What Does ‘Plant-Based’ Really Mean?

Written by: Julia Bolotina, Editor of For All the Fish

‘Plant-based’ has become something of a buzzword in the last few years, spotted more often than not next to a photo of a buddha bowl or a spirulina smoothie on Instagram. Going by the hashtag, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a cutesy synonym for ‘vegan’. However, though the two words can be used synonymously, ‘plant-based’ is a more nebulous term that can refer to vegan or vegetarian diets specifically, but may also be used to describe diets that include some animal products or even meat.

According to Merriam-Webster, the term has been around since the 1970s, when it was used as a synonym for ‘vegan’. Over time, however, the meaning started to change:

In subsequent decades plant-based has come to be employed in a looser fashion by many people. In many instances it can be difficult to say why speakers choose to distinguish between vegan and plant-based; possible reasons include a perceived animus toward vegans, or the desire to be semantically precise. (Words We’re Watching: ‘Plant-Based’)

Today the word still oscillates between a range of meanings, though the editors note that it’s increasingly being used to refer to meat substitutes made of plant ingredients.

The meaning of ‘plant-based’ can vary quite a bit in scientific literature as well. The authors of one article, for example, note that among studies they surveyed,

…most of these studies classified participants dichotomously, and only defined plant-based diets as vegetarian or vegan versus non-vegetarian diets; and few studies roughly classified plant-based diets as semi-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, and vegan diets, but they still did not address the gradual variation of plant-based diets. (Chen et al.

As plant-based diets become more present in public discourse, it’s possible the term will tend towards a more specific meaning. In the meantime, it’s important to be aware that different authors may mean different things by this label.

Photo by Ella Olsson from Unsplash

Peer review declaration:  This article is an explainer. It was reviewed for accuracy by a researcher in the field. However, as it was written by a member of our editorial team, the review was not blind.

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