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Regarding plant-based foods

Foods of which ingredients are from plants, not animals have increased in recent times when consumers’ tastes diversify. Foods derived from plant sources to resemble livestock or marine products are called "plant-based foods". In this article, I would like to take up the handling of the "plant-based foods" in Japan and how they are treated in other countries, too.

Labeling for "plant-based foods" in Japan

In the leaflet from the Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA), there are some examples of "plant-based foods" explained as follows.

There are various types of foods labeled "soybean meat" or "hamburg steak made from soybeans".

  • All of the ingredients are derived from plant sources
  • Partially contains ingredients or additives derived from animal sources

There are also various types of food products labeling "xx milk" or "products with pictures/images of butter or cheese.

  • Food products not made from dairy products
  • Food products that used ingredients other than xx, etc.

Not only foods 100% derived from plant sources but also foods of which ingredients are from other than plants such as animal sources are included in the above examples. A heads-up is given to check not only the name of the product that claims to be plant-based but also the used ingredients to especially those with food allergies by showing these examples when they look at the labeling on "plant-based foods".
Since consumers tend to be influenced by information such as "soybean Hamburg steak" or "xx milk" when buying foods, there are many FAQs for possible issues involving the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations on the CAA website.
Here are some excerpts.

Q1 Would it be a problem under the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations if products are labeled such as "Soybean meat" or "Non- meat" for plant-based(derived from plant) meat (hereinafter referred to as alternative meat" products for their product names?

A1 Alternative meat is not "meat".
Therefore, there is no problem under the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations, if labeling does not mislead general consumers into believing that the product is meat for a non-meat product by displaying such as "This product is made from soybeans", "Soybeans are used as ingredients", "No meat is used", etc., apart from product names.

Q4 Would it be a problem under the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations if products are labeled such as "Oat milk", "Rice milk" for plant-based(derived from plant) milk beverage (hereinafter referred to as alternative milk beverage) products for their product names?

A4 Alternative milk beverage is not "Milk" nor "Milk beverage(hereinafter referred to as milk, etc."
Therefore, there is no problem under the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations, if labeling does not mislead general consumers into believing that the product is milk, etc. for non-milk products by displaying such as "This product is not milk nor milk beverage", "oats are used", etc., apart from product names.

The FAQs including the above also mention the following FAQ about a case where plant-based foods are used as ingredients other than contents related to the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations.

Q10 How should the names of ingredients for collective labeling be listed for plant-based(derived from plant) foods? For example, would it be possible to label it as "Alternative meat" or "Liquid egg"?

A10 Food Labeling Standards stipulate that "the most common name must be used" for products’ ingredients. As for ingredient names of plant-based (plant-derived) foods, "Soybean", "Soy-based processed food", etc. is acceptable for foods made from soybeans.
Terms containing "meat" or "egg" are not considered appropriate as "general names" for ingredient names of plant-based (plant-derived) foods at present.

Handling situations regarding "plant-based foods" overseas (U.S., EU, Oceania)

Now, take a look at the situations overseas. Some countries have already set the standards for them.
First, the U.S. has set the standards for use for ingredients in "plant-based foods".
Specifically, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced the following notice on the Standard value of the use of Colouring (Soy leghemoglobin) in ground meat analogue in September 2019.

Excerpt from 21CFR No.73.520 Soy leghemoglobin

(c) Uses and restrictions
 Soy leghemoglobin may be safely used in ground beef analogue products such that the amount of soy leghemoglobin protein does not exceed 0.8 percent by weight of the uncooked ground beef analogue product.

In Australia, New Zealand food labeling standards for "Plant-based milk alternatives" have been set.
Specifically, the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Agency (FSANZ) defines "Plant-based milk alternatives" on the website as beverages made from:

  • legumes such as soy
  • cereals such as rice or oat
  • nuts such as almond

Based on that, the differences from dairy products in terms of nutrients are explained, and also the mandatory labeling items for infants and toddlers as points to be noted are stipulated.

Plant-based beverages that contain less protein than milk are required to have advice on the label that "the product is not suitable as a complete milk replacement for children under 5 years old".

 Milk products and plant-based milk substitutes that have adequate protein but are low in fat are required to carry an advisory statement on the label that "the product is not a complete milk replacement for children under 2 years of age".

Finally, look at the situation in the EU.
There are clear standards for dairy products, which practically set a limit for use of terms for their alternatives. Specifically, regulation No. 1308/2013 describes "milk products" as follows

The following is the excerpt from PART III Milk and milk products

"Milk products" means products derived exclusively from milk, on the understanding that substances necessary for their manufacture may be added provided that those substances are not used for the purpose of replacing, in whole or in part, any milk constituent.

The use of the following terms is permitted under the Act only for "milk products".

whey, cream, butter, buttermilk, butteroil, caseins, anhydrous milk fat (AMF), cheese, yogurt... (excerpt)

And then in 2017, the EU passed Amendment 171, which imposed stricter regulations on "plant-based foods, banning from the use of words such as "creamy" and "buttery" to the use of familiar dairy packaging and illustrations that suggest dairy products. However, this Amendment was withdrawn in spring 2021.

I wrote about some of the points to note regarding the labeling of "plant-based foods" in Japan, and the status of their handling overseas in some countries in this article. The important thing is to accurately label "plant-based foods", which serve as a substitute for meat and dairy products, so that consumers can choose the right products and use them safely not being misled, based on the similarities and differences with these foods.
I would be grateful if you find it helpful especially to those who plan to sell "plant-based foods" including import/export in the future.

November 2021