October 11, 2018

What’s in a Name? Survey Explores Consumers’ Comprehension of Milk and Non-Dairy Alternatives


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(Washington, D.C.) — As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers a proposal “to provide greater clarity on appropriate labeling of plant-based alternatives” to milk and dairy products, a new survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation shows a low level of consumer confusion over nomenclature and basic differences between the two.

According to the survey, about three-quarters of Americans understand that plant-based “milk” products do not actually contain cow’s milk (75 percent for soymilk and almond milk, 74 percent for coconut milk, 73 percent for rice milk and 72 percentfor cashew milk). Fewer than 10 percent believe that any of those products contains cow’s milk, while the remainder say they don’t know (20 percent for cashew milk and rice milk, 18 percent for coconut milk, and 16 percent for soymilk and almond milk).

Conversely, large majorities know that products labeled “whole milk” (90 percent), “chocolate milk” (85 percent), “nonfat milk” (78 percent) and “skim milk” (74 percent) contain cow’s milk, although that number falls to 48 percent for “lactose-free milk.”

Consumers expressed similar awareness about whether various products labeled as milks or butters contained cow’s milk or plant-based ingredients. Cow’s milk was identified as an ingredient in chocolate milk by 84 percent of respondents, in organic milk by 78 percent and in butter by 77 percent, with only 8 percent or less believing that any of them contains plant-based ingredients. For lactose-free milk, 62 percent believe it contains cow’s milk and 14 percent cite plant-based ingredients.

The survey also asked about consumers’ purchases in the past three months. Nearly half (45 percent) bought 2 percent milk, with 38 percent for whole milk, 30 percent for almond milk, 29 percent for chocolate milk, 19 percent for 1 percent milk, 16 percentfor both skim milk and soymilk, and less than 10 percent for lactose-free milk or other nut- or grain-based milks.

Of those who buy products marketed as milks, 62 percent purchase solely dairy, while 38 percent purchase non-dairy. Groups who are more likely than others to buy non-dairy products include people in the western United States (45 percent), consumers under 45 years old (43 percent), people of color (48 percent, compared to 32 percent of white people) and those with a college education (44 percent, compared to 30 percent of non-college graduates).


Survey results were derived from online interviews of 1,000 U.S. adults, conducted Aug. 4 – 6, 2018, by Lincoln Park Strategies. Results were weighted to ensure proportional representation of the population, with a margin of error of ±3.1 points at the 95 percent confidence level. The research was supported by Danone North America PBC.

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The mission of International Food Information Council Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is to effectively communicate science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good. The IFIC Foundation is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. Visit https://www.foodinsight.org.