’s milk.

A milk by another name

In the guidelines, the FDA acknowledged that under its own definition of milk, plant-based milk cannot be called milk. “(T)they are made from plant materials rather than the milk secretion of cows,” the FDA clarified. But, the regulator argued, essentially, that plant-based milks aren’t sold just as “milk,” they’re sold as distinct herbal milks and there is no confusion about it.

“Although many plant-based alternatives to milk are labeled with names bearing the term ‘milk’ (e.g., ‘soy milk’), they do not claim to be or are represented as milk,” the FDA concluded. “Comments and information we reviewed indicate that consumers understand that plant-based milk alternatives are different products from milk. … (C)consumers, in general, do not confuse plant-based milk alternatives plants with milk.”

Additionally, years of FDA focus groups, surveys, and research have revealed that many consumers deliberately buy plant-based milks “because they’re not milk,” often for reasons such as as allergies, intolerance or a vegan diet.

As such, plant-based milk substitutes belong to a separate food category from milk, which so far does not have its own “standard of identity”. In such cases, FDA regulations state that plant-based milks would be considered “non-standardized foods,” which must have a common or common name that will be known to the American public.

“The names of certain plant-based dairy alternatives appear to be established by common usage, such as ‘soy milk’ and ‘almond milk,'” the FDA wrote. keep their names,” the agency concluded. .

Nutrition Notes

But not all went so well in the milky FDA review. The agency noted among its research findings that many consumers believed plant-based milks either had milk-equivalent nutrients or were healthier. This is not necessarily the case.

Today there is a wide range of vegetable milks. In addition to soy, almonds, rice and coconut, there are also cashews, flax seeds, hazelnuts, hemp seeds, macadamia nuts, oats, peas, peanuts, pecans, quinoa and walnuts. Different ingredients offer different nutrient profiles. Additionally, some products are fortified and/or flavored, while others are not.

Current federal dietary guidelines recommend that children and adults drink two to three cups a day of low-fat or fat-free dairy products (such as cow’s milk), which are an important source of calcium, protein, vitamin A , vitamin D, magnesium and phosphorus. , potassium, riboflavin, vitamin B-12, as well as zinc, choline and selenium. In particular, Americans tend to be lacking in calcium, vitamin D, and potassium.

The FDA found that many consumers seemed to assume that plant-based milks are nutritionally interchangeable with cow’s milk. So, to address this issue, the regulator has recommended plant-based milk makers to prominently label their products with nutritional differences from milk. For example, the front of a carton of nut milk might say “50% more calcium than milk” as well as “Contains less potassium than milk.”

In a press release, current FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said the draft guidelines should provide Americans with “clear labeling to give them the information they need to make informed nutrition decisions.” and purchasing on the products they buy for themselves and their families”.

Gottlieb also chimed in on Twitter, saying the new guidelines “find (a) a careful balancealong with the nutrient information. “Even though almonds don’t lactate, almond milk can still be called milk,” he said.

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