This post was originally written for Vegan Mainstream. The link to the original can be found here.
As humans, we assign labels to ourselves and to others every day; we work through and under the constraints of labels, and some of us also work diligently to break them. No matter how we work with or against them, labels are widespread in our society of simultaneous classification, inclusion, and differentiation. So, then, when it comes to your eating and lifestyle habits, what do you label yourself as on an everyday basis? Are you “vegan,” or are you “plant-based”? Does it truly matter if we are all consistent in this labeling terminology in every facet of our explanations to ourselves, to others, and to the media?
In a 2011 post by Lindsay S. Nixon, a.k.a. the “Happy Herbivore,” Lindsay explained her reasons for titling her eating style as “plant-based” as opposed to “vegan”: “A lot of people assume something is healthy because it is “vegan” – but there are a lot of unhealthy foods that are vegan – like French fries, and potato chips and white bread and Oreos…That’s why I like making a distinction in saying I eat a plant-based diet, as opposed to saying I eat a vegan diet. Because you can eat a vegan diet and never eat plants — or eat foods that were once plants but have been so processed they don’t really look like those plants anymore.”
Lately, I’ve seen other variations of the “plant-based” phrase to describe what is essentially vegan eating, including “plant-powered” and “plant-centered” wordings. Julieanna Hever, “The Plant-Based Dietitian,” has built a small empire of media appearances and cookbook offerings centered on “plant-based” nutrition. While the aforementioned authors do also associate with and seemingly advocate for “vegan” foods, the differentiation is still intact – at times, the word “vegan” is not used once in media appearances or recipes offered to the mainstream world.
On the other hand, other beacons of the veg field keep the “vegan” title consistently apparent – Chef Chloe Coscarelli, for example, emblazons her books with the vegan distinction and, in most every live television appearance, explicitly states she follows a vegan diet. Jason Wrobel, a raw chef and host of the Cooking Channel’s “How to Live to 100” clearly explains and labels his recipes as “vegan.” In essence, for these vegan representatives, the label is clear.
While I’m not 100 percent for one or the other, I would like to pose some questions: does the distinction between “plant-based” and “vegan” matter? One question that may arise is the matter of being “plant-based” – could one also be “plant-based” and not be vegan? Couldn’t I create a “plant-based” diet that wavers in its vegan nature? While I could indeed be vegan and not plant-based, the flipping of the two may matter much more, because this means we could eat animal products as “plant-based eaters,” right? As we work to spread the importance of a vegan diet for our health, for animals, and for our environment, should we work to brand the movement as consistently as possible? Again, for those who are concerned with promoting veganism for a global audience, does consistency in terminology matter more than we may think?
I wonder if we might take into consideration the significance of consistent “trademarking” of this lifestyle. The word “vegan,” coined by the Vegan Society as early as 1944, distinguishes vegan eating and living from other types in a clear cut way – no animal products, no animal byproducts – ever. Branding foods and diets as “vegan” over simply “plant-based” may help conventional restaurants and food producers distinguish products with no animal parts of derivatives on food labels and on menus for those who want exactly that – vegan food (and not just something heavy in plant matter – imagine being served a “plant-based” chicken stock soup!). Branding consistently with the word “vegan” may also help those not already part of the vegan community to understand and define a group of people dedicated to not consuming animal products at any time.
In essence, the terminology we use helps us to continually define ourselves and to others. While I am certainly not against being “plant-based” in any form, I wonder if it’s time we band together and consistently exclaim: “yes, I am vegan!” It may be much more important than we ever thought.