Study: Most Consumers Know the Difference Between Milk and Plant-Based Alternatives

Study: Most Consumers Know the Difference Between Milk and Plant-Based Alternatives

A survey reveals that most consumers know the difference between cow's milk and plant-based alternatives.

As the FDA looks into defining the term “milk” as it’s used in the context of non-dairy, plant-based alternatives, a new survey finds that consumers might not need the clarification after all. The survey conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), revealed that three-quarters of consumers are aware that plant-based “milk” products are not made from actual cow’s milk.

About 75 percent of consumers knew that soy and almond milk varieties contain no dairy whereas 74 percent of consumers knew this about coconut milk. In addition, 73 percent knew this about rice milk and 72 percent knew this about cashew milk. Less than 10 percent of all consumers believed that these products contain cow’s milk while the remainder claimed they did not know whether or not any of these products had dairy in them.

In addition, an even larger number of consumers knew that products labeled as “whole milk” (90 percent), “chocolate milk” (85 percent), “nonfat milk” (78 percent) and “skim milk” (74 percent) contained cow’s milk. However, only 48 percent of these consumers connected lactose-free milk with cow’s milk.

The survey also asked consumers about their recent purchases during the past three months. Almost half (45 percent) of consumers said that they purchased two percent milk, 38 percent said they bought whole milk, 30 percent purchased almond milk, 29 percent said chocolate milk, 19 percent said one percent milk and 16 percent of consumers purchased both skim and soy milk. According to the results of this survey, it seems that more consumers are purchasing dairy milk over plant-based alternatives.

Nevertheless, the effect that plant-based milk has had on the beverage industry is quite significant. With 38 percent of consumers purchasing non-dairy products regularly, the dairy industry has expressed concerns about this growing trend. Although many dairy representatives argue that plant-based beverages cause confusion among consumers in regards to their ingredients, this study shows otherwise. It’s also quite obvious that plant-based alternatives pose a threat to the conventional dairy industry.

This threat is so apparent that leaders in the dairy industry have publicly vocalized their concerns. In an interview with Dairy Reporter, the CEO of Select Milk Producers, Mike McCloskey, said that this “threat is very serious” and that “people have stolen the identity of milk over the years.” In fact, dairy industry representatives were the ones to introduce federal legislation against using the term “milk” for plant-based beverages.

“Consumers know that dairy products provide key nutrients necessary for healthy child development and for adult health. However, the labeling of plant-based alternatives as “milk” conveys a nutritional equivalency that is not accurate. The trend in mislabeling is expanding each year, and needs to be corrected,” said the authors in The Dairy Pride Act.

Although plant-based “milk” beverages contain a variety of vitamins and minerals, some consumers believe that plant-based milks are just as nutritious as cow’s milk. This is causing a concern among national health organizations such as Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society, who are advising mothers to use cow’s milk for their infants as plant-based milks are “inappropriate alternatives to cow milk in the first two years [of a baby’s life].”

The concern also opens up a marketing opportunity for dairy companies as they continue to fight against the plant-based beverage industry. This is why dairy organizations are now boasting the nutritional benefits of cow’s milk in order to attract more health-focused consumers.

This summer, the Dairy Farmers of America launched a full-scale marketing campaign that specifically targeted millennials, who are known to purchase nutrient-dense foods and beverages. The organization created an imaginary super drink called “Mülü” which was just cow’s milk in a Mülü branded bottle. However, the organization promoted this imaginary product as a health beverage which is high in protein, vitamins and minerals. Surprisingly, this marketing tactic worked quite well in spreading more awareness about the nutritional benefits of milk.

Nevertheless, plant-based alternatives are poised for more growth in the food and beverage industry. Although the FDA is currently waiting on consumer opinions on this milk labeling issue, it looks like plant-based alternatives will continue to find success in the consumer space.