- About 44% of milk-consuming Americans purchased both dairy and plant-based milk in the last year, according to a survey of 2,010 adults conducted by Dairy Management Inc. Still more — 50% — only consume dairy.
- More than half of all consumers said they believe the plant-based beverages are labeled "milk" because their nutrition is the same as dairy. Consumers who bought plant-based milk were more likely to say it has the same nutritional content. More than two-thirds of those who only bought plant-based milk thought the two were the same, and six in 10 dual dairy and plant-based buyers felt that way. Less than a quarter of exclusive dairy milk buyers, however, had that opinion.
- More consumers who only buy dairy milk said their purchases were driven by taste (74%) and price (59%). More exclusive plant-based consumers value health benefits (65%), digestive benefits (50%) and longer shelf life (51%).
Labeling a beverage "milk" has devolved into an acrimonious discussion between the dairy industry, consumers and the Food and Drug Administration. Despite demonstrating that consumers respond positively to the health and nutrients of both plant- and dairy-based choices, and that the different beverages are not confusing, commentary on the study seems to imply consumer sentiment that perhaps the term "milk" should be exclusively reserved for dairy.
Making the argument that plant-based beverages should not be able to use the term, the dairy industry has appealed to Congress and the FDA, gone to court and pushed for federal legislation calling on FDA to enforce its legal definition of milk. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said last spring that the agency might soon restrict makers of plant-based beverages from using the word "milk" on product labeling and issue new guidance on the standards of identity for products that can use traditional dairy industry terminology.
As the debate rages on, the dairy industry has claimed that plant-based product labeling confuses customers when the products aren't nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk. However, a recent online survey from the International Food Information Council found about three-quarters of consumers know that plant-based milk doesn't contain cow's milk.
Perhaps instead of insisting that the word "milk" is removed from plant-based dairy beverage, the two sides could compromise and each label their respective packaging with an adjective that defines the beverage's source. After all, although both dairy products, cow milk differs from goat milk just like almond milk differs from pea milk.
Even if the dairy industry is unwilling to compromise, it’s not likely that simply changing the terminology from "milk" to something like "plant-based beverage" is going to make much difference. Consumers are likely going to continue using the word because it is simple English vernacular to describe an opaque liquid rich in protein. Changing the word is not likely to alter shopping habits. However, creating dissonance between spoken and written terminology may damage the branding that these plant-based alternatives have worked to cultivate.