Product labeling is a fundamental aspect in any food product. The issue of labeling is especially relevant for plant-based products, since they represent a new product category for consumers and can nowadays be labeled under different names, such as “vegan,” “plant-based,” “animal-free,” or other similar terms. In a growing market dedicated to animal-free, the designation used for the product is one of the parameters that can affect product choice. According to the article To V or not to V? How does ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ labelling impact mainstream appeal? by Proveg International, there is currently no legal, official and recognized definition of the terms “vegan” and “plant-based,” which are used interchangeably, leading consumers to not be able to understand whether or not the product is suitable for their dietary needs.
Let’s take a step back: how do the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” differ?
The term “vegan,” in its fullest sense, refers to those who have eliminated meat and dairy products from their diet, but also to those who cut out from their lives any products that have contributed to animal cruelty or exploitation. On the other hand, plant-based refers to diets that include foods derived from plant-based sources, both for ethical reasons and because of the perceived potential health benefits.
Thus, it can be seen that the target audience of these two terms is quite different: “vegan” is addressed to people who adopt a vegan lifestyle in its whole, while the term “plant-based” is addressed to all those people who want to reduce the consumption of animal products in their diet, but without applying this concept to other aspects of their lifestyle as well.
Perception of the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” in consumers’ choices
The term vegan is often associated with the V-Label or similar certifications, which attest that the product is completely free of animal-derived ingredients, giving an extra assurance to the consumer. On the other hand, by labeling the product as “plant-based,” the target consumer the product is aimed at becomes larger. A “vegan” product, according to the article, may be perceived as tied to a diet that is too restrictive, not tasty, and difficult to follow. When describing the product as “plant-based,” we target flexitarians, as well as vegans, if the absence of animal products on the label is indicated.
According to a survey conducted by the Good Food Institute, where several descriptive terms for plant-based meat were tested, the terminology used can influence consumer perception. The study examined the impact of description on attractiveness, sensory properties, and curiosity in trying and buying the product. The results of this study showed how the terms “plant-based,” “plant protein,” and “protein” are perceived positively by consumers, in contrast to terms such as “vegan” or “meatless.”
In addition to the choice between the terms “vegan” and “plant-based,” there are other key messages that need to be delivered to encourage the purchase of a product perceived as new by consumers. According to the Good Food Institute’s “Accelerating consumer adoption of plant-based meat” study, the messages considered to be decisive are those related to taste and texture, since these are precisely the ones that lead to repeated purchase of a given product. Similarly, when describing new products, such as plant-based alternatives, an important parameter is familiarity. In fact, according to the study, consumers are always reassured in buying products they are familiar with, as opposed to newer ones. Finally, pointing out the convenience in consuming the food, and the benefits it can have on health and the environment are messages that can trigger consumers.
Being able to describe your product in the most effective way is key to attracting consumers: especially in the plant-based food sector, this is important to intrigue not only consumers who already identify themselves as vegans, vegetarians, or flexitarians, but also those who are not interested in reducing their meat consumption, leading to greater intake of plant-based products and moving toward a more sustainable food system for the years to come.