Calcium is a nutrient of public health concern and commonly associated with dairy foods. In recent years, plant-based alternatives to dairy products have grown in popularity. This study examines public understanding of dietary calcium in dairy products and plant-based alternatives and explores whether knowledge is associated with product preference. In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) solicited comments on the labeling of plant-based dairy alternatives (FDA-2018-N-3522), including input on consumer understanding of the nutritional content of dairy foods and plant-based products. All 11,906 submissions were obtained and 8,052 were retained after duplicate and near-duplicate comments were removed. Comments were coded for major nutrition themes and those that mentioned calcium and were analyzed for three calcium-specific themes: knowledge and beliefs about calcium content, calcium bioavailability, and health outcomes associated with intake. Submissions were examined in relation to each commenter’s preference for dairy products or plant-based alternatives. 244 unique submissions (3.0%) mentioned calcium. Over half (51.2%) of commenters who mentioned calcium preferred plant-based alternatives. Comments mentioning calcium often reflected preference. Most commenters had an accurate understanding of calcium content in dairy and plant-based products. However, several commenters – especially those who preferred plant-based alternatives – misunderstood calcium metabolism and health outcomes related to calcium. Given declining consumption of fluid dairy milk – a key source of dietary calcium – and increasing consumption of plant-based alternatives, addressing gaps in nutrition knowledge and misunderstanding related to dairy and calcium intake is critical and has implications for nutrition education and policy.
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