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What is the true definition of ‘Plant-Based’ and why does it matter?

Only a 12 minute read

Over the last couple of years the word ‘plant-based’ has been thrown around A LOT. This is fantastic news for the environment, our health and for the animals. Big companies around the world are now seeing the marketing value of the word ‘plant-based’, realising that people are more educated than ever about the environmental impact of food and the health benefits of eating ‘plant-based’.

But there is a lot of confusion and disagreement about the true definition of the word and this is a big problem. 

So we thought it was important to find out what the true meaning of the word really is and discuss why it matters so much. 

For the purpose of this article and the pursuit of truth, we have excluded our understanding of ‘plant-based’. We are going to delve into the historical meaning of the word, dictionary definitions, and use popular consensus and expert opinions to come to a definitive conclusion. 

Why does it matter so much?

climate change

Confusion builds chaos and complacency not progress and innovation.

Eating plant-based foods is the single biggest way we can reduce our impact on the environment as individuals. Plant-based food is a tool that will help us to reverse climate change. So it is imperative that we are all clear on exactly what this means, especially when ‘plant-based’ is used to market specifically to individuals who want to reduce their impact on our planet. 

It is important that we do not allow misinformation and confusion to dilute what could be a powerful tool for helping to reverse climate change. We do not want ‘plant-based’ food to become another blast of green-washing that is eventually forgotten due to so much misunderstanding. And we do not want to overshadow and damage those who are truly making an effort to understand ‘plant-based’ food and implement environmentally friendly food options. 

And finally, it is important that when people choose to eat ‘plant-based’ foods for health, allergy or ethical reasons that they are not served food that contains the very products they are trying to avoid. 

Confusion builds chaos and complacency not progress and innovation.

Plant-based origins

T Colin Campbell
Dr T Colin Campbell in the 1980's - Credit www.nutritionstudies.org

Considering this term is now over 50 years old, let’s see how the dictionary defines it.

What does the dictionary say?

The Cambridge Dictionary

cambridge dic

Collins Dictionary

Collins Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary




Oxford Learners Dictionary

Oxford Learners Dictionary

… that doesn’t seem very definitive. Is it mainly, or completely? We are none the wiser. 

When searching for the definition in the Merriam Webster dictionary, there is a long article about why the definition for plant-based is not clear enough to put into their dictionary….

It seems there is no clear and definitive dictionary definition of ‘plant-based’. The dictionaries appear to be as confused as everyone else. So I think it is safe to say these are not reliable enough to come to a conclusion on the true definition. Let’s dive deeper and see what the public think ‘plant-based’ means…

What do the people say?

We released polls across multiple facebook groups asking people what the word ‘plant-based’ means. 1,400 people voted and here is what we got:

What does the word 'Plant-Based' mean_

The popular consensus is that the word ‘plant-based’ refers to food made from 100% plants (both whole food and processed). Let’s see if this is backed up by the experts and the world’s plant-based pioneers.

What do the experts say?

We asked a few plant-based doctors and health professionals their understanding of the word ‘plant-based’ and here is what they told us:

Q: What does the word ‘plant-based’ mean

“No animal products in finished food or during processing. I would expand the definition, however, to WHOLE FOOD. No sugar and no added oil to achieve the best result of human health. That way, the word vegan can be quicker.”
Dr. Wadchara Pumpradit
Dr Wadchara Pumpradit
Bumrungrud Hospital, Bangkok and Good Food Academy
“Plant-based food is anything but animal products.

A plant based diet means, to me, that the foundation of the diet is based on plants. It can incorporate a variety of dietary approaches but must be mostly composed of non animal based foods."
Dr Gemma Newman
Dr Gemma Newman
“If a food or menu item was labelled plant-based, one would expect it to contain no animal products or animal-derived ingredients such as honey. It should be considered suitable for vegans and not mislead consumers in any way."
Rohini Bajekal
Rohini Bajekal
Nutritionist, Plant-Based Health Professionals UK
“Plant-based certified should convey to the consumer that the product is clean of any trace of animal products and includes only vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices.”
Punyanute Puprapussorn
Punyanute Puprapussorn
Plant-Based nutrition, eCornell

What do the plant-based pioneers say?

We asked some local and global plant-based pioneers their understanding of the word ‘plant-based’ and here is what they told us:

Q: What does the word ‘plant-based’ mean?

“Simply put, plant-based just means a food product that is made entirely of plants. No animal products. If it contains animal products like egg or cheese, then it is vegetarian, or if it contains animal products like meat, then it’s an omnivorous meal.

Plant-based in its simplest form is only products made with plants, but one should not assume that they are healthy. Oreos are made from plants!

If someone says that they eat a plant-based diet, it means that they eat predominantly plant-based foods. They could have honey, maybe they occasionally eat eggs and maybe they have some cheese every so often. They might wear leather, or have a jacket that has fur on it, they are not vegan. They aren’t predominantly focused on the ethics of food, but focus on the health aspect.”
plant based news
Plant Based News
Plant-based means food that is made from plants, without any animal content. It’s good for human beings, meanwhile it’s a sustainable option for the benefits of all humans and the planet.
Plant-Based Milk Pioneers
“The true meaning of plant-based is really simple. Everything comes from plants. By this it can be made into any form, processed or not, but every ingredient comes from a plant origin.”
natures charm
Natures Charm
Coconut Milk Pioneers
"Although the term plant-based has been around since the 70's and been pushed in different directions. HappyCow defines "plant-based" as meaning (food made) entirely from plants which conveys it won't include eggs, dairy, or even honey. Basically it's interchangeable with the phrase "vegan diet", except it disregards the reasoning for eating this way, whether that be animal rights, the environment, or health.
Happy Cow
Eric Brent
Founder & Director of Happy Cow
“Plant-based, in our view, is all food ingredients that are made of plants and not animals. The plant based food concept will be broad based ingredients that are harvested, adapted as well as creatively derived from plants with aim to minimize our human impacts to other living creatures.”
let's plant meat
Smith Taweelerdniti
CEO of Let's Plant Meat
“Plant-based food products should omit all animal products, including flavourings mimicking animal scent.”
more meat
More Meat
Plant-based meat pioneer

Both experts and pioneers in the field of plant-based nutrition, plant-based science and plant-based food innovation agree that a ‘plant-based diet’ consists mostly of plants but the term ‘plant-based’ when referring to food items or labelling should reflect food that consists of 100% plants and should not include any animal products at all.

Plant-based food VS plant-based diet

The general consensus is that a ‘plant-based diet’ is a way of eating that actively avoids all animal products including eggs and dairy. Whether this means that people following a ‘plant-based’ diet do consume animal products sometimes, when no other options are available, or whether these foods are strictly off the table, the overall goal is to avoid animal products altogether and consume 100% plants.

So if ‘plant’-based’ foods are labelled to make life easier for those following a ‘plant-based’ diet, surely the only logical way to make ‘plant-based’ foods is with 100% plants and no animal products at all.

plan based Food vs Diet

Do plant-based meats contain meat? – No

Do plant-based milks contain dairy? – No

Do plant-based cheeses contain dairy cheese? – No

Do plant-based eggs contain eggs? – No

Does plant-based protein powder contain animal products? – No

Does plant-based cream contain dairy? – No

Does plant-based fish contain fish? – No

So why do less specific menu items, meals and products labelled as ‘plant-based’ sometimes contain animal products? Shouldn’t these products be vegan friendly too?

Is plant-based the same as vegan?


Yes and no. On the whole it appears that ‘plant-based’ food is the same as vegan food since both come from 100% plants. But the word vegan has connotations specifically relating to animal rights, whereas people following a ‘plant-based’ diet are more often eating this way for health or environmental reasons.

Dr T. Colin Campbell states that one of the reasons he coined the word ‘plant-based’ in the first place was because of the connotations that the word ‘vegan’ carries.

The word ‘vegan’ refers to a lifestyle that avoids any products that are tested on animals, contain any animal ingredients including things like leather, and avoids supporting any attractions that use animals for entertainment such as zoos and circuses. Vegansim is not just limited to food so it can’t really be a diet, it’s more of a lifestyle.

‘Plant-based’ is an expansion on the word veganism that includes those who want to exclude animal products for environmental or health reasons, rather than animal rights reasons.

We declare...

With the research that we have done on the term ‘plant-based’ we want to put the true definition of the word out into the universe. 

In 1944 The Vegan Society coined the word Vegan. Today we declare the true meaning of the word ‘plant-based’.

Root The Future Dictionary
To describe a food item, meal or product that is made entirely from plants and is completely free of all animal products including dairy, egg, fish, meat, honey or any animal derived ingredients such as gelatin.
plant-based diet
A plant-based diet consists mostly or entirely of plant-based food. A plant-based diet is more flexible than a vegan diet and may include small amounts of animal products when plant-based foods are not available.

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