Are Consumers Really Confused By Plant-Based Food Labels?
Plant-based food products have proven to be quite successful in the last few years, yielding retail sales of $5 billion in 2019 in the U.S. alone. Plant-based foods can include products like vegetarian or vegan “beef”, “milk” or “meat”, which are advertised with these terms, but contain plant-based ingredients.
This recent success has seemingly caught the eye of various animal-agriculture industries, who have tried to initiate legislation aimed to prohibit terms like “meat” or “milk” for products that don’t contain animal-based ingredients. This legislation is based on the argument that using such terms confuses customers and causes them to buy plant-based food under false premises. In fact, several U.S. states, such as Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, have already implemented legislation prohibiting the labeling of plant-based products with terms associated with animal-based ingredients.
Plant-based food companies have counteracted with lawsuits of their own, addressing violations to their First Amendment rights. They have also argued that labeling plant-based products using associations with animal products can prevent consumers’ confusion. The labels would explain the products’ taste and use in a simple and intuitive way.
The main subject of this ongoing conflict can be broken down to one question: If a plant-based product is labeled with “meat” or “milk,” does this confuse a customer, or rather inform them through pointing out similarities? Thankfully, this question can be answered with empirical research. Two previous studies have examined this issue, and each found support for a different side of the conflict. Additionally, both studies have shortcomings.
First, one academic study showed that consumers were indeed able to distinguish images of plant-based and animal-based milk and cheese products. Additionally, consumers could identify nutritional differences between the two, such as calories, protein, or sugar. However, two main points remained unsolved: researchers didn’t know whether consumers could also distinguish other plant- or animal-based dairy and meat products. It was also unclear which role the specific terms “milk” or “cheese” play in increasing or decreasing confusion, as the study used pictures. This is especially important since the terms used are the specific subject of legislation.
These findings were contradicted by the second study by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which was not peer-reviewed and did not disclose methodology or sample information. The study argued that more than half of their participants did not understand that “plant-based beef” contains only plant-based ingredients. A closer look at the response options revealed that this is not entirely accurate. In fact, only one of four options states that the product contains meat, and this was chosen by only 7% of participants. The other three options stated that the product is either completely vegan, vegetarian, or can contain small amounts of meat while being primarily plant-based.
The current study summarized here adds greater clarity to the question of consumer confusion. It is an experimental study where 155 participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The participants answered questions about fictitious plant-based food products, their ingredients, and taste. One product with a neutral name was contrasted with a product labeled in association with animal-based ingredients:
- Next-Generation Meat: Plant-based Beef Burger vs. Plant-Based Vegetable Patty
- Cultured Vegan Butter vs. Cultured Vegan Spread
- Plant-based Deli Slices: Bologna Style vs. Sandwich Slices
Participants indicated whether they thought the product is made from an animal, how well they could imagine what it tastes like, and whether they thought it would taste like vegetables. Additionally, they were asked about the nutritional value of the product.
The results support the plant-based companies’ argument: for all three products, the majority of participants agreed that it was unlikely or very unlikely that the product contained meat or dairy. In fact, participants thought that it was even more likely that the neutrally termed Cultured Vegan Spread and Sandwich Slices contain animal-products than their animal-labeled counterparts. Additionally, participants found it easier to imagine what Plant-based Beef Burger, Vegan Butter, and Plant-based Deli Slices: Bologna Style tasted like and what they could be used for in cooking. Importantly, participants generally reported that they were unlikely or very unlikely to buy one of the products. Only a fraction of the sample was vegetarian or vegan. That means that they can distinguish plant-based foods even without any interest in them, or their purchase.
This study helps to clarify that using animal-associated labels for plant-based products doesn’t appear to confuse consumers about what those products contain. To the contrary, the results show that such labels appeared to help grasp how the plant-based product taste and what they can be used for. This is even true for people without any interest or previous experience in buying plant-based products. Prohibiting the use of terms typically associated with animal products to market plant-based foods would actually increase the customer’s confusion. This is a strong argument against the related legislation, as it shows that the prohibition undermines its very goals.