The Vegan Society’s stance on the ‘vegan’ vs. ‘plant-based’ debate

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» The Vegan Society’s stance on the ‘vegan’ vs. ‘plant-based’ debate

This year will be remembered as one in which we all faced significant challenges and opportunities, but despite the turbulence, the vegan food and drink industry has once again come out thriving.

Kantar Worldpanel found that tofu sales in the UK increased 81.7% between April and June 2020, and in the same timeframe, sales of vegan mince and vegan burgers shot up 50.1% and 37% respectively.

Whilst we recognise that booming sales figures are a great indicator of increasing popularity, behind the scenes, we continue to face difficulties in defending vegan consumer rights and issues. One of which is the complexity surrounding vegan food and drink labelling.

Historical terminology defines the movement

We are very proud to say that the term ‘vegan’ was coined in 1944 by The Vegan Society’s founders. As such, history unites the terminology with our organisation’s identity and gives us unique authority in defending its use. The creation of the term, and our official definition, has been pivotal in creating the vegan movement that thrives today.

However, more recently, another term has come into popularity – ‘plant-based’. This phrase has origins in 1980 when Thomas Colin Campbell (biochemist well-known for The China Study) presented research findings to colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. Today, as the vegan food and drinks industry proliferates at an incredible speed, the use of the term ‘plant-based’ has been embraced by consumers and manufacturers alike. However, its definition remains ambiguous.

The British Dietetic Association defines a plant-based diet as ‘based on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits, with few or no animal products’. Of course, this is looking at diets, rather than specific products. The Cambridge Dictionary states the definition as ‘consisting or made entirely of plants, or mainly of plants’. From these two definitions alone, there is ambiguity around the presence of animal products. To make matters more confusing, published research states that a plant-based diet ‘excludes all animal products’.

So which definition is correct? With veganism on the rise year by year, and vegan food manufacturers increasingly using ‘plant-based’ to describe their products, it is becoming more essential to protect vegan consumers. It is also vital to ensure that food labelling is clear enough to allow people to live without compromising their ethical beliefs.  

Regulating ‘plant-based’

As the national standards body of the United Kingdom, The British Standards Institution (BSI) develops various standards including Publicly Available Specifications (PAS) – fast-track standardisation documents relating to various industries and consumer products. Over the last 12 months, the Society has been able to feed into one such PAS aimed at clarifying recommendations about the composition and characteristics of plant-based foods. 

Within this document, the BSI stated that ‘plant-based foods may be understood to occupy a position between ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ and that foods labelled as plant-based could contain limited amounts of egg and milk products. They stated: ‘Plant-based foods: should not contain any ingredient derived from slaughtered or dead animals; and should contain a maximum of 5% ingredients in the final product that are animal-derived’.

Centering transparency for all consumers, the Society has maintained the distinction between the current consumer perception of a ‘plant-based food’ and a ‘plant-based diet’ and highlighted the challenges faced by vegans with the term ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ currently being used interchangeably by big brands.  

In the public consultation to this PAS, we commented that ‘The Vegan Society supports transparency for consumers via product labelling. After considering feedback from our supporters we strongly believe that a product labelled as 'Plant-Based' would be considered by most vegans to be free from animal-derived ingredients. As a term closely linked with veganism, we would, therefore, only support a Plant-Based PAS which observed a completely free from animal-derived ingredients standard’.

Public perception

To find out what the public thought of this issue, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,000 people across Great Britain[1].

Our results found that:

  • 64.1% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product contains absolutely no animal products (i.e. vegan)
  • 26.9% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product may contain small amounts of milk and/or eggs
  • 9% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product may contain small amounts of meat
  • Within dietary groups (vegan, vegetarian, partly vegetarian, avoids certain food for religious or cultural reasons, none of the above), the majority of each group believed ‘plant-based’ to mean vegan. Interestingly, it was meat-eaters who felt most strongly about this at 69.5%
  • When segmenting age groups, the majority of each group also believed ‘plant-based’ to mean vegan

We also looked at which of the two terms – vegan and plant-based – the public preferred, and found that:

  • 52.8% of the public prefer the term ‘vegan’, and 47.2% prefer the term ‘plant-based’
  • Perhaps unsurprising, vegans felt most strongly about this – with 71.2% of those questioned favouring the term ‘vegan’
  • There were marginal differences within age groups, with all groups favouring ‘vegan’ except those aged 55-65 who slightly preferred ‘plant-based’

From the feedback from our supporters and our research with the public, most people think that if a product is labelled plant-based then it contains no animal products. Additionally, although ‘plant-based’ has risen in popularity, the term 'vegan' still comes out as the preferred term. Although our research did not ask why respondents preferred this, we believe it comes down to this: consumers want clear and precise labelling so that they can make quick and informed decisions. Thanks to our founders, the term vegan does just this.  

Our work with BSI and the plant-based PAS is coming to a close, and we hope the final document will reflect the current perceptions of consumers protecting them from misunderstanding product labelling terminology and helping them find products that suit their diet and lifestyle.  

The Vegan Society will continue to use the term ‘vegan’ where we mean ‘vegan’. However, there are times when we may use the term ‘plant-based’ when working with professionals who are using it in their work. The scope of this includes health professionals, campaigns and policy work, market insights, and so on. Language is an important tool for connecting with broad issues and finding common ground, which are essential aspects to progress the vegan movement.  

To learn more about our Vegan Trademark standards, please click here.

Louisianna Waring, Insight and Commercial Policy Officer

[1] Attest consumer survey for The Vegan Society – (‘Food labelling’) of 1,000 GB adults – conducted 2-3 September 2020

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