75% of US adults aren’t confused by dairy alternative labels, new study finds

By Beth Newhart

- Last updated on GMT

The dairy industry wants the non-dairy market to use words like ‘alternatives’ or ‘substitutes’ on labels. Pic: ©GettyImages/Aamulya
The dairy industry wants the non-dairy market to use words like ‘alternatives’ or ‘substitutes’ on labels. Pic: ©GettyImages/Aamulya

Related tags Non-Dairy Dairy alternatives Almond milk Regulation

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation surveyed Americans on their comprehension of the labeling of dairy and dairy alternatives. About three-quarters were not confused on whether a product did or did not contain cow’s milk.

The findings give a new perspective on the dairy industry’s widespread call for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to settle on product labeling regulations.

Modernizing the standard of identity

As more dairy alternatives gain popularity, it’s normal for brands to label their products with names like ‘almond milk’ or ‘vegan cheese,’ using dairy terms even if the item does not contain any dairy.

The dairy industry wants the non-dairy market to use words like ‘alternatives’ or ‘substitutes’ in its labeling to avoid what it says are consumers getting confused on what they are buying and what the health benefits may be. Over the summer the FDA first committed to look at​ labeling by reviewing and modernizing the standard of identity for dairy products.

At the time, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “We must better understand if consumers are being misled as a result of the way the term milk is being applied and making less informed choices as a result.”

He cited public health issues as reason for the change, sharing that there have been reported cases of sick infants whose parents fed them too much rice milk rather than cow’s milk. But these instances are few, and according to IFIC’s new study, people are not as confused as the industry thinks.

Milking the numbers

After surveying 1,000 US adults, IFIC found that fewer than 1 in 10 believe that coconut, soy, almond, cashew and rice milks contain cow’s milk.

Some reported that they did not know, but 75% knew that soy and almond-based beverages do not contain cow’s milk, as well as 74% for coconut-based, 73% for rice-based and 72% for cashew-based.

Most also knew what products do contain cow’s milk, like whole milk (90%), chocolate milk (85%), nonfat milk (78%), skim milk (74%) and butter (77%).

The survey analyzed purchasing behavior as well, and noted that 62% of those who buy milk products only purchase dairy, and 38% purchase non-dairy. In the last three months, 45% of people bought 2% milk, 38% bought whole milk, 30% bought almond 'milk', 29% bought chocolate milk, 19% bought 1% milk, 16% bought both skim milk and soymilk and less than 10% bought lactose-free milk or other nut- or grain-based milk alternatives.

The survey revealed people living in the western US (45%), those under 45 years old (43%) people of color (48%) and those college educated (44%) are the most likely to purchase non-dairy milk substitutes.

Understanding consumer needs

The FDA is conducting research of its own on the topic, and in September it released a public request ​for information to help start drafting a new compliance policy that will outline the labeling enforcement approach.

It’s looking for updates on food technology, nutritional science, fortification practices and marketing trends to better serve consumers and understand their shopping habits and needs.

“We’ve taken the first step in this process by issuing a request for information (RFI) in the Federal Register to solicit comments and feedback from the public to gain more insight into how consumers use plant-based alternatives and how they understand terms like “milk” or “cheese” when used to label products made, for example, from soy, peas or nuts,”​ Gottlieb said.

“We’re interested to know if consumers are aware of, and understand, the nutritional characteristics and differences among these products -- and between these products and dairy -- when they make dietary choices for themselves and their families.”

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