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What Does ‘Plant-Based’ Actually Mean?

“Plant-based” is now expanding from shorthand for “meat substitute” to refer to just about anything a marketer wants

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Beyond Meat “Beyond Burger” patties made from plant-based substitutes for meat products sit alongside various packages of ground beef for sale. Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Though plenty of vegetarian and vegan diets don’t include anything made to imitate meat, “meatless meat” and “plant-based protein” are nothing new. Ask anyone who’s ordered mock duck (aka seitan) in their pad Thai. Cartoonist Maki Naro outlined the history of mock meat for The Nib, from tofu in ancient China to the peanut-butter-and-seitan mix Protose, developed by John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the Kellogg of cereal-brand fame) in the early 1900s. But in the past few decades, as Naro points out, meatless meat has gotten a boost from “unabashed capitalists,” who sensed a growing interest in eating less meat and “flexitarian” diets and decided the existing beans and lentils and seitan weren’t enough.

Hence the rise of “plant-based meat substitutes,” which promise to mimic the texture, and even the bleeding, of “real” meat for those who can’t do without those specific oral sensations. In the public imagination, the term came to the forefront mostly where applied to fast-food patties, with Impossible Whoppers and Impossible White Castle sliders, Dunkin’ Beyond sausage breakfast sandwiches and KFC plant-based fried chicken. A decade ago, a meatless burger patty would have been advertised as “vegetarian” or “vegan” cuisine, but now, it’s all “plant-based.” And that has turned it into a phrase that means everything and nothing.

Usage of “plant-based” is now expanding from shorthand for “meat substitute” to refer to just about everything, including products that were already vegan or vegetarian (aka, made of plants) to begin with. Case in point: a PR email I got from Ancient Harvest about its line of “plant-based pasta.” Pasta is traditionally made from wheat flour. And in case you haven’t cast your gaze upon a golden field lately, wheat is a plant. All pasta is plant-based. The company specifies that its POW! Pasta brand is made from other plants — chickpeas and lentils — so that it is both gluten-free and full of protein. Which is great! But “plant-based” as a descriptor of ingredients doesn’t technically differentiate it from any other pasta.

Instead, “plant-based” contains within it a host of other implications, whether it’s that the food in question is full of protein or is low-carb or uses “healthier” ingredients. Take the emergence of “plant butter,” aka margarine, an emulsion of plant oil and water that’s been around (and much maligned) since the 1950s. Plant butter is only new in that now it more often uses olive oil than vegetable oil, but mostly it’s a rebranding to obscure a product with which customers may have negative associations. By futzing with the assumed connotations of plant-based (i.e., a meat substitute made from plants), brands can use the buzzword to their advantage, and stretch it to cover almost anything but meat. But describing a product as specifically plant-based when the product it’s riffing on is also plant-based is redundant at best and cynical at worst, an attempt to sell customers something “new” that’s not really that new. Or just confusing to someone like me, who is left wondering why some plants don’t count as “plant-based.”

Though meat-free eating has been common in numerous cultures, labels and identities began to harden in the 20th century. The phrase “vegan” was coined in 1944 to stand for “non-dairy vegetarian,” and the Vegan Society soon declared that it opposed the use of any animal products in any capacity, not just in food. As Ethan Varian recently wrote for the New York Times, the word “vegan” has an inherently political connotation. To identify as vegan is to concern oneself with animal rights, with the conditions of slaughterhouse workers, and with the environment. It is not inherently “healthier” (as endless op-eds about Impossible Burger being no better for you than beef will point out), but health isn’t the point; harm reduction is.

The term “plant-based” was coined in 1980 by biochemist Thomas Colin Campbell, who employed it to present his research on a non-animal-product diet in a way that he felt wouldn’t be clouded by politics. He went on to advocate a diet of “whole foods,” though not everyone who eats a plant-based diet focuses on unprocessed and “nutritious” food. Instead of a collective ethical movement, the phrase has come to signal health and the individual, factors which, according to Naro, are why most people give up meat. Of course, that’s a veneer — a bowl of mashed potatoes or a bag of Takis technically qualifies as plant-based, though these items probably aren’t what people think of when they think “healthy.” But the term doesn’t come with the baggage of “vegan.” “Using ‘plant-based’ allows people to feel they’re not joining a specific group for eating a specific way,” says Varian.

Marketers have seized upon eaters’ desire to appear healthy but relaxed by capitalizing on that buzzword. A Google search brings up plant-based celery juice, pumpkin seeds, tofu, oatmeal, and black beans, all of which espouse their plant base or “plant-based protein,” and all of which have always been made from plants (or are plants outright). The carton of almond milk in my fridge says it’s plant-based, even though by purchasing almond milk, I presumably know it’s not dairy. In fact, saying “plant-based” instead of “vegan” sometimes obscures things — while a vegan product would not contain dairy or animal products, plant-based allows for the possibility that there could be other things on top of that base.

And plant-based is also getting political. At last night’s Golden Globes, organizers served an entirely “plant-based” dinner to attendees as a way to draw attention to climate change, not just for the health of its stars. More plant-based products are including gestures toward sustainability and the environment in their marketing. And with interest in a plant-based diet steadily growing, it behooves any plant product to advertise itself as such, even if thinking about it for two seconds would probably remind you that pasta or chips or beans are and always have been plant-based.

What we eat has as much to do with global supply chains and tradition and economics and ethics as it does our own bodies, and side-stepping serious thought about where one’s choices fit into that web makes less sense than ever. Plant-based could become the new vegan, or it could wind up diluting a message of collective action in favor of individual choice under capitalism. It remains to be seen what plant-based will become. But rest assured that in a few years, a different vague term will probably take its place.

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