What does “plant-based” mean?
Plant-Based seems to be the hot new term applied to food these days, but what doesn’t it mean? Can you be sure that a food labeled “plant-based” contains no animal products? Unfortunately, the answer is No.
Here at Vegetarians of Washington, we choose to use the term “plant-based” to mean vegan (avoiding all animal products) with a preference toward whole foods, but there is no standard definition of the term. The term “vegan” does have a clear definition – in dietary terms it denotes avoiding all products derived wholly or partly from animals, although it’s not a federal legal definition. The definition of “vegetarian” is similar but allows for, but does not require, dairy and egg-based ingredients to be included.
However, the undefined term “plant-based” is becoming popular among food producers. The number of new U.S. food and drink products that mentioned “plant-based” grew 268% between 2012 and 2018, according to consumer research company Mintel. Companies see the use of the term as implying a closeness to nature, the farm, and to healthfulness, while avoiding the more formal terminology of vegetarian and vegan. Afterall, almost all people eat some plants, even if they’re only in the form of french fries, so meat-eaters are often more open to trying a food product that is labeled “plant-based”.
While many “plant-based” products are in fact vegan, since there’s no accepted definition, companies can use the plant-based label to target an audience that is not limited to those who are already or wannabe vegans. They are able to reach a much wider audience of those who may care about their health, the environment and the animals, without being comfortable with the vegan label. Some companies, such as the producers of Tofurky products, are hedging their bets right now by including both “plant-based” and “vegan” labels on their foods.
While “plant-based” is a good indicator that a product might be vegan, it’s still best to check the ingredients list. Vegan certification labels can help. There are several nonprofit groups that certify food products and allow their stamp of approval to be included on food labels of those products they’ve certified. Some of these labels indicate that a product is vegan, including such foods as cookies and baked beans. A new plant-based certification label has been launched by the Plant Based Foods Association, which specifically certifies meat, egg and dairy alternative products as not containing animal products, which is helpful, but not yet widely used.
Certification labels can be helpful in quickly assessing whether a food product meets your requirements, and may be more comprehensive than relying on the ingredients list. For example, some vegans are concerned as to whether the sugar in a food product is processed with bone char, whereas others are satisfied with a list of ingredients avoiding any mention of animal-related products. A certification label can be helpful in addressing both these issues, whereas relying on the ingredients list wouldn’t help with the former issue. However, a lot of vegan foods haven’t been certified, so the absence of a certification label doesn’t imply that it’s not vegan.
With all these options, we recommend that you don’t rely on the marketing words on the front of the package, whether it says “vegan” or “plant-based”, but instead read ingredient lists carefully and check for special certification labels. For more information about food labels, see our shopping guide, In Pursuit of Great Food.