In a statement on the Food and Drug Administration’s website, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb explained that the agency will be reviewing and modernizing its standards of identity for dairy products. “Food labels—including the name of food—inform consumers about what they’re buying, and standards of identity are used to ensure that foods have the characteristics expected by consumers,” wrote Gottlieb. “The information provided through food labeling must be truthful and not misleading.”
One area that needs greater clarity is the wide variety of plant-based foods that are being positioned in the marketplace as substitutes for standardized dairy products. Many of these plant-based foods use traditional dairy terms (e.g., milk, yogurt, cheese) in the name of the product. “For instance, we’ve seen a proliferation of products made from soy, almond, or rice calling themselves milk,” explained Gottlieb. “However, these alternative products are not the food that has been standardized under the name ‘milk’ and which has been known to the American public as ‘milk’ long before the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) was established.”
Given that these products can vary widely in their nutritional content when compared to cow’s milk, the FDA has decided to examine these differences in relation to potential public health consequences. Gottlieb cites case reports that show feeding rice-based beverages to young children has resulted in a disease called kwashiorkor, a form of severe protein malnutrition. He also notes a case report of a toddler being diagnosed with rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, after parents used a soy-based alternative to cow’s milk.
“Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as ‘milk,’ we intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of cow’s milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow’s milk.”
According to Gottlieb, the agency will have an active public process for reviewing its standard and how consumers understand the use of terms like milk on both animal-derived and plant-based products. The agency is also actively looking at how it has been enforcing the FD&C Act with respect to food names and its own standard of identity for milk and what it means when milk is qualified with words like almond or soy.
The FDA started the process by gathering stakeholder feedback at its Nutrition Innovation Strategy Public Meeting held late last month. The agency will be posting an additional request for information, likely in the late summer or early fall, with a specific set of questions pertaining to consumer awareness and understanding of the use of milk and other dairy terms on plant-based alternatives, with a focus on nutritional impact.
“While dairy has received a lot of attention, there are many other standards of identity that need to be revisited and potentially modernized,” wrote Gottlieb. “After all, there are nearly 300 of these standards of identity on our books, some of which were created in my grandparents’ generation.”