The U.S. government has long been a vocal supporter of dairy. Hailing milk as “nature’s perfect food” for years, federal agencies promoted dairy for calcium and building strong bones. Under new FDA label recommendations, alternative dairy companies can call their products milk too. That’s good news for the plant-based industry, but the rest of the guidance falls short. By treating dairy as the gold standard for nutrition, the FDA endorses single superfoods over decades of research that supports a varied plant-rich diet.
FDA Labels Could Add to Consumer Confusion
Under the new proposed guidance, the FDA recommends plant-based milk companies add a warning to their labels if the nutritional content differs from cow’s milk. For example, if a plant-based milk were to contain less than 276 mg of calcium per serving, the producer should state “contains a lower amount of calcium than milk.” If the product were to contain more calcium, producers could note that instead. Other nutrients up for comparison are protein, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and Vitamins A, D, B2 and B12.
The motivation — clear up consumer confusion. In focus groups, the FDA found that a majority of U.S. consumers don’t have an accurate understanding of plant-based milk, believing the entire category to be “healthier” than cow’s milk.
Yet a closer look at the research reveals U.S. consumers are confused by both categories. A 2022 survey found that three-quarters of parents said information and messaging about milk — whether plant-based or dairy — is difficult to understand.
There’s a deeper issue here. In general, Americans are clueless about many aspects of nutrition, everything from protein requirements to the definition of ultra-processed. A review of 141 studies shows that vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike struggle with deficiencies — even if critical nutrients may differ between them.
Why More Isn’t Always Better for Your Health
Instead of informing consumers, the new labels seem to add to this dearth of public knowledge. Take, for example, the suggestion that more vitamins are better for your health.
First of all, dairy milk isn’t naturally high in Vitamins D or A — it’s a byproduct of fortification. Adding vitamins to foods in this way can be a life-saver, but that’s not always the case. Some countries restrict vitamin D fortification because too much can cause nausea, vomiting and kidney infections. Overdosing on vitamin A can also cause health problems, especially during pregnancy.
The larger issue is that by singling out cow’s milk and its plant-based equivalents, the FDA is tacitly encouraging consumers to hunt for superfoods “that have it all” rather than shopping for a variety of healthy foods.
When it comes to eating different plants, more can indeed be better. Governments and food companies have promoted “balanced diets” for years, encouraging consumers to eat foods from all food groups. But research shows that an emphasis on food variety is most beneficial when directed at eating fruits and vegetables. Adding a variety of vegetables can help nudge you to eat more of these foods, which should account for the lion’s share of what we eat.
The typical American diet is a far cry from science-driven recommendations — fruit and veg account for just 6 percent of daily caloric intake and nine in ten U.S. adults don’t get enough fruit and vegetables. In 2017, researchers linked poor eating habits with 400,000 deaths per year. Instead of pushing plant-based milk to become “nature’s perfect food,” federal agencies should help consumers get their nutrients from a range of healthy sources instead of a few select ones.
Food Labels Aren’t Actually Informative
Current food labeling requirements don’t require the same transparency from dairy producers as they do from their plant-based milk counterparts.
The Oatly milk carton sitting in my fridge states that it includes water, oats, rapeseed oil, calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate, potassium iodide, salt, D2, riboflavin and B12. The cow’s milk sitting in my parent’s fridge states that it includes “fresh, low-fat milk” that has been pasteurized and homogenized.
Both products are the results of our modern food system. Water, salt, B12 and other supplements, soy, wheat and other grains, hormones and antibiotics all go into the production of cow’s milk. Dairy emits far more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based alternative and adds to pollution in waterways. Consumers learn none of this from product labels.
Seaweed – Yay in Cow’s milk, Nay in Soy Milk?
In the near future, dairy producers might feed a red seaweed called Asparagopsis taxiformis to cows to reduce their methane emissions. If producers label this milk “low-methane” like a Swedish company has done for its similarly raised beef, consumers might not realize that the product is still more damaging to the climate than plant-based milk.
What’s more, in extreme cases, some labeling requirements can make products disappear from the marketplace.
When I switched from cow’s milk to soy milk in 2014, I made sure to choose an organic unsweetened product fortified with Lithothamnion, a red seaweed rich in calcium. But a few years later, the European Court of Justice forbade products labeled “organic” from including Lithothamnion because it’s not considered an organic ingredient.
The product I had relied on for years vanished along with all other calcium-fortified milk alternatives sold by organic food markets. Conventional producers still use Lithothamnion, but the accessibility of calcium-rich milk alternatives in Germany has nonetheless taken a hit. These milks are now only available online or in certain stores.
Regulatory agencies continue to apply different standards to animal products and plant-based ones. Too often, industry groups are able to persuade regulators to lose sight of their overarching goal: protect public health.
Poor health outcomes are not caused by consumers drinking cow’s milk instead of almond milk or vice versa. They are the result of an overall unhealthy diet pattern dominated by ultra-processed foods and meat, dairy and eggs. Minimally processed, unsweetened plant milks have the potential to diversify people’s diets in a healthy way. Giving them a hard time in the marketplace is not going to do the public any favor.
Caroline is a journalist and staff writer at Sentient Media focused on the intersection of animal advocacy, climate change, and plant-based innovations.