These days, a press release for a plant-based dairy alternative is almost as likely to hit my email inbox as one for a genuine dairy product. With the exception of frozen desserts, most of the new plant-based launches have one thing in common: They incorporate dairy terminology such as milk, yogurt or cheese in the product name.
For many dairy producers and dairy processors, the use of dairy-specific terminology in nondairy offerings — technically illegal, per federal regulations — is a serious issue. And it’s an issue that the industry has been asking FDA to address for some time now.
In 2018, FDA, under Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, finally listened to the dairy industry, issuing a request for information related to the use of the names of dairy foods in labeling plant-based products. That request attracted upwards of 14,000 comments from consumers.
Up in the air
But Gottlieb recently resigned, and Norman Sharpless is now acting FDA commissioner. A pro-dairy ruling seems unlikely to occur anytime soon.
“With the agency’s request for information fulfilled, the most interested commissioner of the past four decades gone and dairy farmers facing acute economic circumstances that dominate present concerns, one could easily fear that ‘fake milk’ will return to the back burner,” wrote Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), in an April 4 post on the organization’s website.
He added that NMPF is actively working to make sure the issue won’t be forgotten.
Meanwhile, NMPF recently took issue with a review, conducted by Linkage Research and Consulting and commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), of more than 7,000 public comments to FDA on the use of dairy terms for plant-based milks and other dairy alternatives. According to PBFA, the review “found that an overwhelming majority of the submissions are in favor of allowing plant-based foods to use dairy terms on labels.”
But that’s muddling the issue, NMPF suggested. In a May 5 press release, the organization noted that FDA solicited comments because, in the agency’s own words, it “has concerns that the labeling of some plant-based products, which can vary widely in their nutritional content, is leading consumers to believe that those products have the same key nutritional attributes as dairy products.”
In response, Mulhern pointed to public opinion research conducted by Ipsos, a firm that has performed scientifically valid research on the topic. Ipsos found that:
- More than three-quarters (77%) of buyers of dairy and plant-based beverages think almond-based drinks have as much or more protein than dairy beverages, when real milk actually has as much as eight times more protein.
- More than three-quarters (78%) of buyers believe plant-based drinks have at least as many vitamins and minerals as dairy drinks, which is also inaccurate.
- More than two-thirds (68%) of buyers think plant-based beverages have at least as many “key nutrients” such as calcium and potassium as dairy beverages, which they do not.
NMPF said it outlined a constructive path forward to resolve the issue, filing a citizen petition with FDA (https://tinyurl.com/y59gxzv2) that outlines a labeling solution that reinforces and clarifies current FDA labeling regulations. Other dairy associations, of course, also have been working to help ensure a pro-dairy outcome.
Market more than a name
It’s not clear at this point if plant-based dairy alternatives will eventually lose the right to use dairy-specific terms in their names. But considering Ipsos’ findings, dairy processors could be doing a lot more to educate confused consumers while they’re waiting for some sort of FDA action.
Education around the protein content of dairy beverages versus plant-based alternatives, in particular, seems to be sorely needed. Strong campaigns could start swinging the pendulum in dairy’s favor.
Research shows that dairy consumption could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and stroke and improve cholesterol, too. Therefore, dairy processors also might want to invest in consumer-directed messaging that discusses dairy’s unique health benefits versus plant-based alternatives.