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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Vegan? Plant-based? What's this food movement called?

Christine Kapperman
Defining a movement is challenging when it's many movements at once—and they are constantly fluid.

Three college students created the Certified Vegan program 20 years ago. Today, with the hubbub of plant-based everything going mainstream, you'd think the term "vegan" was all but put out to pasture.

Vegan brand leaders tout their target market—flexitarians—with pride. Animal rights advocates celebrate baby steps that mean less meat on just one meal's plate.

These are great wins for health, for the environment and for the natural products industry.

But I wouldn't count veganism and vegetarianism out yet.

I was rather baffled in January when I did some Google analytics research for newhope.com. Terms using the words "plant based" were not performing well. Terms containing "vegan," however, were. Two weeks later came this news: Vegan-related searches on Google increased by 47% in 2020, with numbers suggesting veganism had become twice as popular as it was five years ago.

The clarity the term offers prompted Steven Smith of Vegan Fine Foods to stick with it, despite advice to avoid the word. It doesn't appear to turn off nonvegans at his south Florida store and eatery. Customer surveys suggest nearly three-fourths of his customers are not vegan. You can read more about his growth and strategy here.

Myth busted: Vegan doesn't turn meat eaters off (at least in Florida).

For more myths and truths, our feature this month examines some beliefs about the plant-based movement and shares takeaways for retailers dealing with customer confusion. We also share some research into just how tasty and nutritious plant-based burgers are (or aren't).

Tracking the roots of the term "plant based" is challenging. I remember rumblings of the rejection of "vegan" about five years ago from brands. Some said plant based connected better with consumers: it was softer (less political), offered clarity.

Fast forward and a solid definition of "plant based" seems elusive. Does plant-based eating include meat? How much? When is it so much of one's diet that it tips into omnivore territory? Does it include cheese? So does it really mean vegetarian or vegan?

Does it matter?  I like to think that words and definitions matter.

But the fact is many of today's food movements favor plants. Just look at the numbers. Debate aside, plant-based products are growing, and innovation is driving new categories and improving taste.

These are wins we can celebrate as we birth what appears to be a "plantiful" marketplace.

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