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February 22, 2023

Plant-based milk alternatives may soon carry labels that better detail their nutritional value

Products like soy milk have exploded in popularity over the last decade, but many consumers do not realize that they generally have fewer amounts of key nutrients. New FDA guidelines aim to change that

The labels of plant-based milk alternatives may soon include a voluntary statement conveying how their nutrient compositions compare with dairy milk. 

That's the primary recommendation included in proposed guidelinesdrafted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for the naming and labeling of PBMA products.

The draft guidance, released Wednesday, is a response to the increased market availability and consumption of plant-based milk alternatives over the last decade. The variety of PBMA products has greatly expanded from soy, rice and almond-based milk alternatives to include milk alternatives made from cashews, coconuts, flaxseed, hazelnuts, hemp seeds, macadamia nuts, oats, peas, peanuts, pecans, quinoa and walnuts. 

Research conducted in 2018 found that consumers generally understand that PBMA products do not contain milk, but they may not fully understand the nutritional differences between the products. 

Dairy products, including milk, contain multiple key nutrients that are under-consumed in today's society, including protein, calcium, potassium and vitamins A, B-12 and D. The nutritional composition of PBMA products varies widely, and many of them do not contain the same levels of key nutrients as milk. 

The draft recommendations aim to ensure the labels on PBMA products provide consumers with the information they need to make nutritional decisions. For example, the voluntary label recommended by the FDA could read, "Contains lower amounts of vitamin D and calcium than milk," according to an example provided by the agency. 

"Getting enough of the nutrients in milk and fortified soy beverages is especially important to help children grow and develop, and parents and caregivers should know that many plant-based alternatives do not have the same nutrients as milk," said Susan T. Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "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."

The draft guidance also details how companies should name plant-based milk alternatives. For instance, they should refrain from simply calling these products "plant-based milk" because it omits a descriptor of the particular plant, making the product indistinguishable from other PBMA products. 

Also, milk alternatives made from liquid-based extracts of plant materials do not need to cease being labeled as "milk," but their nutritional comparison with dairy should be made clear. 

The draft guidance does not apply to the labeling and naming of other plant-based dairy alternatives, like cheese and yogurt. The FDA is in the process of developing separate guidelines to address those products.

Public comments are being accepted for the new draft guidance for the plant-based milk alternatives. Manufacturers may begin implementing the guidelines before they become final. 

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