48% of consumers buy plant-based and dairy milks, reveals IPSOS survey

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Most consumers know that the nutrition and formulation of plant-based milks varies by product type (eg. pea milk, almondmilk) and brand, according to a new survey (Picture: Mooala)
Most consumers know that the nutrition and formulation of plant-based milks varies by product type (eg. pea milk, almondmilk) and brand, according to a new survey (Picture: Mooala)

Related tags plant-based milk

Almost half (48%) of Americans have purchased both dairy- and plant-based milks over the past six months, according to an IPSOS survey of 2,006 adults commissioned by Dairy Management Inc.

In the survey, conducted as the dispute over labeling conventions in the category heats up​, 48% said they had purchased both plant-based and dairy milks, 47% said they had only bought dairy milk, and 5% said they only bought plant-based milk over the period.

Click HERE​ to view the survey data.  

When looking at personal consumption, however, there was a stronger share of dairy-milk-only consumers (62%) and plant-based-only consumers (12%), with around a quarter (26%) drinking both types of milk.

Consumers know that plant milks vary in formulation and nutrition by product and brand

As to consumer understanding of the composition and nutritional merits of plant-based and dairy milks, the results were mixed, with areas of confusion – about sugar content for example (slide 23)  – spanning both dairy and plant-based milk categories, with 27% of dual dairy/plant milk buyers believing that dairy milk contained added sugars (it doesn’t) and 17% believing that dairy milk contained no sugar (it naturally contains the sugar lactose).

Most consumers were well aware (slide 22) that there are more ingredients in plant-based milk than dairy milk, and that plant milks vary in formulation and nutrition by product and brand (slide 19).

While plant-based-only milk buyers were more likely to believe these products had more nutrients than dairy milk, fewer than a quarter (23%) of total respondents believed this, with 38% unsure, 19% believing they contained the same number of nutrients, and 20% believing they contained fewer nutrients than dairy milk (slide 17).

As for protein, 62% of plant-based-only buyers, 51% of dual buyers, and 35% of total respondents, thought plant-based milks offered higher or equal protein quality to dairy (slide 16), a result that surprised some dietitians we spoke to, who felt that the quality of dairy protein was better understood by consumers.

Calcium important to dairy milk purchases

In general, dual buyers saw calcium, vitamins and minerals as more important to the dairy milk purchase decision than the plant-based milk decision, and saw overall health as more important to the plant-based milk purchase (slide 12).

While half of respondents erroneously believed that legumes, grains or nuts were the #1 ingredient in plant-based milks (the #1 ingredient is water), they were not asked the same question about dairy milk, or any other beverages (in which the #1 ingredient is invariably water), pointed out one industry source, who observed that were nuts the #1 ingredient, the product would be closer to nut butter than nutmilk, and said the question had little value.

“Clearly the dairy industry is in trouble. Personally I don’t think a name change is going to make much difference one way or another. Permitting whole milk in the school lunch program way back when might have helped​, but we’ll never know.”

Linn Steward, RDN

“Consumers have spoken, and they are clear in their desire for FDA to enforce its own rules. FDA must listen to their voice and end deceptive labeling by plant-based beverage manufacturers.”

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO, The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF)  

RDN: The question is worded to elicit a ‘NO response, which is exactly how folks responded

As for labeling, The National Milk Producers’ Federation (NMPF) focused upon the final question of the survey (slide 24) showing that 49% of respondents thought non-dairy brands should be prohibited from using the term ‘milk’ on pack, while a further 31% were unsure, which it claimed clearly supported its calls for an FDA crackdown on terms such as 'almondmilk.'

However, the wording of the question (‘Should all plant-based milks be labeled ‘milk’ if US Dietary Guidelines do not recommend most as a substitute for dairy milk?'​) prompted some commentators to query the value of the result.

A more neutral question might have been something like: ‘Doyou agree or disagree with this statement? The term plant based milk clearly refers to non-dairy milk ​[agree/disagree/don’t know],' one industry source told FoodNavigator-USA.

Linking the labeling question to the dietary guidelines got them ​[the NMPF] the headline they want​ [‘Consumers, by Nearly 3-to-1 Margin, Want FDA to End Mislabeling of Fake Milks’], but it is arguably a very misleading statistic,” ​added the source.

'The biggest disconnect was the protein content'

Registered dietitian nutritionist Linn Steward, who noted that she drinks whole dairy milk, told FoodNavigator-USA that she too was surprised by how leading the final question was: “The question is worded to elicit a ‘NO response, which is exactly how folks responded.”

She added: “I am active in a couple of Facebook groups of food literate opinionated home cooks and chefs. When the issue of nomenclature comes up there is almost unanimous consent that limiting the meaning of the word milk to cows is stupid and unnecessary.  Worse, government intervention just fuels the existing distrust of Big Ag and ultimately Big Government as the enabler.”

The more interesting parts of the survey came earlier on, she added: “Overall​, I found the consumers were reasonably well informed. The biggest disconnect was the protein content, and that is understandable because milk is marketed on a nutrient specific basis to provide calcium. Nuts are included in the MyPlate protein group and cow’s milk is not. So let’s say there’s confusion on both sides.” 

I am surprised that the ‘quality protein’ message has not been heard’

Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, senior vice president and director of food & wellness at Pollock Communications, told FoodNavigator-USA that she too was surprised to see that a significant minority of consumers (35%) believed that the protein in plant-based beverages was of higher or equal quality to that of dairy milk protein (slide 16):

“I am surprised that the ‘quality protein’ message has not been heard. Animal-based proteins are the highest quality​.”

But she added: “As a registered dietitian, I am always pleased to see high numbers ​[48%] when consumers are ‘dual purchasers.’ To me, it means that more consumers are appreciating the value of diversity and variety in their diet.

“There are many, many types of foods that supply the same nutrients – if you want protein, calcium or any nutrient, you have a wide selection – so why not choose both?! While they have overlapping nutrients, they also have valuable differences. Enjoy dairy milk – high quality protein, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin D – and enjoy plant-based milks – protein, calcium-fortified, often lower in calories, lower carbohydrates, less saturated fat. And also important – enjoy their different tastes.”

Dietary Guidelines

She added: “At this time, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans do not specify that plant-based alternatives could be substituted for dairy milk​ [although they do state that, ‘Healthy eating patterns include fat-free and low-fat (1%) dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages commonly known as ‘soymilk’] but maybe with the next update, they will recognize that there are several types of foods to achieve the nutrients provided by one single food.

“Providing categories of foods is one thing – dairy, for instance, but calling out one item, like milk, is misleading. Consumers can drink fluid milk, and they can also enjoy plant-based alternatives, ​[dairy] yogurts, cottage cheese, cheese and other options to achieve a balanced diet.” 

Read the full survey results HERE​. ​ 

* IPSOS classed ‘exclusive dairy milk buyers’ as respondents who said they bought dairy milk only once a month or more; ‘Dual buyers’ were those saying they bought both dairy- and plant-based milks in the course of a month; while ‘Exclusive plant-based milk buyers’ were those who said they only bought plant-based milks once a month or more.


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