Marketing & Media

Special Feature: Oatly and Industry Figures Fight Back Against Widespread Anti Vegan Disinformation

In an age of widespread deliberate and often systematic disinformation, along with more inadvertent misinformation, on all manner of issues surrounding alternative foods — health, processed vs unprocessed, sustainability, and detriment on masculinity, to name a few — plant milk leader Oatly along with several figures from within our movement are now saying enough is enough.

It’s time to counter the narrative with some truth; “For the sake of our planet, the definition of healthy must include being both good for people and good for the planet,” Oatly urges.

Disparage and enhance

At the end of last month, Changing Markets released a paper titled Truth, lies and culture wars: The misinformation we face in pushing for a sustainable food system. The research, which has been discussed by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, uncovered around a million social media posts spreading pro meat and dairy messaging as well as anti-vegan messaging over a 14 month period.

Changing Markets analysed the disinformation published in this 14 month period and categorised them into two categories: “Disparage” and “Enhance”. Says the organisation, “78% of these were seeking to ‘disparage’ climate and nutrition science as well as alternative proteins and vegan diets, whilst 22% focused on ‘enhancing’ the health and sustainability credentials of meat and dairy.

Eating Better infographic on media disinformation
© Changing Markets

And who is behind these million posts? “Through our analysis, we concluded that misinformation categorised within the ‘Enhance’ narrative can be linked directly to the meat and dairy industry, similarly attacks on alternative proteins which sit within the ‘Disparage’ narrative have been linked to representatives of the meat and dairy industry.”

One of the aforementioned posts, and one that was found to have been the most influential, was a tweet from Donald Trump saying, “We must ban fake meat to save the planet!!! Lab-Grown Meat Produces Up To 25 Times More CO2, Study Reveals.” The tweet was widely read and shared amongst Trump’s 10 million+ followers.

Trump has been widely known to promote the meat industry and previously ran an unsuccessful company called Trump Steaks whose products were sold on QVC. Famously during lockdown in 2020, Trump ordered meat-packing facilities to continue operations, referring to them as critical infrastructure, and meat producers such as Tyson are known to have funded the Republican party.

Oatly Hey Food Industry billboard
© Oatly

Oatly responds to anti plant milk press

Last Thursday 11th January, The Times published an article titled Guess What Has More Sugar Than a Mars Bar? in which it compared the nutritional values of one serving of 11 products to one whole carton of Oatly milk. “It’s misleading to present the information in this way, and makes it harder for people who are simply trying to make healthier or more environmentally-conscious choices in their shopping” says an Oatly representative to vegconomist. “There is no added sugar in Oatly’s Barista Edition. There is about 3.5g per 100ml of naturally occurring sugars from oats broken down during our production process. This is considerably less per serving than everything else on that list and about the same as cow’s milk.”

Several recent articles in the mainstream press took a skewed angle on a study published by the University of Southampton, with some recent examples including:

The articles infer oat drink is fueling vitamin deficiencies, which could be concerning for those who need to or choose to consume milk alternatives. Below, Oatly’s scientific team provides their counterargument to the above.

Oatly
© Oatly

Oatly’s rebuttal

The articles lead with oat drink being a key product fuelling these deficiencies and refer to a study published study in Plos Medicine (Dec 2023) that investigated the effect of dietary supplements on the vitamin status in women of child-bearing age living in the UK, Singapore, and New Zealand. The study reports that a significant proportion of participating women had low or marginal levels of folate, riboflavin, vitamin B6, vitamin D and vitamin B12 at the pre-conception stage.

Crucially, the study does not report dietary intake or dietary habits of the participants and therefore it is not possible to make a link between the vitamin status of the women and any specific type of diet, whether omnivorous or plant-based.

The postulated link between oat milk and vitamin deficiencies is not supported by the research in the PLOS Medicine article, or any other scientific evidence. Across Europe, over 90% of plant-based dairy alternatives are fortified with calcium. Some plant-based drinks, like Oatly, benefit from added Vitamin D, contributing to normal calcium absorption. Vitamin D is not routinely provided by cow’s milk in the UK. Better yet, many plant-based drinks, like Oatly, contain additional benefits that cow’s milk does not – being low in saturated fats, rich in unsaturated fats and a source of soluble fibre. Most Oatly drinks are also fortified with iodine, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 to similar levels found in cow’s milk.

Girl drinking milk in school
© Lightfield Studios – stock.adobe.com

“For the sake of our planet”

Caroline Orfila-Jenkins, VP Science &Technology Oatly, states to vegconomist: “The link these articles have made between oat drink and vitamin deficiencies is not supported by the research in the PLOS Medicine article, or any other scientific evidence, and it is misleading to suggest otherwise. Across Europe, over 90% of plant-based dairy alternatives are fortified with calcium. And many plant-based drinks, like Oatly, benefit from added Vitamin D and contain additional benefits that cow’s milk does not – being low in saturated fats, rich in unsaturated fats and a source of soluble fibre. Most Oatly drinks are also fortified with iodine, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 to similar levels found in cow’s milk.

“We simply cannot afford for society – or the media – to position cow’s milk as the nutritional benchmark by which everything else must be compared. For the sake of our planet, the definition of healthy must include being both good for people and good for the planet. Oatly Barista Edition, for example, has a 58% lower climate impact than comparable cow’s milk in the UK, while also being a source of unsaturated fatty acids, soluble fibre, calcium and vitamins B2, B12, D, and iodine. Whether people choose to remove dairy in their diet for health, ethical, or environmental reasons, plant-based drinks like Oatly are a fantastic substitute as illustrated by their inclusion in the UK’s Eatwell Guide and many governmental nutrition guidelines around the world.”

Freedom Food Alliance

The Freedom Food Alliance has been recently founded by Robbie Lockie, co-founder of Plant Based News. Through the alliance, Robbie aims to counterpoint such mass disinformation which, as previously mentioned, is often highly organised and systematic. For example, The UK Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) has started a campaign called THIS & THAT, which aims to promote the importance of meat in a “balanced diet”.

THIS & THAT campaign
© AHDB

The campaign piggybacks onto common points of concern amongst uninformed public such as that of vitamin B12 deficiencies. Massively funded by the meat and dairy industries, this widespread ad campaign promoting beef, lamb, and dairy is also to be screened in cinemas. “Voiced by comedian, actor, and broadcaster Richard Ayoade, the campaign will be seen across cinemas for the first time, in addition to VOD platforms, Sky, ITV, and Channel 4,” reported The Grocer.

Disinformation as a global risk

Robbie Lockie here speaks to the problem and his mission to counteract it. “In recent times, the issue of misinformation and disinformation has emerged as a global concern, especially in the context of plant-based food and drink. The World Economic Forum, in its 2024 Global Risk Report, has underscored the critical nature of this challenge, identifying misinformation and disinformation as one of the top ten global risks over the next decade.

“This aligns with the concerns we have at the Freedom Food Alliance about the dissemination of inaccurate information regarding plant-based diets, which can hinder progress and prevent the public from making informed, health-conscious decisions,” they comment.

World Economic Forum infographic on global risks
© World Economic Forum

Lockie continues, “Recent media reports linking oat milk to vitamin deficiencies, for instance, are not supported by credible scientific evidence, such as the research published in PLOS Medicine. It’s imperative to address these issues head-on, as misinformation obstructs the collective effort needed for meaningful change.

“With our recently formed non-profit, Freedom Food Alliance we are committed to combating such misinformation by promoting evidence-based understanding and awareness. I believe that we can foster a well-informed public, capable of making choices that are beneficial for their health and the environment.”

Real-world implications

In its discussion as mentioned above, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism cites Maddy Haughton-Boakes, senior campaigner at Changing Markets, who discusses the narrative which ultimately weaponises veganism; “Any suggestions that we should reduce meat and dairy consumption and production – even in line with healthy diet guidance – is [represented as] an attack on personal freedoms”.

“Misinformation on social media doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Haughton-Boakes. “It seeps into the real world. And it does have real-world implications for policy debates.”

She added: “I think there’s got to be a discussion around ensuring that policy debates are very much focused on the scientific evidence. This is a much broader issue than just meat and dairy.”

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