Should plant-based alternatives use animal product names?

Clare Daley
June 15, 2021
5 min read
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Should plant-based alternatives use animal product names?

"Call it Gary or something. Just don’t call it cheese. Because it’s not cheese!”

Anyone who’s active on social media will remember the Gary debacle from 2016, when a woman’s complaint about naming a dairy-free vegan product ‘cheese’ went viral on Facebook.

Five years have passed, and the debate around plant-based product naming has escalated from an online discussion to a matter of international legislation. Several US states have now banned vegan produce from being referred to as meat. Meanwhile, the EU has clamped down on dairy terms describing foods not derived from animal milk – including butter, cheese, cream and yogurt.

For food brands, nomenclature raises an interesting question. From meat-free burgers to vegan cheese, is it a good idea for plant-based alternatives to take their inspiration from animal products? Or are you misleading consumers?

Consumers will choose vegan sausages over plant-based tubes

It’s understandable why many food and beverage brands choose animal product names when launching a meat-free or dairy-free range. People find comfort in the familiar: they’re more likely to pick up a vegan sausage than a ‘plant-based tube’. Especially if it’s a product that’s supposed to mimic the taste of meat or dairy, without the animal ingredients.

Establishing consumer confidence is especially important for vegan products that have been developed in non-traditional ways. Impossible Foods is selling 77 x more products in supermarkets now than two years ago, as people are intrigued by plant-based burgers that ‘bleed’ and sizzle like beef patties. But would they have the same lure if Impossible Foods described them as a soy protein discs containing heme, the molecule that makes meat taste meaty?

It seems shoppers are also more than comfortable with familiar product names being repurposed for plant-based alternatives. According to a BEUC study, 80% of people have no issue with meat or dairy terms being used for vegan products. And 40% actively supported this naming convention – provided the items are clearly labelled as being vegan or vegetarian.

One reason for this level is comfort is that the majority of plant-based product buyers aren’t vegetarian or vegan. 36% of people now identify as flexitarian, mixing non-meat and dairy-free meals into their diet in an effort to reduce their consumption of animal products.

Even governing bodies have accepted there’s a grey area when it comes to naming animal-free foods. The EU has confirmed that it’s OK for CPG brands to use terms like ‘buttery’ or ‘creamy’ on dairy alternatives, so long as the product isn’t actual called butter or cream.

Are plant-based and animal proteins getting too close for comfort?

So, if most consumers are fine with meat-free burgers and vegan cheese, how have we reached a situation where it’s being legally forbidden in certain geographies?

While 80% of shoppers don’t mind animal product names being repurposed, that means 1 in 5 people DO have a problem. Which is a significant proportion of the market if you’re trying to grow interest in your plant-based products.

Animal-inspired names can also create confusion among consumers. People might be new to veganism and unsure what they’re looking for, they may not have high levels of reading comprehension, or they might be living in a country where the native language isn’t their mother tongue. If two products are marketed and labelled using the same naming convention, they can look very similar.

At first glance, it can be difficult to distinguish a meat product from its plant-based alternative. Especially if they’re available in the same aisle. As we mentioned in our previous blog post on the opportunity in plant-based food and beverages, some supermarkets are presenting the two offerings side-by-side to in an attempt to introduce plant-based alternatives to carnivorous consumers. By doing this, are vegan products and animal proteins getting a little too close for comfort?

The challenge of mimicking existing product names and showcasing ranges side by side goes further than just dietary stance. Ingredients aren’t a preference for some consumers; they’re a necessity.

Imagine the PR impact of someone lactose intolerant picking up a standard carton of milk, because it looks similar to their dairy-free alternative. Or someone with a severe allergy accidentally consuming nut milk; Starbucks was sued for $10,000 by a man who went into anaphylactic shock after being given almond milk in his coffee instead of soy milk.

It’s not just compliance concerns driving the backlash against animal ingredient names on plant-based products. Farming communities centred around animal husbandry are also up in arms, as their bottom line is being hurt by rising interest in vegan alternatives. Agriculture accounts for 4% of global GDP, rising to more than 25% in some developing countries. Getting consumers to eat meat and dairy is a commercial necessity for many of these businesses.

Trusted consumer relationships rely on well-crafted labelling

Clearly, there are positives and negatives to choosing animal product names for plant-based foods and beverages. On the one hand, it makes vegan items more palatable to flexitarian consumers, building trust in meat-free and dairy-free alternatives. On the other hand, it can alienate committed vegans and vegetarians – an important core audience – and leave consumers with allergies vulnerable to mistakes.

It’s important that food brands consider these pros and cons carefully at packaging design and content stage. What you call your latest animal-free range is more than a marketing scheme; it’s the centre point for building consumer relationships and a health, safety and compliance issue.

If you choose to go down the route of promoting meat-free burgers/sausages and dairy-free milk, yoghurt and cheese, make sure your product labelling is crystal clear. Consumers want familiarity, but they also want transparency; 75% of people will pay more for an item that has been clearly labelled with ingredients they know and trust. Common allergens need to be front and centre of your packaging visuals, so people can consume them with confidence.

And if you’re marketing your plant-based range in territories with legal naming restrictions, you need to stay up-to-date with the latest labelling compliance. New cases are being brought forward all the time; you don’t want your new product’s big story to be the fact it’s broken local laws.

This blog post was written in June 2021. Facts were correct at time of writing.

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