More and more labels promoting plant-based ingredients are showing up on food packages—but what do these labels really mean? Are these foods 100% plant-based (vegan), and are they really healthy? Sharon Palmer dives into the meaning of plant-based food labels, and what you need to learn about them.
Plant-based foods continue to skyrocket, as more and more Americans become increasingly interested in adopting a more plant-based eating pattern by incorporating more plant foods into their diets. People are drawn to plant-based products for many reasons, including better personal and environmental health, animal welfare, and just plain adventurous eating. This trend isn’t just happening in big cities in coastal states; plant-based purchases are increasing in every region of the country. Whether one is vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or simply interested in eating more plants, the demand for these foods is certainly there.
But along with the increased desire to eat more plant-based has come both opportunities and challenges for identifying plant-based options in food products, retail settings, and dining establishments. There are many ways that food companies can communicate the existence of plant-based ingredients and foods to consumers, but there are also plenty of pitfalls along the way, from how to define terms (can you truly call it “milk” if it comes from a nut?) to “plant-washing” (putting “plant-based” on everything from shampoo to alcohol to candy for a health halo). However, certified labeling programs can help consumers clearly identify options.
“The plant-based food industry has grown exponentially over the past couple of years as more people choose to eat plant-based, either for health, ethics or climate change reasons. People who eat plant-based need to be aware of what they are consuming. Accurate labels can help people choose better options,” says Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN Chair, Vegetarian Nutrition DPG (2020-21), from Raleigh, NC.
What Does Plant-Based Really Mean?
We constantly hear the term “plant-based,” whether it’s on social media, at our local grocery stores, or in conversations with our friends and family. Yet, as consumers, it’s challenging to be fully aware of whether or not the products we are purchasing and consuming are 100% plant-based foods. Picture ordering a “plant-based burger” at a restaurant, only to find out that the vegan veggie burger patty was topped with dairy-based cheese, and egg-based mayo. This raises confusion because you might be under the impression that you are consuming a completely plant-based menu item, when in reality you are not.
So, what does “plant-based” mean? The answer is elusive. “There is no standard definition of the term and various organizations, companies and individuals use it to mean different things,” says Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN, a vegan private practice dietitian based in Chicago.
Indeed, a survey conducted by the Vegetarian Resources Group reviewed how people use and define the term “plant-based diet.” This study showed that general consumers use this term in a variety of ways: 20% thought it meant vegetarian, 17% thought it referred to vegan, 18% thought it was vegetarian or vegan diets composed of whole foods, 13% thought it meant a whole foods diet that could include animal products, and 24% didn’t know.2 In addition, the study found that in 74% of research studies on “plant-based diets”, the plant-based diet wasn’t explicitly defined—28% of the studies used the term interchangeably with vegetarian or vegan, 10% used the term as low-meat consumption, and 5% used the term as the avoidance of all animal products.2
Karen C. Duester, MS, RD, President Food Consulting Company, San Diego says that there is no FDA definition for “plant-based”, and she doesn’t see FDA defining the term “plant-based”; after all they haven’t defined the term “vegan”. Duester says, “In general, plant-based means the same thing as vegan, but it appeals to a much broader group of people. From a marketing perspective, plant-based companies would prefer to make that statement as opposed to vegan; it is much broader and a more mainstream term.”
Los Angeles-based Michele Simon, JD, MPH, Founder of Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA), stresses that plant-based foods should mean 100% plant-based. She believes that the argument over the definition originates from the confusion over “plant-based diet” vs. “plant-based food”. Simon says, “A diet pattern encompasses meals with different components, while a food is more specific. When we are making claims on a food package about a single item of food, PBFA feels strongly that it should mean 100% plants. To do otherwise would be confusing.” In that regard, the terms vegetarian and vegan are much more specific and well understood, notes Simon, but these terms might not be the best marketing choice.
Familiar Plant-Based Labels and Logos
Plant-based labels on food products can be a beneficial way for consumers interested in eating more plant-based foods to identify them without the need for scrutinizing ingredients. According to Micheline D. Cormier, RDN, LDN, Manager of Culinary Systems Culinary Solutions Sodexo, based in Washington DC, PBFA and Certified Vegan labeling programs are well known and respected as the subject matter experts in the world of plant-based and vegan ingredients. “They are a third-party verification process that enables the manufacturer to accurately use claims and/or logos for plant-based or vegan on their packaging. The presence of the logo assures the consumer that they are buying a certified plant based or vegan product. In short, the logos help the consumer make informed decisions that meet their health goals or values,” explains Cormier.
By relying on an entity like PBFA and Certified Vegan, it can mean that these independent third-party verification systems ensure that rules and regulations are kept to a high standard when claiming a product is plant-based and/or vegan, says Cormier. “By using these companies to corroborate the claims, food companies ensure that the claims of plant-based or vegan on products are accurate. Essentially, PBFA and Certified Vegan review the manufacturing process and validate whether the end products complies with specific standards. When the manufacturer meets the standards, they can certify their products and use the appropriate seal or logo on the packaging. As a result, concerned consumers can trust that they know what they are buying,” says Cormier.
PBFA has created a movement towards a more efficient labeling process for plant-based products. A few of their strategies include the Certified Plant Based food certification program,3 plant-based meat labeling standards,4 and plant-based milk labeling guidelines.5 According to New York-based Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, food and nutrition communications consultant and market research consultant for Innova Market Insights, NSF International and PBFA were the first to introduce a plant-based icon, Certified Plant Based, to help consumers like you to find replacements to meat, egg, and dairy products. According to NSF, Certified Plant Based focuses on plant-based meat, egg and dairy alternatives, compared with the Certified Vegan label that can be applied to a wide range of foods and non-foods. For the Certified Plant Based mark, only plant-based foods that are intended to replace animal-based products such as meat, egg and dairy alternatives are eligible.
The PBFA issues standards for terminology on plant-based products that allow for references to the type of animal-meat (i.e., “meat, “chicken,” “hamburger”) and the form of the product (i.e., “nuggets,” “burger,”) along with a qualifier that clearly indicates that the food is plant-based or vegetarian. These qualifiers include: “plant-based,” “vegan,” “meatless,” “meat-free,” “vegetarian,” “veggie,” “made from plants,” and other similar phrases.” 3
Simon explains that PBFA Certified Plant Based is different than Certified Vegan. She explains, “It’s ‘vegan plus’, meaning that the Certified Plant Based label is used for foods made from plants, while ‘vegan’ means that it can be everything that doesn’t have an animal product in it. Our certification is not based on just a lack of ingredients. We care about what the ingredients are. We think about plant-based as an alternative to a conventional meat and dairy product. Slapping a plant-based label on cereal or whole wheat bread is not relevant to the conversation. Our goal is to find great tasting, healthy, sustainable alternatives to meat and dairy products. When the plant-based term is used on products, it is for those that are replacing animal products. This includes products like a baked good that could have had eggs, or a protein powder that could have had an animal protein in it.”
The Certified Vegan logo is placed on approved products that do not contain animal-based ingredients, including meat, eggs, milk, and honey.6 Wolfram says that she finds this label the most popular, as it assists consumers in quickly determining if a food is vegan without having to dissect the ingredients list, especially when the label is on the front of a food package. “I like this logo because it aligns with the definition of vegan and is only granted to foods without any animal byproducts including honey, insects, processing with bone char, or testing, which tends to be stricter than plant-based labeling,” Wolfram says.
What about labeling of animal-based terms, such as “meat” and “milk” on plant-based products? Meat and dairy producers have petitioned the FDA to restrict the use of meat and dairy descriptors to animal-based products, says Hermann. She adds, “In contrast, PBFA specifically advises manufacturers to use terminology such as meat or burger.” Kharod says that the plant-based food labels may see a change based on the results of lawsuits and decisions regarding the use of terms like “meat” and “milk.” You can keep up on the status of these legal issues at the PFBA website at plantbasedfoods.org.
What Does the Certified Plant Based Label Mean?
The PBFA Certified Plant Based labeling standards for terminology are voluntary, according to the following description, per Mindy Hermann.
Suggested qualifiers include:
- Plant-Based: Consists mainly of ingredients derived from plants and does not contain animal ingredients of any kind.
- Vegan: Does not contain animal ingredients of any kind. (iii) Meatless: Does not contain meat from any animal.
- Meat-Free: Does not contain meat from any animal.
- Vegetarian: Consists mainly of ingredients derived from plants but may contain small amounts of animal-derived ingredients, such as eggs or milk, but does not contain meat from any animal.
- Veggie: Short form of “vegetarian.”
- Additional acceptable qualifiers include: “Made from Plants,” “Veggie-based,” or other similar terms.
NSF’s labeling program (owned by PBFA) eligible categories include:
- tofu and tempeh
- meat alternatives to beef, pork, chicken, fish, etc.
- milk alternatives such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, novelty and frozen desserts, butter, dips, dressings, sour cream and other beverages and creamers
- egg substitutes and mayo
- meals with meat or dairy alternatives (including pizza)
- baked goods
- protein powders
- plant-based ingredients that are used as a primary ingredient
- products that are inherently plant based such as single ingredient vegetables, nuts, etc.
- products that contain any amount of animal-derived ingredient(s), including honey or casein
- tobacco products
- dietary supplements
- pet food.
Ingredients not of plant or animal origin are allowed for use in a Certified Plant Based product as long as individually or combined they do not exceed 10% of the product formula (excluding water and salt).3
Aside from certified logos, you may notice an array of plant-based marketing terms on food packages. Food companies tend to include “plant-based” in a front-of-pack callout more than display an icon, says Hermann.
She explains that certification to use an icon requires a fee and product testing, but “plant-based” marketing terms do not have a strict definition or governing body controlling its use. Simon is concerned about these front-of-pack, plant-based marketing claims that may be used in a deceptive way, such as on products that are not 100% plant-based. “Look for certification seals and read ingredients; don’t believe anything on the front of the pack, as it’s mostly marketing,” she advises.
My word of advice when shopping for plant-based, vegan products is to always check the ingredients list and refrain from depending on the marketing use of the term “plant-based” because it’s not 100% dependable. Wolfram suggests to use the bold allergen statements at the bottom of the ingredients list as a first-glance check to see if a food product is not vegan. “If a food contains any of these ingredients, they will be bolded and a consumer can tell if the product is not vegan, without having to read the entire ingredients list,” says Wolfram. Reviewing allergen statements does not ensure a product is vegan, though so it’s always important to do your research.
Since plant-based marketing labels cannot be completely trusted, Cormier encourages individuals and health professionals to look for the Certified Vegan or Plant Based logos when selecting vegan or plant-based foods. The exception would be fruits, vegetables, grains or seeds of a single origin, as they do not fall in the category of plant-based certification, even though they are plant-based,” says Cormier.
You should also beware of plant-washing—just because it says plant-based, it may not be healthful! “The phrasing ‘plant-based’ has the potential to appear on foods and products across all categories and even in non-consumables like health and beauty care, detergents, and pet food,” says Cormier. Karen C. Duester, MS, RD, President of Food Consulting Company based in San Diego, says that while there is no FDA definition for “plant-based” from a labeling perspective, using that claim means it needs to be truthful and not misleading, though that is in the eye of the beholder.
“The role of marketing is to make a product or service attractive to the customer. There is no doubt that marketers will use the term ‘plant-based’ to increase profitability,” says Cormier, who adds that we saw this with the “cholesterol free” movement years ago, in which foods like potato chips that never inherently contained cholesterol were marketed as “cholesterol free”. She adds, “The consumer needs to be educated on how to choose healthy plant-based or vegan foods based on their individual health goals and values.” According to Innova data on launches of plant-based products in the US, growing categories with a plant-based claim include bakery, desserts, and especially snacks, reports Hermann.
What Do You Look for in Products?
The shift in the term from “vegan” to “plant-based” also impacts the confusion around food labeling. While the majority (54%) of Americans may be interested in eating more plant-based meals, a small but growing subset of people eat a vegetarian (6%) and vegan (3%) diet, according to Vegetarian Resources Group.1 And the term “plant-based” has become increasingly synonymous with “vegan” in the vegan community. However, not just vegans are using this term to signify their lifestyle. Many people are shifting to more plant-based diets, or simply trying new, edgy plant-based products, such as trendy burgers, non-dairy milks and ice cream, and egg-substitutes. Recent data from The NPD Group found that 86% of people buying plant-based products still consume meat and animal-based dairy products.7
“‘Plant-based’ has been shown to be more consumer-friendly than vegan, which connotes more of a lifestyle commitment. Innova Market Insights consumer research suggests that ‘plant-based’ may appeal to those looking for culinary variety and adventure rather than a full vegan experience. Consumers also perceive plant-based as healthier and better tasting than vegan. Growth in plant-based claims far outpaces vegan and, even more so, vegetarian,” says Hermann.
Plant-Based at the Grocery Store
In addition to certified labels, some retail companies like Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Safeway have shelf tags that identify vegan foods, and most grocery stores have search engines on their websites that can easily identify plant-based foods and ingredients, says Cormier. But she stresses that since the definition of plant-based can be tricky, retail companies should communicate their definition of plant-based to help the consumer make informed decisions when selecting products.
Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, retail dietitian team leader based in central Pennsylvania reports that her retail store is in the process of creating a custom pricing tag attribute that will speak to the plant-forward trend. Some of the considerations made so far have included that the items are primarily made from plants, but are not necessarily vegan. She states that items would also have limited amounts of fat, saturated fat and sodium, with exceptions given to select non-dairy plant foods made with nuts and coconut. Since plant-forward foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and other fresh produce are evidently 100% plant-based, the tagging would not apply to these items. Shopping can be made much simpler when the products have concise vegan labels that are easier to understand, especially for plant-based beginners.
Finding Plant-Based Meals at Restaurants
How has plant-based labeling entered the dining space? Wolfram reports there is no industry-wide standard labeling, but many food service establishments note which menu items are vegetarian and vegan. “These labels are not always correct, and I advise clients to read the menu item description,” says Taylor. Kharod would like to see a standardized logo or symbol that clearly indicates the menu items that are vegan on restaurant menus. She says some common oversights include soups that may have chicken broth, dishes that may have fish-based sauces, and other items that may have milk-based ingredients.
As the demand for plant-based items in dining increases, some companies are adding plant-based logos to their private product lines and in their signage programs, says Cormier. For example, registered dietitians at Sodexo have developed a working definition for vegan, plant-based and vegetarian which is used to tag ingredients and recipes. “This information then interfaces with the consumers through our Bite app, which displays a plant-based icon to identify ingredients and recipes meeting the criteria. This tool makes it easy for the customer to select plant-based items at the point of purchase as it is available on their phone,” says Cormier.
Some restaurants, like Burger King and Dunkin Donuts, are offering plant-based menu items and marketing them using a registered trademark on their websites and signage, says Cormier. For example, Dunkin Donuts offers a “Plant Based Beyond Sausage® Sandwich” on its menu.
If dining operations are interested in offering completely plant-based or vegan menu options, how can they ensure meeting these goals? Cormier says that at Sodexo, it starts with the specification data sheets they receive from vendors. Dietitians analyze the ingredient statements, claims, and data that are received from manufacturers. If the product is not certified vegan or plant-based through a third party, they request letters of certification on components, such as sugars, so that they can determine in which category the item is tagged internally. Like in the case of allergies, Sodexo has disclaimers that their facilities are not vegan, or plant-based. There could be cross-contamination, even though food safety programs and practices are in place that reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
Stark stresses that with so much interest around plant-based eating, coupled with the amount of consumer confusion on this topic, dietitians have a role to play beyond labeling. “As a dietitian in the retail space, I work with my team to regularly communicate about the benefits of such an eating pattern and provide various types of education to our shoppers. Such examples have included easy and affordable recipes via our in-store magazine, tips for converting meat-based meals to those that contain less meat or none at all, plant-based cooking classes and workshops, social media posts, traditional media appearances, and more. To properly educate, consumers certainly need more guidance and support than a package claim. While product innovation within the plant-based category is a wonderful thing, it doesn’t replace the healthfulness, affordability and approachability of a diet built on the basics—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, beans.”