Plant-Based Dairy Labeling Ban? 🥛 Here's How to Reach Consumers Anyway

Theresa "Sam" Houghton
January 18, 2021

Good Monday, my fellow nerds! So, today’s dive into plant-based food and consumer education is a little on the political side. ⚖ I don’t often comment on such things (for obvious reasons; I’m looking at you, social media…), but this happens to have direct implications for how plant-based brands connect with and market to consumers.

Yes, I’m talking about EU Amendment 171. 🤦🏻‍♀️ Apparently, we haven’t seen the last of the fighting over labeling laws. It’s intensely silly, and I can’t believe this is still an issue in light of everything else going on in the world, but there it is.

Let’s take a look at how the amendment could affect marketing, educational content and consumer choice.

The EU’s (Legal) Plant-Based Morass

The end of 2020 saw significant hoopla erupting in the plant-based community when the EU introduced potential legislation banning the use of meat-related language on plant-based products. While veggie burgers escaped the fate of being rebranded as “discs,” plant-based dairy wasn’t so lucky. 🧀

Alternative dairy products already face some hurdles in EU countries. Terms like “milk,” “butter,” “cheese” and “yogurt” aren’t allowed on packaging or in advertising. But under Amendment 171, which Parliament voted in favor of, companies could be banned from using any language or imagery that might suggest a comparison between plant- and animal-based diary.

Photo by Jennifer Murray from Pexels

The current concern being played up across the plant-based space is that the amendment’s “broad” language might be taken to its most restrictive extreme. This would mean, potentially:

  • Not being able to use packaging resembling that of dairy products
  • Being restricted from depicting anything that looks like dairy products, such as plant milk being poured into a glass 🥛
  • Removing or avoiding statements regarding the difference in climate impact between product types

Oatly, ProVeg and Upfield—which have a significant stake in the plant-based movement—are petitioning to overthrow the amendment’s upcoming implementation. Their supporting argument? Labeling and advertising restrictions will make it more difficult for people to choose plant-based products due to a lack of signals regarding what those products are meant to replace. 🤷🏻‍♀️🤷🏻‍♂️

While there’s no guarantee either severe restrictions or an overturning of the amendment will happen, the very existence of the legislation and its counter-arguments raises questions about the real issues surrounding consumer perception, education and understanding.

So, Is it Dairy, or Not?

The supporting argument in favor of laws like Amendment 171 goes something like this: Labeling plant-based products with meat and/or dairy terminology is likely to confuse consumers.

However, labels aren’t the problem when it comes to consumer confusion regarding plant-based dairy.

Research from the International Food Information Council Foundation (back when the DAIRY PRIDE act was proposed in the U.S.) found that less than 10% of the 1,000 respondents thought plant-based milks contained cow’s milk. 🐮 The true confusion seems to lie in the nutritional profile of plant-based versus animal dairy.

So, while the majority of consumers understand that plant-based milk comes only from plants, they’re not so sure about whether these products are appropriate substitutes from a health standpoint.

(It is interesting to note that research market research from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association reveals more significant confusion regarding select plant-based meat products. However, as with any research, conflict of interest needs to be taken into account when interpreting the results.)

It’s Not Just the Dairy…

This area of confusion, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg. ⛰ The plethora of plant-based myth-busting articles out there (like this one from Forbes and this one from Healthline) reveals significant gaps in the plant-based movement’s quest to steer consumers toward healthier, more sustainable choices. ♻

Remember the American survey were so few people appeared to be confused about plant-based milk? There’s another part to the story. About 20% were “unsure” whether alternative dairy products contained animal-based dairy. The confusion is likely to get worse as products featuring biologically identical dairy proteins like those from Perfect Day make their way onto store shelves.🍨

Why are consumers failing to understand what plant-based means? Why do brands continue to fight an uphill battle when it comes to understanding and perception?

The Ultimate Goal: Make Eating More Plants the Easy Choice

The main issue isn’t what plant-based brands can or can’t call their products. It’s whether consumers have access to healthy food and information that will help them make smarter choices—whether they select plant-based alternatives or not.

Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels

To accomplish this, plant-based messaging needs a makeover. The movement needs to decide what its core tenets actually are and communicate reliable, accurate information across all verticals. Companies need to answer questions like:

  • How important are health and nutrition in new plant-based products? 🥗
  • How does the plant-based movement differ from the vegan movement?
  • Is sustainability an integral part of the plant-based ethic?

Until agreement can be reached on these points, plant-based brands will struggle with consumer confusion. Sure, people may buy more plant-based alternatives, but if the only driver is some nebulous idea of these products being “better,” is that really a step forward for the movement? 🤔

If, as a plant-based entrepreneur, you believe your own messaging and truly want to make an impact on health and sustainability, it’s time to commit to educating your audience. They deserve to understand the benefits of choosing plant-based 🌿—and to be given the truth on points where clear benefits haven’t yet been defined.

The growth of the plant-based movement offers brands the opportunity to help entire generations make smart, informed decisions about what they put in their bodies. It’s time to start giving them the education they need to make decisions based on reality, not uncertain perceptions.

When brands commit to that, it won’t matter what products are called.

Want more insights into the plant-based movement? Check out The Modern Health Nerd Podcast for interviews with top minds, creative entrepreneurs and emerging companies across food, health and agriculture.