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The great debate: plant-based vs vegan?

31st May 2023 - 04:00
Alexander Huntley, research assistant at The Vegan Society, gets to grips with the vexed question of meat-and-dairy-free terminology.

Plant-based or vegan? Recent years have seen a huge boom in vegan options on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, and so too have we seen a rise in the use of the word ‘plant-based’, often used as a synonym for ‘vegan’.

Plant-based has its origins as an apolitical and scientific description of a vegetarian diet (a diet based on plants, but not entirely). Today, ‘plant-based’ often appears on the packaging of what are typically vegan products. But why? And which term should we be using in catering?

There are pros and cons to both. Our research has shown that consumers associate ‘plant-based’ with being healthier and more environmentally friendly. Whereas vegan is considered a more political term but also the more animal friendly of the two.

Clarity of language is where ‘vegan’ has a strong advantage over ‘plant-based’. In 2022 we conducted a nationally representative survey where respondents were asked to imagine themselves looking for a food or drink product with no animal products whatsoever.

They were asked how confident they would be that the item had no animal products based on the ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’ labels; 69% of respondents were 100% confident that the product would have no animal products if labelled ‘vegan’ compared to just 31.6% if labelled ‘plant-based’.

‘Vegan’ is more widely understood and considered less ambiguous, while ‘plant-based’ provokes more debate and confusion. Respondents also expressed criticism of brands which use ‘plant-based’ due to perceived deceptiveness associated with the phrase.

It’s likely that the rise in the use of ‘plant-based’ is driven by a desire by brands to sell vegan products but avoid being too closely associated with the vegan movement or animal rights. This attempt at uncoupling vegan lifestyle choices from deeper moral and ethical beliefs may be seen as effective marketing by some, but it can also be viewed as inauthentic and capitalising on the increased awareness of animal suffering and environmental degradation in order to sell their product.

The word ‘vegan’ was created in 1944 by the founders of The Vegan Society. The wording and definition have changed over time before its current definition was settled on in 1988: ‘a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude - as far as is possible and practicable - all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment’. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

‘Plant-based’ by contrast has no widely accepted definition or standardisation, causing widespread inconsistencies in its use, resulting in non-vegan products or diets being described as ‘plant-based’.

Vegan Society research demonstrates that of the two options, ‘vegan’ is the unambiguous phrase with widespread understanding. We are working to make the world an easier place to navigate as vegans and that means advocating for the most straightforward and easy-to-understand labelling. The simplest thing to do when describing something that’s vegan is to say ‘vegan’.

To read The Vegan Society’s full report on plant-based vs vegan labelling visit:

Written by
Edward Waddell