Back in June, I wrote about the wave of consumer confusion resulting from the use of dairy-specific terminology such as “milk” and “yogurt” on the labels of dairy alternatives. I noted that public opinion research conducted by Ipsos, for example, found that 77% of buyers of dairy and plant-based beverages mistakenly believe that almond-based “milks” contain as much as or more protein than dairy beverages.

Now, as more and more misnamed products make their way into the market, some of those confused consumers are also becoming worried and annoyed, new research from the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) suggests.

“With the influx of new labels, they feel they are being duped by ‘big corporations’ into buying unhealthy products,” said Terry Fleck, executive director of CFI, referring to both dairy and meat alternatives that borrow from the “real things” when it comes to product naming.

According to CFI’s Illuminated digital cultural insights tool, which is able to analyze millions of online interactions in real time, a full 53 million U.S. consumers are actively engaged in conversations around the standards of identity issue. That’s almost one-third of the addressable market.

A few of the biggest fears noted among this segment, CFI said, are:

  • That the focus on health and wellness isn’t enough to protect themselves and that they will unwittingly consume products that are unhealthful.
  • That the food they eat is harming the planet and negatively impacting their health.
  • That despite efforts to live a life guided by ethics, they’re not making a difference in this world.

“They also want to be seen as putting others’ interests before their own interests and to receive acknowledgement of their sacrifices,” Fleck said. “While they innately want to do the ‘right thing,’ they are often unsure of the best course of action due to confusing or mixed messages around these alternative products.”

The messaging, in terms of product names, is getting rather ridiculous, if I do say so myself. Consider the Country Crock brand, which debuted its “plant-based butter” this summer. As Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, noted in his September CEO’s Corner newsletter, the idea of a plant-based Country Crock product is nothing new.

“The company has made imitation butter — margarine and vegetable oil spreads — since the 1940s,” he wrote. “Other than changed packaging and different oil sources, their take on plant-based is the same old, same old.”

As more dairy processors throw their hats into the dairy alternative ring, they need to consider consumers’ current state of confusion, worry and even anger. That means they need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

If your company is producing an almond-based beverage and calling it “almondmilk” on the label, it’s part of the problem. If your company is using oats in an ice cream alternative and calling them “oatmilk” on the label, it’s part of the problem. You get the idea.

After all, a plant by any other name … is still a plant. It’s not milk, cheese, yogurt or butter.


A new bill could change things

FDA has not yet taken any action to address the illegal use, per existing regulations, of dairy-specific terminology for dairy alternatives. But newly proposed legislation could eventually put an end to the practice — at least in Wisconsin — for those unwilling to stop voluntarily.

Proposed by Wisconsin state Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and co-authored by state Reps. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) and Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua), the bills propose a ban on the use of dairy-specific terms on the labels of products sold in the state, “unless the product is or is made from the milk of a cow, goat, sheep, or other hooved or camelid mammal,” according to a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA).

WCMA said it applauds Sen. Marklein “for proposing legislation to protect consumers from misleading labels on imitation ‘dairy’ products.”