Survey shows plant-based food label confusion

Jamie Mara
Dairy Business Association and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative
Results from a survey using dairy cheeses and plant-based foods that mimic cheese proves that mislabeling leads people to believe that the nutritional content of plant-based products is equivalent to that of dairy.

MADISON, Wis. — In a marketplace increasingly crowded by plant-based imitation dairy products, the results of a new survey show that customers are confused about whether those products are indeed dairy foods and whether they carry the same nutritional value.

The research evaluated three plant-based foods that mimic dairy cheese to understand if the packaging and descriptions are confusing. The survey, conducted by Ravel, was commissioned by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, based in Wisconsin.

The findings, released today at the Dairy Strong conference in Madison, Wis., were included in comments that WMCA and Edge submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is collecting public input as the agency considers changes to its enforcement of non-dairy labeling rules.

“Consumers deserve complete clarity as they choose what to eat, and how to feed their families. Our research proves that mislabeling leads people to believe that the nutritional content of plant-based products is equivalent to that of dairy, which is simply not true and potentially harmful to public health,” said Rebekah Sweeney, director of communications, education and policy for the cheese makers group. “WCMA members encourage the Food and Drug Administration to enforce labeling standards to help consumers make well-informed choices at the grocery store.”

Among the national survey’s findings:

  • Nearly half of customers indicated that plant-based foods that mimic cheddar and mozzarella cheese were actually cheese.
  • About one-quarter of customers said they don’t know what ingredients are in the plant-based imitations. The same percentage mistakenly thought the products contained milk.
  • About one-third of customers think that plant-based foods that mimic cheese contain protein, and twenty-one percent think that it is of a higher quality than dairy even though the imitations have little to no protein. Real dairy cheese has 7 grams of protein.
  •  About one-quarter of customers purchase plant-based foods that mimic cheese because they believe them to be low in calories and fat and without additives. In reality, these plant-based foods contain an equal or comparable amount of fat and calories and substantially more additives than dairy cheeses.

“The Ravel survey findings are similar to other consumer surveys pertaining to food — consumers don’t know what’s in the food they eat regardless of what they hear,” said Patrick Geoghegan, senior vice president, marketing and industry relations at Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “The next phase is to understand why consumers associate dairy and non-dairy products with differing attributes.”

Brody Stapel, president of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative and a dairy farmer in eastern Wisconsin, said the survey demonstrates that words do matter.

“These misperceptions about non-dairy foods are real. The imitations confuse customers who rely on names and product packaging to make judgments about a food. Those customers deserve transparency,” said Stapel, whose group represents its member farmers throughout the Midwest on federal policy. “Our dairy farmers and processors work hard to produce incredible food. Milk and dairy products — real dairy foods — offer almost unbeatable nutritional value, and customers deserve to know this.

“The FDA should move to aggressively enforce its existing regulations, which clearly define milk, cheese and other dairy foods as originating from a cow, not a plant.”

A survey commissioned by WCMA, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative shows that plant-based food labels are confusing to customers.