Voluntary nutrient statements: FDA wants plant-based milk makers to come clean on 'nutritional differences'

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags plant-based Milk Dairy Nutrition vegan label claims Usa

Manufacturers should display 'prominent' on-pack information that highlights what nutrients are lacking in plant-based 'milks', to help consumers make informed dietary choices.

This recommendation forms part of a draft labeling guidance released by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week.

In the document, published in full on the federal agency’s website, the FDA says it is seeking to introduce ‘more informative and accessible’ labels that are ‘clear’ and ‘would help consumers understand certain nutritional differences between plant-based milk alternatives and milk’.

Dairy foods, including milk, are recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as part of a healthy eating pattern and contribute multiple key nutrients, including protein and vitamins A and B12, along with calcium, potassium and vitamin D, which are currently under-consumed in the US.

But there aren’t mandatory requirements over the nutrient profiles and composition of plant-based milks, which can vary widely depending on what plant ingredients are used and how these are processed into a beverage. For example, oat- or almond-based milks may contain calcium, but their overall nutritional content is not similar to milk, the FDA said.

Meanwhile, the consumption of milk alternatives in the US continues to increase, with retail sales hitting US$2.4bn in 2020, up from US$1.5bn in 2016. But the FDA says consumer research ‘indicates that, while the majority of consumers understand that milk and plant-based milk alternatives are different products, consumers may not understand the nutritional differences between them’.

“The term 'milk' may create a more favorable perception of plant-based milk alternatives’ nutritional content compared to the use of terms like 'drink' or 'beverage'...Further, product labels for half of the top 10 brands of plant-based milk alternatives include direct nutrient comparisons to milk, primarily for calcium..., yet some of these products may contain lower amounts of other important nutrients found in milk...” – From FDA's ‘Labeling of Plant-Based Milk Alternatives and Voluntary Nutrient Statements: Guidance for Industry’

To help shoppers make informed dietary choices, the federal agency is recommending that manufacturers use ‘voluntary nutrient statements’ for plant-based products that contain ‘milk’ in their name. The inclusion of the statement – which could be a single sentence, e.g. ‘Contains lower amounts of [nutrient] than milk’ – should be ‘prominent’ and placed ‘near and visually connected’ to the name of the product ‘if space allows’.

As an example, the FDA has included in the draft guidance images of oat-based milk products that carry a voluntary statement on the front-of-pack label next to or near the product name.

To find out if their plant-based milk product is nutritionally different to milk, the agency says manufacturers should refer to the USDA’s FNS fluid milk substitutes nutrient criteria, which lists minimum amounts of nutrients such as calcium, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin, potassium, and more.

From ‘greater transparency’ to ‘unfairly burdensome’ suggestions

The US dairy industry has welcomed the proposals, while there has been a much more lukewarm response from representatives of plant-based product manufacturers.

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) – a body that advocates that dairy terms should only be used to described traditional dairy products - said the draft guidance was ‘a step toward labeling integrity for consumers of dairy products - even as it falls short of ending the decades-old problem of misleading plant-based labeling using dairy terminology’.

“By acknowledging both the utter lack of nutritional standards prevalent in plant-based beverages and the confusion over nutritional value that’s prevailed in the marketplace because of the unlawful use of dairy terms, FDA’s proposed guidance today will provide greater transparency that’s sorely needed for consumers to make informed choices,” he commented.

“Still, 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 as ‘milk’ by designating a common and usual name.

“Past inaction is poor precedent to justify present and future inaction,” he added. “Because FDA’s proposed guidance is meaningless without action, enforcement will be necessary to ensure that this limited progress is reflected on grocery shelves.”

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) echoed NMPF’s calls for enforcement, urging the FDA ‘to provide verification and enforcement of voluntary claims and statements’. Joseph Scimeca, PhD, senior vice-president of regulatory and scientific affairs for the IDFA, commented: “It has been IDFA’s consistent position that it is the responsibility of the FDA to ensure product names and claims made by manufacturers of plant-based products adhere to long-standing FDA food labeling policy that label statements must be truthful and not misleading to consumers.

“It is incumbent on FDA to provide verification and enforcement of voluntary claims and statements to ensure consumers are receiving accurate nutritional information and can compare the nutritional values of plant-based alternatives to traditional cow’s milk products.” - Joseph Scimeca, IDFA

“IDFA will closely review and question how the FDA plans to enforce this draft guidance to ensure information provided by companies to consumers is truthful and not misleading and enables consumers to compare the nutritional value of plant-based alternatives to their traditional cow’s milk counterparts. As FDA’s consumer research demonstrates, consumers lack clarity as to the nutritional differences of plant-based alternatives versus traditional dairy counterparts and the agency must promulgate guidance that not only adheres to its own standards of truthful and not misleading but also advances the nutrition security of Americans.”

Meanwhile, the Plant Based Foods Association CEO, Rachel Dreskin, has suggested that the FDA is unfairly treating plant-based products differently, and has disagreed with the agency's conclusion that consumers lack the ability to recognize nutritional differences between dairy and plant-based milks.

“We commend the FDA’s acknowledgement that consumers are affirmatively choosing plant-based milks because of their many benefits for human and planetary health,” she said. “However, we see many suggestions in this proposal that are unfairly burdensome to companies, and frankly, treat plant-based products differently than any other foods in the market.

“The FDA’s draft guidance implies that the inherent nutritional content of plant-based milk products are somehow inferior to that of dairy milk products, despite the fact many of the nutrients boasted by animal-based milk are the result of fortification.

“This suggestion is not only discriminatory towards the plant-based sector…,but it also threatens to jeopardize growth of the innovative plant-based foods industry.” - Rachel Dreskin, Plant Based Foods Association

“We look forward to sharing our feedback with FDA in the coming weeks to ensure the best outcome for our members, for our industry, and for consumers looking for options that align with their needs and values,” she concluded.

Comments on the draft can be submitted by April 24, 2023 either online via the FDA’s regulatory information portal​, or in writing to the following address:

Dockets Management
Food and Drug Administration
5630 Fishers Lane, Rm 1061
Rockville, MD 20852

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