The FDA's Fixation on Nut Milk Labeling Is Not About Food Safety or Consumer Health

So why is the agency even involved?


Richard B. Levine/Newscom

Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb announced earlier this week that his agency is reviewing "more than 10,000 comments" it has received about whether plant-based food products may market themselves using language more commonly associated with animal products. More simply: Can almond milk call itself milk?

The FDA proposed in July that no product could use the word "milk" on a label unless the substance inside was a "lacteal secretion…obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows." Gottlieb noted at the time that "an almond does not lactate."

The FDA thinks it is required to weigh in on this debate due to "standards of identity" rules in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. These rules allow the federal government to monitor and fine companies both for mislabeling food products and skimping on the principal ingredients: If the label says "baked beans," the can should contain baked beans—and lots of them.

"Standard of identity" rules have evolved over time as food manufacturing has advanced. While the FDA's current attempt to regulate how plant-based products market themselves may look like just another update, it offers no obvious benefit to consumers, for whom the original rules were written.

"No one buys almond milk under the false illusion that it came from a cow," Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) noted last year. "They buy almond milk because it didn't come from a cow."

But now the agency is advancing another rationale for interfering. In his speech this week at a conference hosted by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, Gottlieb said

we have concerns that the labeling of some plant-based products—which we know can vary widely in their nutritional content—is leading consumers to believe that those products have the same key nutritional attributes as dairy products. Our goal is to help make sure that consumers are empowered with the information that they need to make informed dietary choices.

This is largely nonsense. No nutrient that humans require to live and thrive is found exclusively in dairy products. Vitamin D is added to milk through fortification (in July 2016, the FDA approved vitamin D fortification in—you guessed it!—nut milks). Calcium and vitamin B can be found in a range of plants, nuts, grains, and legumes, some combination of which is likely consumed in sufficient amounts by vegetarians and vegans. For those who miss the mark, there are vitamin supplements. This is to say nothing of the many places around the world where adult human beings are thriving despite consuming essentially no dairy products, due to lactose intolerance.

The idea that dairy is essential to a balanced diet is a marketing myth advanced by people who make their living off cows. It's right up there with the idea that drinking orange juice—nature's Coca-Cola—is the optimal way to get vitamin C. These claims are not true. They have been advanced by agricultural lobbies to protect their members' market share.

And that's OK! There is absolutely nothing wrong with the cheese and milk and yogurt sellers of the world trying to convince the rest of us that their products are excellent sources of protein and dietary fats and various micronutrients. I love a good aged gouda—the more crystals the better!—and I put half-and-half in my coffee. But I do most of my chugging with almond milk because too much dairy makes me fart and even whole milk has way too much sugar for my liking. I am not being misled, nor is anyone else buying nut milk or vegan cheese or eggless mayo or meatless burgers. Likewise, the FDA is not wading into this debate for the sake of consumers; it is doing it for the lobbies that represent animal products manufacturers, which have deep pockets and continue to wield immense influence over legislators.

Legislators, at least, have been honest about their motives. As Reason columnist Baylen Linnekin noted in 2017, Rep. Peter Welch (D–Vt.), pushed the FDA to act against almond milk and similar products in order "to protect Vermont's dairy farmers."

As Linnekin also noted, protecting ranchers and farmers is not the FDA's job. If Gottlieb wants to do it anyway, he and his agency shouldn't pretend they're doing it for consumers.