We rely on your tax-deductible donations to support our mission. Donate online →
Most Policy Initiative logo
Browse Research TOPICS

Dairy and Non-dairy Milk Labeling

Written by Dr. Tomotaroh Granzier-Nakajima
Published on January 26, 2023
Research Highlights

U.S. milk production and consumption of dairy products has increased for several decades, while consumption of cow’s milk decreased.

Plant-based milk sales have increased by 33% over the past three years.

Increasing consumption of plant-based milk accounts for one-fifth of the decrease in cow’s milk consumption from 2013—2017.

U.S. milk production and dairy consumption are increasing, but milk consumption is decreasing.

Milk Production. From 2002 to 2021, milk production in the U.S. increased 10X faster than cow populations (NASS n.d.) due to:

  • improvements in selective breeding, milking equipment, and feed formulas
  • changes to barns that increase cow comfort (Njuki 2022).

From 2002 to 2021, the number of dairy farms decreased by 68% as operations grew in size (NASS 2003; NASS 2022; Njuki 2022).

  • Over this period, milk production in Missouri decreased 48% with a similar decrease in the number of dairy cows (NASS n.d.).

Missouri ranks 26th among U.S. states for milk production but 45th in milk production per cow.

  • One explanation for these trends in Missouri is the amount of land used to house and feed cattle (UM n.d.).

Milk & Dairy Consumption. Most of the milk produced in the U.S. is used to manufacture dairy products such as cheese, butter, frozen products like ice cream and sherbet, yogurt, whey protein, and nonfat dry milk (ERS 1 2022).

  • Cheese makes up the largest portion of manufactured dairy products.
  • Since 1975, American dairy product consumption has increased by 23% to 661 pounds per person annually (ERS 2 2022).
  • Changes in drinking and eating habits have led to a 46% decrease in milk consumption over the same time (Stewart 2022).

Plant based milk consumption is increasing.

Plant-based milk is derived from water extraction of plant materials and can imitate cow’s milk in appearance and consistency (Sethi 2016). 42% of households purchased plant-based milk in 2021 (GFI n.d.). The highest selling plant milks include almond (59%) and oat (15%) (GFI n.d.). Soy, coconut, and plant milk blends are also commonly sold.

  • In 2021, plant-based milk sales reached $2.6 billion, increasing by 33% over three years, and accounted for 16%of all retail milk sales (GFI n.d.).

When a household purchases a gallon of plant-based milk, it replaces the same amount of cow’s milk (Stewart 2020). From 2013 to 2017, the increase plant-based milk sales was equal to one-fifth of the decrease in cow’s milk sales (Figure 1). Therefore, plant-based milk is not likely to be the main driver of decreasing cow’s milk sales.

Motivations for choosing plant-based milk include the lack of lactose, a desire to consume fewer animal products, and beliefs about the treatment of cows and/or the environmental effects of milk production (McCarthy 2017).

  • People choose cow’s milk primarily because of past eating habits and flavor.
  • Consumption of beverages such as sugary drinks, coffee, and tea do not affect cow’s milk sales (Stewart 2022).

The nutritional value of plant-based milk varies. Almond, soy, and coconut milk have fewer calories, carbohydrates, fat, and cholesterol than cow’s milk (Vanga 2017).

  • Calcium is added to most brands of plant-based milk to mimic the calcium levels found in cow’s milk. There is limited evidence that addresses if calcium added in this way affects the human body in the same way calcium in cow's milk does.
  • Only soy milk contains comparable amounts of several vitamins (e.g., vitamin B6, vitamin B-12) to cow’s milk.
  • Some plant milks can have vitamins not found in significant quantities in cow’s milk such as vitamin E and folate.

Figure 1. Cow’s milk and plant-based milk product purchases. Figure from (Stewart 2020).

There is no federal guidance on plant-based milk labeling, but some states have passed labeling legislation.

It is not clear whether the use of the term ‘milk’ on labels for plant-based milk causes sales to benefit from its association with cow’s milk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration intends to develop guidance for the industry on the labeling of plant-based milk (FDA 2022).

North Carolina and Maryland have passed legislation restricting the ability of plant-based milk to use the term “milk” in their labeling. However, in order to not violate the U.S. Commerce Clause, these bills are written so they will not go into effect until 11 states from the southeast U.S. also pass similar laws.

There are no laws in MO governing the labeling of plant-based milk

  • The Missouri Meat Advertising Law requires plant-based meats to be clearly marked on their packaging as being ‘plant-based’, ‘veggie’, ‘lab grown’, or something similar.



The Good Food Institute (GFI). (n.d.). U.S. retail market data for the plant-based industry. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://gfi.org/marketresearch/#segment-insights  

McCarthy, K. S., Parker, M., Ameerally, A., Drake, S. L., & Drake, M. A. (2017). Drivers of choice for fluid milk versus plant-based alternatives: What are consumer perceptions of Fluid Milk? Journal of Dairy Science, 100(8), 6125–6138. https://doi.org/10.3168/jds.2016-12519  

Mercer, M. (2020, March 2). Stop milking it, dairy farmers tell plant-based competitors. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved January 11, 2023, from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2020/03/02/stop-milking-it-dairy-farmers-tell-plant-based-competitors  

Njuki, E. (2022, March 22). U.S. dairy productivity increased faster in large farms and across Southwestern states. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS). Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2022/march/u-s-dairy-productivity-increased-faster-in-large-farms-and-across-southwestern-states/ 

Sethi, S., Tyagi, S. K., & Anurag, R. K. (2016). Plant-based milk alternatives an emerging segment of Functional Beverages: A Review. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 53(9), 3408–3423. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-016-2328-3  

Stewart, H. (2020, December 7). Plant-based products replacing cow's milk, but the impact is small. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2020/december/plant-based-products-replacing-cow-s-milk-but-the-impact-is-small/  

Stewart, H., & Kuchler, F. (2022, June 21). Fluid milk consumption continues downward trend, proving difficult to reverse. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2022/june/fluid-milk-consumption-continues-downward-trend-proving-difficult-to-reverse/  

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS 1). (2022, August 30). Dairy Background. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/animal-products/dairy/background/  

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS 2). (2022, September 30). Dairy products: Per capita consumption, United States (Annual).  Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/dairy-data/ 

United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). (2003). (rep.). Milk Production. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/h989r321c/t722hb07c/70795890w/MilkProd-02-14-2003.pdf. 

United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). (2022). (rep.). Milk Production. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/usda-esmis/files/h989r321c/7d279w693/f7624g40c/mkpr0222.pdf 

United States Department of Agriculture National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS). (n.d.). Quick Stats. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/  

United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2022, September 6). Foods program guidance under development. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://www.fda.gov/food/guidance-documents-regulatory-information-topic-food-and-dietary-supplements/foods-program-guidance-under-development  

University of Missouri Extension (UM). (n.d.). Missouri Dairy Industry Snapshot. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from https://extension.missouri.edu/programs/dairy-extension/missouri-dairy-industry-snapshot  

Vanga, S. K., & Raghavan, V. (2017). How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? Journal of Food Science and Technology, 55(1), 10–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y  


Most Policy Initiative logo
238 E High St., 3rd Floor
Jefferson City, MO 65101
© 2024 MOST Policy Initiative | Website design and development by Pixel Jam Digital
Privacy Policy
chevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram