WCMA Perspectives | Contributing Columnist

Study: Dairy Imitators Confuse Consumers

John Umhoefer executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association

February 1, 2019


Potato starch, coconut oil and water smushed into a white block isn’t mozzarella cheese. And that’s why Follow Your Heart brand Mozzarella Style Slices and other non-dairy “cheeses” are finally under scrutiny.

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) calls this food category “plant-based products manufactured to resemble dairy foods,” and this fall the agency asked for public comments on these imitators.

FDA posed dozens of questions with this goal: “We are interested in learning whether consumers are aware of and understand the basic nature, essential characteristics, characterizing ingredients, and nutritional differences between plant-based products and dairy foods.”

Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin partnered this winter on a consumer research study to discover the objective consumer data FDA is seeking.

National consumer research experts at Ravel surveyed 450 consumers identified as purchasers of dairy products, purchasers of plant-based foods that mimic dairy, or buyers of both. They asked these consumers about ingredients in real cheese vs. these plant-based products, about nutrients, protein content, overall nutrition, naturalness and buying habits.

What did the study find? Consumers are confused by these plant-based foods that borrow standardized words like cheddar and mozzarella, and display terms like cheese alternative. Consumers are confused about what they’re buying, the nutrition they’re expecting and ingredients they never anticipated.

Consumers are confused by these plant-based foods that borrow standardized words like cheddar and mozzarella, and display terms like cheese alternative.

Here’s some findings Ravel reported from the study, now in the hands of FDA:
— One quarter of consumers mistakenly indicated that pasteurized milk was present in plant-based foods that mimic cheese and one quarter don’t know what ingredients are in these mimics. The high prevalence of ‘don’t know’ and mistaken responses perhaps indicates that the use of traditional dairy names such as cheddar and mozzarella confuse consumers, leading to the selection of dairy ingredients in these plant-based foods.
— About one-third of consumers don’t know or think that the plant-based cheese has higher quality protein, even though plant-based foods that mimic cheese have little to no protein content.
—Significantly more consumers indicate that they would buy one of the plant-based foods that mimic cheese because they are low in calories, low in fat, and contain no additives. In actuality, plant-based foods that mimic cheese contain an equal or comparable amount of fat and calories and contain substantially more additives than dairy cheeses.
—About half of consumers say plant-based foods that mimic cheese are actually cheddar or mozzarella cheese. And compared to the dairy cheeses, a significantly higher percentage don’t know if the plant-based foods are cheddar or mozzarella cheese. Together, these answers indicate more than half of consumers surveyed mistook a plant-based food mimicking cheddar or mozzarella to be traditional cheddar or mozzarella or were unclear about applying these traditional cheese names to plant-based foods.

FDA is America’s food policeman, upholding honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers. A food is misbranded and prohibited from introduction into interstate commerce if it purports to be a food with a standard of identity and fails to meet that standard.

Foods described as mozzarella or cheddar style made without dairy fall clearly outside the federal standard set for these cheese names, and worse, these foods confuse consumers who are expecting natural protein and calcium and finding plant-based mimics with little or none of these essential nutrients.

Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association urges FDA to fulfill its requirement to regulate honesty and fair dealing in foods and examine the misuse of standard dairy names. Almond, potato and tapioca starch-based products are not cheese, and are not cheddar, havarti or mozzarella. The deceptive labeling of these products must stop, because consumers are being misled for a fast buck.

WCMA thanks our partners at Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin for partnering to seek objective consumer data that will aid FDA in the prosecution of its duties.


John Umhoefer

John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 286-1001 or e-mail John Umhoefer at jumhoefer@wischeesemakers.org

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