More consumers bite at 'plant-based' than 'vegan' foods

by Candice Choi


As companies in America try to cater to the public’s interest in lighter eating, the term “plant-based” is replacing “vegan” and “vegetarian” on some food labelling. The worry is that the v-words might have unappetizing or polarizing associations.

Impossible Foods, which makes a meatless patty, even warns restaurants not to use those words when describing its burger on menus.

“For many people, their notion of a vegan is someone who’s wagging a finger at them if they eat any animal products. I’m a vegan. But for a lot of people, that term — it’s almost like a cult,” says Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, whose burger is served in about 3,000 locations in the U.S.

The trendier sounding “plant-based,” however, may appeal to a broader market, since “vegan” or “vegetarian” could be off-putting those who don’t adhere strictly to those diets. “Plant-based” may also distance products from a perception of vegan and vegetarian food as bland.

Since “vegan” is used to convey what’s not in a product, it can be associated with deprivation, says Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Food Association, an industry group founded in 2016. “Plant-based,” she says, has a more positive connotation because it explains what is in a food.

“I think there’s room in the market for both terms,” says Simon, who notes that some companies still proudly use “vegan.”

The terms “vegan,” “vegetarian” and “plant-based” are not specifically regulated. But vegetarian foods are typically means meatless, while vegan has no animal ingredients at all, including milk or eggs.

When referring to a specific food or product, “plant-based” usually means the stricter vegan definition, but it’s not always be clear. When referring to broader eating habits, the term usually means a diet that is focused on vegetables but may also include meat or fish.

Morningstar Farms, an established vegetarian brand, continues to use “veggie” and “vegan” because they are understood by most people and help prevent confusion about ingredients, says Dick Podiak, a marketing executive at Kellogg, which owns the brand. However, MorningStar Farms is also increasingly incorporating “plant-based” into its marketing language. Podiak says the company wants to communicate that its products fit into the “plant-based” lifestyles people read about in magazines or hear about from dietitians.

Beyond Meat, another meatless patty maker, avoids the words “vegan” or “vegetarian” in hopes of winning over carnivores. It pushes to have its products sold in the meat sections of supermarkets, rather than in what the company calls the “penalty box” of the frozen vegetarian foods section.

A new liquid egg substitute has also recently launched with its bottle saying it is “made from plants.” Just’s Just Egg, which is being sold alongside cartons of eggs will not have the word “vegan” on it. “(Plant-based) has become more associated with foods that actually taste good,” says Josh Tetrick, CEO of Just.

Nik Contis of the branding agency PS212, however, says that while the word “plant-based” may be more broadly appealing, some may see it as just a new term for an old concept.

“If there’s a person who is never going to eat a veggie burger and you put a plant-based burger in front of them,” he says. “I don’t think they’re all of a sudden going to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to eat that.'”