Kathie Canning
Kathie Canning is editor-in-chief of Dairy Foods. Contact her at 847-405-4009 or canningk@bnpmedia.com

My husband and I recently went grocery shopping together — a rare event — to purchase food and ingredients we needed for hosting a small cocktail party. We were in the cookie and cracker aisle when my husband spotted it: a brand of crackers touting “Plant-Based” on the front panel of its packaging.  

We both burst out laughing — after all, the main ingredient in almost all crackers long has been wheat-based flour. And the last time I checked, wheat has been cultivated for use in food for thousands of years.

This cracker brand, however, was leveraging the health halo those two words currently have. In my view, that’s deceptive marketing — after all, the “plant” portion (wheat) in these particular crackers had been stripped of its bran and germ during the flour-making process, robbing it of valuable fiber and nutrients.

A misinterpretation 

Although many experts agree that a plant-based diet (or a least a diet rich in plant foods) can be beneficial to one’s health, they certainly aren’t referring to highly processed alternatives to dairy products and meat. Instead, they are talking about plant foods in their whole form.

“If followed properly, a whole foods, plant-based diet limits the use of oils, added sugars and processed foods, leaving only whole foods to provide nutrition,” notes the Cleveland Clinic on its website.

Yet many dairy alternatives touting their plant-based status on the grocery shelves are, in fact, highly processed. For example, a study recently published on the National Library of Medicine website (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34291276/) found that 90.1% of plant-based beverages “and 95% of almond milks met the ‘NOVA criteria for ultra-processed foods,’ because they were created from food components and contained multiple substances not used in normal cooking.”

In addition to being highly processed, many plant-based alternatives to dairy products lack at least one of the nine essential amino acids. In comparison, milk and dairy products made from it not only boast fewer ingredients than many of their highly processed imitators, but also contain all of the essential amino acids.

Time to speak up

Many experts agree that dairy also has an essential role to play in a healthy diet.

For example, a review published on the National Library of Medicine website (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30247998/) concludes: “When consumed according to appropriate national guidelines, milk and its derivatives contribute essential micro- and macronutrients to the diet, especially in infancy and childhood where bone mass growth is in a critical phase. Furthermore, preliminary evidence suggests potentially protective effects of milk against overweight, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, while no clear data suggest a significant association between milk intake and cancer.”

Unfortunately, all of the plant-based hype and deception on the part of some marketers are getting in the way of positive dairy messaging. It’s up to the dairy industry to speak up and set the record straight.