Soy Milk

Deceiving Consumers About What to Eat and Drink

Is there such a thing as righteous deception? If you want to make your head hurt, try to ask yourself that in the context of plant-based food alternatives. Fake meat and fake milk are going mainstream. But the folks who make real meat and real milk don’t like it. Not a bit. They think these plant-based products are deceiving consumers.

Bending the Truth to Sell Ultra-Processed Food

Quite naturally, health and nutrition advocates don’t like deceptive food marketing practices. Big Food, says Marion Nestle, bends the truth to sell more of its junk food. She’s hardly alone in making this point. Health claims, based on highly targeted studies, have become potent marketing tools – even for foods that many would consider to have dubious nutritional value. We share this concern about using health claims to sell more food.

Nonetheless, it happens. And as a result, we have a food supply where ultra-processed foods play a dominant role. Roughly 60 percent of our calories come from ultra-processed foods. These calories are cheap and abundant. But a growing body of evidence tells us they are not especially good for our health. So bending the truth to sell more ultra-processed foods is not a good thing. Right?

Selling Plant-Based Foods

However, when it comes to promoting plant-based foods, things get a little fuzzy. Nutrition and environmental advocates are quite clear that we need to shift toward a consuming more from plants and less from animals. When it comes to food, consumers tend to stick with what’s familiar. Selling someone a burger that happens to be made from pea or soy protein is a lot easier than selling them a vegetable patty. Especially if it’s ultra-processed to look and taste a lot like a real beef burger.

Soy milk is a lot easier to sell than a plant-based drink made from ground and boiled soybeans. Like that fake burger, packaged plant-based milks are ultra-processed, too. These fake milks are becoming a big business.

Truth in Advertising?

So should Big Nutrition follow the lead of Big Food to push ultra-processed plant-based foods? You can expect some controversy on this point.

Obviously the dairy and beef industries don’t like it. They see imposters trying to surf on the reputation of the wholesome foods they produce. Likewise, leaders at Whole Foods and Chipotle have criticized the highly processed nature of these substitutes. They’re believers in promoting real, whole foods. It’s core to their brands. Likewise, Mark Bittman is a nutrition advocate who’s been critical of the fake burger craze.

On the other side you have Michael Pollan apparently concluding that the end justifies the means. Though he made his name by saying we should only eat real food – not ultra-processed junk – the imperative to save the planet has changed his mind.

Is it deceptive to call a vegetable patty a burger? Are we deceiving consumers when we gloss over the ultra-processed nature of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes? Maybe so.

Perhaps it would be better to put all this energy into selling good, sustainable food based on its real merits. No faking.

Click here to read more about the backlash to meatless meat and here to read more about Michael Pollan’s conversion.

Soy Milk, photograph © Kjokkenutstyr Net via flickr

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October 11, 2019

4 Responses to “Deceiving Consumers About What to Eat and Drink”

  1. October 11, 2019 at 8:39 am, David Brown said:

    Excerpt: Since 1996, when the government authorised the introduction of genetically modified soya bean, Argentina has cleared nearly a quarter of its native forests. Much of that newly cleared land has been turned over to the soya bean crop that has been critical to Argentina’s cyclically ravaged economy. “Argentina is in a forest emergency,” says Natalia Machain, director of Greenpeace Argentina.

    • October 11, 2019 at 9:27 am, Ted said:

      Excellent reminder, David. Theoretical benefits to the environment don’t always materialize.

  2. October 11, 2019 at 10:32 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup – we need to be careful not to miss the forest for the trees.


  3. October 19, 2019 at 9:29 pm, Trish said:

    Dairy milks and foods aren’t pure, unprocessed foods though. Surely we must think of the overall nutritional profile too?