Food can be described in many different ways, but a few words on a label can make or break a business. When it comes to food made without any animal products, businesses use various descriptors, including plant-based, vegan, meat-free and meatless. Dairy-free cheese and butter brand Miyoko’s, for example, labels many of its products “phenomenally vegan,” while rival company JUST doesn’t have anything on the front of its plant-based “mayo” apart from “egg-free.” Some brands have opted for less of a consistent labelling policy, including Gardein, which labels some products as “meatless,” while other vegan products don’t allude to being meatless at all.
There are practical reasons to choose to label food as clearly vegan. For instance, clear labelling makes it much easier for people with allergies to know what products are safe for them to consume. But there’s a big difference between listing allergens as required by law and branding food “vegan” or “plant-based” for marketing purposes.
One incentive to not take the “free-from” labelling too far is it can make consumers assume a product lacks taste. A Stanford University study found that more people ate vegetables, and assumed the vegetables would be more enjoyable, when they were described using indulgent, rather than “healthy,” language. And the word “vegan” can be even more contentious.
Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute, recently advised against prominently using the word “vegan” on food labels. He said it sends out a clear message that a product is only meant for vegan customers. Instead, he advised focusing on a product’s health benefits and nutritional value, such as protein content. Of all the meat-free descriptors, he recommended “plant-based,” which he argues has wider appeal.
Kelly Swette, co-founder of Sweet Earth Enlightened Foods, which was recently acquired by Nestlé, seems to agree with Friedrich’s assessment: “The Awesome Burger proudly boasts ‘plant-based protein,'” she told CNBC. “While we often claim ‘vegan’ on our foods in the upper right hand corner, [we] want to make it clear that this product is inclusive of people who want to try more plant-based foods but do not ascribe to a particular food tribe.”
A study on customers’s perception of labels supports this overarching view. Researchers from the London School of Economics created four different versions of one menu that contained eight main course dishes, of which two were plant-based. Seven hundred and fifty people whose diet included meat and/or fish were each shown one version of the menu at random and asked which dish they’d hypothetically choose. The control version of the menu, which listed all dishes in the same format, with the plant-based dishes first and last, was compared to a menu that listed the two plant-based dishes at the bottom of the menu, in a separate “Vegetarian” section. Only 6 percent of those who received the vegetarian-section menu chose a plant-based dish, compared to 13 percent of those who received the control menu.
The World Resources Institute’s Better Buying Lab’s research concluded that the words “vegan” and “meat-free” put customers off. “Vegan,” it states, could be alienating to customers who don’t follow a vegan diet. However, the research argues this is also because “vegan” has negative connotations, which are arguably improving as the diet becomes more mainstream.
The topic of labelling comes as a growing number of states — including South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Missouri — have been passing laws restricting labels like “meat,” “sausage” and “burger” to foods containing animal. The pressure is consequently higher to get it right the first time. While it’s common for businesses to rebrand and relabel packaging, within the vegan/plant-based market, reputation sticks. A brand that doesn’t initially clarify that its food is vegan may face more difficulties down the line if it decides to rebrand with clear “vegan” labelling. And in the meantime, customers may find an alternative they become loyal to.
Often, labelling is a balancing act depending on a brand’s customer base. Those offering meat-free alternatives aimed at people wanting to reduce their meat intake may be more inclined to market products to “plant-based,” whereas a brand that offers products more likely to appeal to strict vegans may want to clearly label their products as such.
But as we become more aware and concerned about the dangers of eating factory-farmed meat on the planet and our health, as well as the welfare of animals, more and more people are cutting down on meat or cutting animal products from their diet all together. In the near future, when it comes to food, it’s likely outside labels will become much less important as we increasingly appreciate that it’s what’s on the inside that counts.