By Nancy Glick, Director of Food and Nutrition Policy
With mounting information that plant-based diets are generally better for people’s health and the environment, many consumers are giving “meatless meats” a try.
About two-thirds of Americans consumed “plant-based meat alternatives” – or PBMAs – in the past year, with 20 percent eating them at least weekly, according to an August 2021 survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC). As a result, current estimates put the market for PBMAs at $1.4 billion – up from $962 million in 2019 –and a Bloomberg Intelligence Report predicts a 500 percent increase in global sales of plant-based foods globally by 2030.
It is easy to understand consumers’ excitement about meatless products that closely resemble the look, feel and taste of burgers, sausages, deli meat and other products made from beef, pork, chicken, eggs and seafood. Polling shows consumers’ top reason for buying these products is the perceived healthfulness of PBMAs. The most sought-after benefits consumers cite are heart health and a good source of high quality and complete protein.
Yet, the reality is that plant-based meat products vary in their formulations, nutritional content and can be high in saturated fat and sodium. These products are often packaged in the same way as their animal protein counterparts and routinely sold next to the meat section in supermarkets. Thus, consumers need clarity in labeling to ensure product names, descriptions and packaging are not misleading and consumers have the qualifying terms to make informed decisions.
As the agency that regulates plant-based foods in the US, the Food and Drug Administration shares this viewpoint. Later this year, FDA will issue draft guidance on the labeling of plant-based milks and plant-based alternatives to “animal-derived foods” (meats) under the umbrella of the agency’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy. The strategy addresses the need for FDA to modernize its regulatory approach for new categories of foods, like PBMAs, developed through the latest technologies.
In developing its draft labeling guidance, FDA has sought information on a range of issues related to labeling, including whether consumers understand terms like “milk” when used in the name of plant-based alternatives and are aware of the nutritional differences between traditional meat and dairy products and their plant-based substitutes. In response, the agency has received thousands of comments from industry groups, manufacturers, academic institutions and professional societies offering their viewpoints. However, the National Consumers League contends that the consumer’s voice must be articulated and heard. Unless the information needs of consumers are clearly defined, FDA’s goal of labeling for transparency and clarity will not be realized.
To provide the consumer perspective, especially regarding decisions about plant-based meat alternatives, in November 2021 NCL and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) convened a panel of experts to assess consumers’ needs for accurate naming, labeling and claims on the package of PBMAs. Comprising regulatory specialists, market researchers, consumer advocates and food industry leaders, the panel also addressed how some key principles laid out in FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy – a common nomenclature, accurate naming and labeling, and elements that assure honesty and fair dealing — can be applied to improve consumer understanding, perception, and decision-making of PBMA products.
In the near future, NCL will issue a full report of the findings of the expert panel and the implications for consumer education efforts and public policy. However, the need to articulate the consumer perspective on labeling PBMAs shouldn’t wait. Therefore, NCL has translated the consensus from the expert panel into a blueprint for FDA and the food industry.
The following are the seven priorities for labeling, naming and marketing plant-based meats alternatives that are in the best interest of consumers:
- Establish a definition for the category of “plant-based meat alternatives” that will unite all stakeholders
Today, many brands, companies and organizations define the term “plant-based” differently and there is not collective agreement on definition of a “meat alternative.” Since these terms represent an entire class of food products, FDA guidance should define what constitutes a “plant-based meat alternative” to promote consistency in labeling across the category.
- Ensure brand names are not deceptive
NCL’s position is it is a deceptive practice to use brand names for PBMAs that suggest a product contains meat, seafood or eggs when none is present or is better/healthier than the traditional animal protein product. Even when the label states the product contains no meat or eggs, consumers are influenced by the brand name, especially if the packaging and content on the website, social media platforms and in ads shows pictures and iconography of animals or the type of meat.
- Require that labels on PBMAs are standardized and clarify the protein source
For labels of PBMAs to be transparent, the naming and labeling of PBMAs must be uniform and consistent and ensure that consumers can readily identify the protein source. Accordingly, FDA should require that all labels and advertisements for PBMAs must:
- Use a common name that links the protein source and the form, such as “soy burger.”
- Make clear that the product contains some animal protein in addition to plant-based proteins like soy. Qualifying terms can include “plant-based” and “made from plants.”
- Make clear when the PBMA contains no meat. These terms can include vegan,” “meatless,” “vegetarian,” “veggie,” and “veggie-based” as well as “plant-based” and “made from plants.”
- Place the phrase “contains no meat,” “contains no poultry,” or “contains no eggs” on the principal display panel of vegan PBMAs near the common name and in letters at least the same size and prominence as shown in the product’s common name.
- Not use pictures, icons or vignettes on the packaging, in marketing materials or in advertising that suggests nutrition superiority or that the product is the same as the comparable meat product.
- Regulate health/nutrition claims for PBMAs
Consistent with how FDA regulates the health claims allowed on traditional food products, FDA must make clear in its guidance that nutrition/health claims must undergo review by the FDA through a petition process and there must be significant scientific agreement that the claim is supported by available scientific evidence.
- Ensure website, social media, and advertising content for PBMAs conforms to what is on the product label
The guidance must make clear that FDA considers websites and social media to be an extension of the product label, meaning the claims and information that PBMA manufacturers put online must conform what FDA allows on the label.
- Address the nutritional composition of the PBMAs in FDA guidance
In Canada, regulation of PBMAs includes nutritionally required amounts of vitamins and mineral nutrients that must be added to the PBMA product and a minimum limit of total protein content, among other requirements. While NCL supports this approach, FDA should at least recommend levels of key vitamins and nutrients in its guidance and address concerns, such as allergenicity with labeling requirements to flag known allergens, such as soy.
- Educate consumers about the nutritional composition of plant-based protein alternatives
It is in the public interest for FDA and the US Department of Agriculture – along with nutrition societies – to conduct education programs that explain the nutritional composition of plant-based protein food products. This will allow consumers to make informed decisions based on science-based information.
Plant-based meat alternatives are a popular and valued part of our food supply. That is why the public needs regulatory policies that ensure the labels on these products are accurate, complete, and provide the qualifiers necessary for consumers to understand what they are purchasing.
 International Food Information Council. “Consumption Trends, Preferred Names and Perceptions of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives. November 3, 2021.
 Fortune. Plant-based food sales are expected to increase fivefold by 2030. August 11, 2021. Accessible at: https://fortune.com/2021/08/11/plant-based-food-sales-meat-dairy-alternatives-increase-by-2030/