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‘Plant-Based’ Has Lost All Meaning

‘Plant-Based’ Has Lost All Meaning

Several years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to eat more plants. Doing so, I assumed, would be better for my health, for animals, and for the planet. Besides, it would be easy: The rise of plant-based meat alternatives, offered by companies such as Impossible Meat and Beyond Meat, made it a breeze to eat less meat but still satisfy the occasional carnivorous urge. I could have my burger and eat it too.

Or so I thought. Meat alternatives, I found, cost more than their conventional counterparts and are made with complicated ingredients that raise doubts about their healthiness—and even then, taste just okay. Other people have had similar concerns, part of the reason the popularity of those products has declined in recent years to such a degree that Beyond Meat is reportedly now in “survival mode.” But beyond the meat aisle, the “plant-based” label lives on in virtually every food product imaginable: instant ramen, boxed mac and cheese, Kraft singles, KitKat bars, even queso. You can now buy plant-based peanut butter. You can also wash your hair with plant-based shampoo and puff on a plant-based vape.

Queso made from cauliflower instead of milk is correctly described as plant-based. But if peanut butter is vegan to begin with, then what is the point of the label? And who asked for plant-based liquor? On packaging and ad copy, plant-based has been applied to so many items—including foods that are highly processed, or those that have never contained animal ingredients—that it has gotten “diluted to nothing,” Mark Lang, a marketing professor at the University of Tampa who studies food, told me.

Technically, plant-based does have a clear definition. The Cornell University biochemist Thomas Colin Campbell is often credited for coining the term in the 1980s as a neutral, less fraught descriptor for diets considered “vegan” or “vegetarian.” That is what made plant-based a popular term for companies eager to sell their meat replacements to a wide range of eaters. The Plant Based Foods Association uses essentially the same criteria—foods made from plants that do not contain animal products—to determine which products can bear its “Certified Plant Based Seal.”

Some companies describe products as “plant-based,” however, even if they don’t meet these criteria. Items sold as such include foods that have always been vegan, such as prepackaged jackfruit, and those mixed in with some animal products, such as Wahlburgers’ “Flex Blend” patties. But even a product that is properly described as “plant-based” might mean different things to different people, because there is no one reason to try to avoid the consequences of animal rearing and consumption. Health is the leading one, followed by environmental and ethical concerns, Emma Ignaszewski, the associate director of industry intelligence and initiatives at the Good Food Institute, told me.

The label’s vagueness has been a marketer’s dream, creating an enormous opportunity to capitalize on the perceived virtuousness and healthiness of eating plant-based. Brands use the “plant-based” label to “draw people’s attention to the aggregate goodness of a particular product” and simultaneously “deflect attention” from any less appealing attributes, Joe Árvai, a professor of psychology and biological sciences at the University of Southern California, told me. Some, like coconut water, are relatively good for you; others, like booze, are probably not. And their environmental benefits remain murky: Using fewer animal ingredients generally decreases emissions, but the climate impacts are not always straightforward.

In this way, the evolution of plant-based mirrors that of organic or gluten-free. These terms have specific meanings that are legitimately useful for helping people make choices about their food, but they have been overused into oblivion. You can now buy organic marijuana and gluten-free water along with your plant-based energy drinks. With multiple labels, including gluten-free, plant-based, GMO-free, Earth-friendly, and Fair Trade, “some products look like a NASCAR” vehicle, Lang said. “You’re just putting buttons all over the place, trying to get my attention.”

We may have already hit peak “plant-based.” According to a recent survey from the Food Industry Association, there is substantial confusion about what the label means—and that could be discouraging people from buying plant-based products. Some are now outright skeptical of the label. A 2023 study co-authored by Árvai suggested that people are less likely to go for foods described as “plant-based” (or “vegan”) compared with those called “healthy” or “sustainable.” One reason may be negative associations with plant-based meat alternatives, which are seen as “artificial” because of their ultra-processed nature, co-author Patrycja Sleboda, an assistant professor of psychology at Baruch College, City University of New York, told me.

Another may be that consumers are not sure whether “plant-based” foods are healthy. Americans may respond better when the actual benefits of the food are highlighted, she said. Similarly, market research conducted by Meati, a company that sells meat alternatives made of mushrooms, found that the “plant-based” label, applied to food, signaled “bad eating experience, bad flavor, bad texture, poor nutrition, too many ingredients, and overprocessing,” Christina Ra, Meati’s vice president of marketing and communications, told me.

Some good may still come out of the messiness of “plant-based” everything. Meati deliberately avoids the label altogether, opting instead to highlight the contents of its products (“95 percent mushroom root”). A recent Whole Foods report predicted that in 2024, consumers will want to “put the ‘plant’ back in ‘plant-based’” by replacing “complex meat alternatives” with recognizable ingredients such as walnuts and legumes. In a particular literal interpretation of this prediction, the company Actual Veggies sells a greens-and-grains patty called “The Actual Green Burger.” And some milk alternatives are also now skipping “plant-based” and simplifying their ingredient lists to just two items (nuts and water).

Shoppers just want to know what’s in their food without having to think too hard about it. Plant-based hasn’t helped with that. Even Campbell, after he coined the term, acknowledged that it was a limiting, potentially misleading phrase that left too much room for unhealthy ingredients, such as sugar and flour. Perhaps shoppers’ exasperation with the vagueness of “plant-based” eating may eventually lead brands to promote more plant-based eating: that is, just eating plants.