Consumer Perception of ‘Vegan’ and ‘Plant-Based’ Labels in Europe

Louisianna Waring is the Insight and Commercial Policy Officer at The Vegan Society.

This year will be remembered as one in which we all faced significant challenges and opportunities, but despite the turbulence, the vegan food and drink industry in the UK has continued to thrive. Each month we have welcomed positive news stories for the vegan-sphere; in March it was reported that online searches for ‘vegan food near me’ are up 2100% in the last five years, and in October Deliveroo revealed that vegan orders from UK sales have increased 115% in the last year.

Whilst we recognise that booming sales figures are a great indicator of increasing popularity, behind the scenes we continue to face complexity surrounding vegan food and drink labelling.

The term ‘vegan’ was coined in 1944 by The Vegan Society and the term ‘plant-based’ is thought to originate in 1980 when Thomas Colin Campbell (well-known for The China Study) presented research to colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. Today, ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’ are often used interchangeably within the global food manufacturing industry, but do consumers think both terms have the same meaning, and which of the two do they prefer?

To test this, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1000 people across Great Britain[1].

Our results found that:

  • 64.1% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product contains absolutely no animal products (i.e. vegan)
  • 26.9% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product may contain small amounts of milk and/or eggs
  • 9% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product may contain small amounts of meat
  • Within dietary groups (vegan, vegetarian, partly vegetarian, avoids certain food for religious or cultural reasons, none of the above), the majority of each group believed ‘plant-based’ to mean vegan – interestingly, it was meat-eaters who felt most strongly about this at 69.5%
  • Within age groups, the majority of each group also believed ‘plant-based’ to mean vegan

We also looked at which of the two terms the public preferred, and found that:

  • 52.8% of the public prefer the term ‘vegan’, and 47.2% prefer the term ‘plant-based’
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, vegans felt most strongly about this – with 71.2% of those questioned favouring the term ‘vegan’
  • There were marginal differences within age groups, with all groups favouring ‘vegan’ except those aged 55-65 who slightly preferred ‘plant-based’

From this research, we found that most people think that if a product is labelled ‘plant-based’, then it contains no animal products. However, a surprising number of people are still wary of milk, eggs and/or meat in products labelled as ‘plant-based’. Additionally, although ‘plant-based’ has risen in popularity, at present, ‘vegan’ currently remains the preferred term. Although our research did not ask why respondents preferred this, we believe it comes down to this: consumers want clear and precise labelling so that they can make quick and informed decisions. Thanks to The Vegan Society, the term vegan does just this.

[1] Attest consumer survey for The Vegan Society – (‘Food labelling’) of 1,000 GB adults – conducted 2-3 September 2020

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