Portland-based The Whole Almond, producer of the almond and cashew milks seen in the cooler at the Portland Food Co-op, uses the word “milk” on the labels of its plant-based beverages. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

Myranda McGowan, who owns the small-batch nut milk maker The Whole Almond in Portland, was excited to learn about the recent Food and Drug Administration draft rules for plant-based milks which, if adopted, would allow plant milk makers to continue to use the word “milk” despite legal challenges and complaints from the dairy industry. McGowan uses the word “milk” on her beverage labels.

The dairy industry has argued that terms such as coconut milk and soymilk mislead consumers.

“Nobody comes up to my stand at the market and confuses my products with cow’s milk,” said McGowan, who sells her almond and cashew milks to Maine retailers and directly to customers at the weekly Brunswick Winter Market.

The FDA announcement follows years of public debate about what can be called milk; more than 13,000 public comments have been submitted to the agency about the subject.

In response to the announcement, members of Congress, including Maine senators Susan Collins and Angus King, reintroduced stalled legislation championed by the dairy industry that would force the FDA to bar plant milks from calling themselves milks. The senators say consumers are being duped and dairy farmers harmed by plant milk makers.

“It is unfair for other industries to capitalize on milk’s nutritious brand,” Collins said in a statement released by Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office.


In addition to signaling its approval for the free use of the word milk on packaging and marketing materials, the FDA also indicated its plans to ask plant milk manufacturers to voluntarily add statements to their packaging comparing their products to cow’s milk. The FDA offered some examples. For instance, the packaging on a sample carton labeled Cashew Milk contains two statements: “50% more calcium than milk” and “Contains a lower amount of potassium than milk.”

I found these proposed “clarifying” statements confusing. To me, they read like the start of a riddle. I think an adjective would quickly clear up the meaning, though. Modifying milk with the word “cow’s” or “cow,” say,“50% more calcium than cow’s milk” makes the wording easy to understand.

Miriam Zefzaf who owns plant-based Pure Mylk in Portland, said the dairy industry’s legal challenges led her to spell her company name with a “y.” Photo courtesy of Pure Mylk

Miriam Zefzaf owns Pure Mylk in Portland, which sells a concentrated nut paste of almonds or cashews. The paste can be mixed with water to create a whole food nut milk or used to enhance sauces, dressings and desserts.

Because she uses ‘mylk’ instead of ‘milk,’ Zefzaf doesn’t believe an FDA decision would affect her company, she wrote in an email. “I admit that while considering the name of Pure Mylk I absolutely took into consideration the legal battles that were already happening between the dairy and nondairy milks.”

Curbside Comforts, a plant-based ice cream and burger bar in Gorham, regularly advertises shake specials made with oat milk. Owner Suzanne Dawson said a ruling was unlikely to change “anything we’re doing here.”

“From our perspective, these products should be called by their familiar names,” Dawson said. “There are many, many other milks than milks that come from mammals.”


Dawson added that the FDA recommendation for voluntary nutrition comparisons should apply to all milks. “If plant-based items have to do a comparison than dairy milks should have to compare themselves to plant-based milks,” she said. “It should be both ways.”

Zefzaf said that the proposal to seek voluntary label comparisons appears to be based on a desire by the dairy industry to show “the customer that plant milks are nutritionally inferior.”

Are they?

Plant milks and cow’s milk contain different nutrients. Even within the plant milk category, the nutrients vary, depending on which plant is used and whether or not a particular brand is fortified with vitamins. (Most cow’s milks are fortified with vitamins A and D.) Plant milks made from the same plant may also have differing nutritional profiles depending on how they were produced. For instance, I’ve seen supermarket almond milk brands contain per serving protein contents ranging from 1 to 5 grams.

Most cow’s milks have a per serving protein content of around 8 grams. In general, plant milk protein levels comparable to cow’s milk are found in legume-based milks such as soymilk and pea protein milk. Human milk has much less protein.

While the protein content of cow’s milk can vary, it doesn’t vary as dramatically as that of some plant milks. For this reason, the United States Department of Agriculture’s national school lunch program requires that plant milks served by schools contain amounts of calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin and vitamin B-12 that are comparable to cow’s milk. These are the same nutrients the FDA wants plant milk manufacturers to highlight with comparison statements.


Absent from the FDA’s comparison list are saturated fat and cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animal-based foods. Saturated fat is found in both animal- and plant-based foods, but plant milks (with the exception of coconut milk) have very low levels. Both cow’s milk and human milk contain significant amounts of both cholesterol and saturated fat. Also, cow’s milk contains the protein beta-lactoglobulin, while human milk and plant milks do not. Many people are unable to digest this protein in cow’s milk.

Dawson, at Curbside Comforts, supports more public education about the nutritional content of both plant milks and cow’s milk. “Transparency is important, but it has to be universal,” she said.

Both Zefzaf and McGowan plan to submit comments to the FDA. The FDA is accepting public comments until April 24.  It will review the comments and other submissions before issuing final rules.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at avery.kamila@gmail.com.

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