A press release tells me their “meatless” crumbles are “plant-based.” Another sings the praises of a different product with, “They are plant based, made by hand AND VEGAN!” One subject line reads, “A Vegan’s Guide to Plant-Based Diets.” None of this has given me clarity on what “plant-based,” as a phrase, is supposed to mean: I always assume it’s meatless, for one, and I had also come to believe it meant the same thing as “vegan.”
Lately, I’m not so sure. I’ve been driven a bit mad especially by the advertising of desserts, which tend not to have meat in them by default, as “plant-based” rather than “vegan.” Were I to see “plant-based cheesecake” on a menu, I’d have to inquire about whether it were vegan or not. Same with “plant-based cookie”—does that mean no animal butter, but yes to eggs?
It seems that the more “plant-based” has become ubiquitous as a marketing term, the less clarity one can have on what it refers to precisely. “Plant-based” could be the new “natural,” meaning whatever the person selling a product wants the consumer to believe it means.
I used to hate the phrase “plant-based” because I thought it was a cute way of avoiding saying vegetarian or vegan, as well as all the cultural baggage that comes with those identifiers (and I do believe some cultural baggage here can be a mark of honor).
I also watched companies use it to sell their meat analogues to the public: We’re not like those old vegan veggie burgers—we’re plant-based! Never mind that we can all likely agree that a monotonous faux-bleeding-protein-cake landscape would be miserable indeed—it would be like living as an omnivore, every burger made of animal flesh!
This is why I was hostile to the term for so long: It seemed to want to have it both ways, to make omnivores comfortable while asking for precisely what vegetarians and vegans had already been yammering on about for centuries, across cultures. A recent piece by Sarahjane Blum and Ryan Fletcher on New York City Mayor Eric Adams using his diet as political green-washing calls the phrase vegan’s “respectability counterpart,” which certainly strikes me as true.
But now I see it has usefulness: Despite my belief in a mark of honor in the cultural baggage attached to the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan,” I have to admit that it hasn’t attracted a majority of people to give up meat. I’ve been using “plant-based cuisine” on occasion now because it gets tiresome to constantly say “vegetarian and vegan,” while I also completely understand the ire of vegans when they see a “plant-based” food product that contains eggs.
Larissa Zimberoff, author of Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat and the newsletter of the same name, was among the speakers at the Plant Futures Symposium this past weekend. I wanted to ask her about the phrase “plant-based”; in her book, she traced its documented usage back to 2004’s The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.
In Campbell’s framework, a vegetarian diet is “whole foods, plant-based,” meaning, says Zimberoff, you were eating unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, and no meat. What Campbell wanted to convey was that you weren't eating a diet made up of isolated nutrients.
Now, Zimberoff adds, that’s lost meaning, much like “natural” no longer conveys foods found in nature:
Plant-based is no longer a whole food. It's an ingredient, a component, a fraction. A can of Coke could be considered plant-based under this architecture. A carton of ice cream that wasn't made with milk from a cow, but that uses the same protein found in animal milk, may be called plant-based, even though it's still proteins identical to those from cow's milk.
This is confusing, even to me. Is this ice cream vegan? Well, it depends on your reasons for being vegan. To me, plant-based is a way to sell us more food based on popular trends—and little more. The only way to truly understand what it is you're eating is to look at the Nutrition Facts panel (the most widely reproduced graphic in the world) found on the back of a package. Or, you know, stick to the produce aisle.
I asked Amanda Cohen, chef at Dirt Candy, how she feels about the phrase when she’s always referred to her restaurant as a “vegetable restaurant”:
I opened Dirt Candy because I love vegetables. I think they're the sexiest, most under-appreciated heroes of the food world and I've dedicated my career to exploring all the amazing things they can do. Dirt Candy isn't about a lifestyle, it's not about a pitch deck to investors. It's not about a trend. It's about vegetables, and to me that's enough to fill a lifetime.
People are now using “plant-based” to refer to Dirt Candy, but she sees it as meaningless: “Cardboard is plant-based. Petroleum is plant-based. It's the ‘our menu is seasonal and organic wherever possible’ of the new millennium.”
Michele Simon, who published the book Appetite For Profit: How The Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back in 2006 and founded the Plant Based Foods Association in 2016, wouldn’t agree with that. She’s since left the organization, and has been writing and critiquing the male-dominated world of plant-based foods and food tech. Her piece for VegNews on whether products like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers were really giving animal meat a run for its money was a breath of fresh air among near-constant media-boosting.
For Simon, the phrase came to her while a volunteer with EarthSave starting in the late 1990s, an organization based out of John Robbins’s Diet for a New America, and it was a way of putting a “friendlier face” on a vegan movement that, she says, had been interested in education and potlucks rather than policy. She and everyone she has worked with since that time has always used it to mean vegan.
“Nothing drives me crazier than when people say plant-based isn't as good as vegan,” Simon tells me. “I can't tell you how many times I've had to defend myself against this idea. The fact that it may be getting misused is different than its origins or the definition under the organization that I founded. And so I have a pretty negative reaction to this idea that somehow ‘plant-based’ is inferior. We didn't want to be the vegan association, because we'd get only 10 members.”
However someone wants to refer to their diet doesn’t really matter so long as the result is less support of industrial animal agriculture, which is ceaselessly cruel to animals, workers, and the environment. But as a marketing term, one can no longer always be sure what “plant-based” means.
I do think the phrase helps more people be comfortable moving in a direction away from mindless meat-eating, as it gives space—wiggle room, because it’s just an adjective, not an identity. That’s my stance nowadays, anyway. I’m still not going to order the “plant-based cookie.” Give me something vegan; I can carry the load.
On Wednesday, my podcast returns with Toronto Star food writer Karon Liu! I’ll be sharing it on social and will always put the link back in these Monday essays. I’m not going to send out an extra email, and it will have its own section on the newsletter site.
Friday’s paid subscriber From the Kitchen will include a method for making very easy mushroom pâté. It’s become my favorite thing, as I’ve said many times! Forthcoming recipes will include a coconut cake with Chai Masala, hearts of palm fritters, a plantain upside down spice cake, and a few weeks of pantry-building guidance.
I was on The Allsorts Podcast. I don’t remember anything I said on this but apparently it was a lot about gender!
I’m serving as editor-at-large for the next edition of Prism, a wellness newsletter, which will focus on eating less (or no!) meat from a variety of angles. You can sign up here.
Grace Blakeley’s The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism, Amelia Horgan’s Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, and Ian G. R. Shaw and Marv Waterstone’s Wageless Life: A Manifesto for a Future Beyond Capitalism. I’m sorting out thoughts on work and productivity, as I’ve been finding a lot of commentary on the topics really banal and unengaged with the actual problems faced by most workers. I’m not alone in this.
Superb Koda Farms Kokuho Rose Heirloom Brown Rice (pictured above), sent over by Wellspent Market, which we ate in burritos with jackfruit cooked in my guava barbecue sauce. I topped with lime-pickled red onion and very spicy yet fabulous pickled peppers I got on our trip to Mexico City and am still making my way through. I also must say that the King Arthur “quick and easy flatbread”? It is quick and easy and good, and I made it with all-purpose rather than bread so that works fine. (Flatbread is a big part of my life, yes!)
Is the next frontier working to rectify the injustices of the non-animal food system as well? I grew up in the the corn and soybean fields of the midwest, where farmers have long been dying of cancers caused by the chemicals needed to support industrial monoculture ag? (And don't get me started on the cabon footprint of that kind of farming.) What about the farm workers? I get a tiny bit crazy about the smug "it's plant based" folks when the working conditions in the fruit and vegetable fields are so atrocious. All of which is I guess another way of saying that as usual, I agree with you. "Plant based" is weasely ... and our industrial food systems are unjust and inhumane to both animals and people.
This was an interesting examination of the term. I'd always assumed that "plant-based" when talking about anything other than processed foods meant "plant-forward," as in, plants are the main, but not necessarily only ingredient. I agree that the avoidance of "vegetarian" and "vegan" seem driven by the baggage those terms carry, but you're right that a lack of shared definition leaves it open to exploitation. I will say, it can occasionally clear up a few things. For instance, "plant based butter" vs. margarine. A lot of people don't know the history of margarine (made from beef fat) and that most modern incarnations still contain dairy solids, unlike the "plant-based" kind. But "vegan" butter would be far, far clearer.