March 2021 Issue
Plant-Based Labels & Certifications
By Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
Vol. 23, No. 3, P. 34
Amid consumer confusion, third-party certification organizations attempt to bring clarity to front-of-package labeling.
The popularity of plant-based foods continues to soar, with the majority of Americans reporting interest in eating more plant-based meals.1 People are drawn to plant-based products for many reasons, including better personal and environmental health, animal welfare, and more adventurous eating. This trend isn’t happening only in big cities in coastal states; plant-based purchases are increasing in every region of the country and among vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike.
But consumers’ increased desire to eat more plant-based has brought both opportunities and challenges for identifying plant-based options in food products, retail settings, and dining establishments. Food companies can communicate their plant-based ingredients and foods to consumers on labels and in a variety of other ways, but there are several challenges in widespread implementation of these labels, from how to define terms (can you truly call it “milk” if it comes from a nut?) to “plant-washing” (putting “plant-based” on everything from shampoo to alcohol to candy to create a health halo). However, certified labeling programs can help consumers clearly identify options.
“The plant-based food industry has grown exponentially over the past couple of years as more people choose to eat plant-based, either for health, ethics, or climate change reasons. People who eat plant-based need to be aware of what they’re consuming. Accurate labels can help people choose better options,” says Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN, chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, who’s based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
A debate has erupted over defining the term “plant-based,” which can cause confusion for some consumers. Picture ordering a “plant-based burger” at a restaurant, expecting it to be 100% plant-based, only to find out that the vegan veggie burger patty was topped with dairy-based cheese and egg-based mayo.
So, what does “plant-based” mean? The answer is elusive. “There’s no standard definition of the term, and various organizations, companies, and individuals use it to mean different things,” says Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN, a vegan private practice dietitian based in Chicago.
Indeed, a survey conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group reviewed how people use and define the term “plant-based diet.” This study showed that general consumers use this term in a variety of ways: 20% thought it meant vegetarian, 17% thought it referred to vegan, 18% thought it was vegetarian or vegan diets composed of whole foods, 13% thought it meant a whole foods diet that could include animal products, and 24% didn’t know. In addition, the study found that in 74% of research studies on “plant-based diets,” the plant-based diet wasn’t explicitly defined—28% of the studies used the term interchangeably with vegetarian or vegan, 10% used the term to mean low meat consumption, and 5% defined the term as the avoidance of all animal products.2
Karen C. Duester, MS, RD, president of Food Consulting Company, based in Del Mar, California, says there’s no FDA definition for “plant-based” and she doesn’t see the FDA defining the term anytime soon; after all, it hasn’t defined the term “vegan.”
“In general, plant-based means the same thing as vegan, but it appeals to a much broader group of people,” Duester says. “From a marketing perspective, plant-based companies would prefer to make that statement as opposed to vegan; it’s much broader and a more mainstream term.”
Los Angeles–based Michele Simon, JD, MPH, founder of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), stresses that plant-based foods should mean 100% plant-based. She believes the argument over the definition originates from the confusion over “plant-based diet” vs “plant-based food.”
“A diet pattern encompasses meals with different components, while a food is more specific,” according to Simon. “When we are making claims on a food package about a single item of food, PBFA feels strongly that it should mean 100% plants. To do otherwise would be confusing.” In that regard, the terms vegetarian and vegan are much more specific and well understood, she notes, but these terms might not be the best marketing choice.
Labels and Certifications
Plant-based labels on food products can be a beneficial way for consumers to identify plant-based foods without the need to scrutinize ingredients. Micheline D. Cormier, RDN, LDN, manager of culinary systems at Sodexo in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says that PBFA and Certified Vegan labeling programs are well known and respected as the subject matter experts in the world of plant-based and vegan ingredients.
“They’re a third-party verification process that enables manufacturers to accurately use claims and/or logos for plant-based or vegan on their packaging. The presence of the logo assures consumers that they’re buying a certified plant-based or vegan product. In short, the logos help consumers make informed decisions that meet their health goals or values,” Cormier says.
Third-party verification systems such as PBFA and Certified Vegan can ensure high standards of rules and regulations for claiming a product is plant-based and/or vegan, Cormier says. “By using these companies to corroborate the claims, food companies ensure the claims of plant-based or vegan on products are accurate. Essentially, PBFA and Certified Vegan review the manufacturing process and validate whether the end product complies with specific standards. When the manufacturer meets the standards, they can certify their products and use the appropriate seal or logo on the packaging. As a result, concerned consumers can trust that they know what they’re buying,” she adds.
PBFA has created a movement toward a more efficient labeling process for plant-based products. A few of its strategies include the Certified Plant Based food certification program,3 plant-based meat labeling standards,4 and plant-based milk labeling guidelines.5
Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, a food and nutrition communications consultant and market research consultant for Innova Market Insights, in Metro New York, says NSF International and PBFA were the first to introduce a plant-based icon, Certified Plant Based, to help consumers find replacements for meat, eggs, and dairy. According to NSF, Certified Plant Based focuses on plant-based meat, egg, and dairy alternatives, compared with the Certified Vegan label, which can be applied to a wide range of foods and nonfoods. For the Certified Plant Based mark, only plant-based foods intended to replace animal-based products, such as meat, egg, and dairy alternatives, are eligible. The NSF certification program is owned by PBFA.3
The PBFA issues standards for terminology used on plant-based products that allow for references to the type of animal meat (eg, “meat, “chicken,” “hamburger”) and the form of the product (eg, “nuggets,” “burger”), along with a qualifier that clearly indicates that the food is plant-based or vegetarian. These qualifiers include: “plant-based,” “vegan,” “meatless,” “meat-free,” “vegetarian,” “veggie,” “made from plants,” and other similar phrases.4
Simon explains that PBFA Certified Plant Based is different from Certified Vegan. “The Certified Plant Based label is used for foods made from plants, while ‘vegan’ means that it can be everything that doesn’t have an animal product in it. Our certification is not based on just a lack of ingredients. We care about what the ingredients are. We think about plant-based as an alternative to a conventional meat and dairy product. Slapping a ‘plant-based’ label on cereal or whole wheat bread is not relevant to the conversation. We are trying to help consumers find great-tasting, healthy, sustainable alternatives to meat and dairy products. When we use the plant-based term, it is for products that are replacing animal products. We are broadening it to products like a baked good that could have had eggs or a protein powder that could have had an animal protein in it,” she says.
The Certified Vegan logo is placed on approved products that don’t contain animal-based ingredients, including meat, eggs, milk, and honey.6 Wolfram finds this label to be the most popular, as it assists consumers in quickly determining whether a food is vegan without having to dissect the ingredients list, especially when the label is on the front of a food package. “I like this logo because it aligns with the definition of vegan and is only granted to foods without any animal byproducts, including honey, insects, processing with bone char, or testing [on animals], which tends to be stricter than plant-based labeling,” she says.
What about labeling of animal-based terms, such as “meat” and “milk,” on plant-based products? Meat and dairy producers have petitioned the FDA to restrict the use of meat and dairy descriptors to animal-based products, Hermann says. She adds, “In contrast, PBFA specifically advises manufacturers to use terminology such as ‘meat’ or ‘burger.’”
Kharod says plant-based food labels may see a change based on the results of lawsuits and decisions regarding the use of terms such as “meat” and “milk.” Up-to-date information on the status of these legal issues is available at the PBFA website, plantbasedfoods.org.
In addition to certification logos, an array of plant-based marketing terms has appeared on food packages. Food companies tend to include “plant-based” in a front-of-pack callout rather than display an icon, Hermann says, explaining that certification to use an icon requires a fee and product testing, but “plant-based” marketing terms don’t have a strict definition or governing body controlling their use.
Simon is concerned about these front-of-pack plant-based marketing claims that may be used in a deceptive way, such as on products that are not 100% plant-based. “Look for certification seals and read ingredients; don’t believe anything on the front of the pack, as it’s mostly marketing,” she advises.
Wolfram tells her clients to always read the ingredients list and not rely on any marketing use of “plant-based” to determine whether a product is vegan. She teaches clients to use the bold allergen statements at the bottom of the ingredients list as a first-glance check to see whether a food product isn’t vegan. “If a food contains any [milk or eggs], they will be bolded and a consumer can tell if the product isn’t vegan without having to read the entire ingredients list,” Wolfram says. However, a shortage of certain allergen statements doesn’t ensure a product is vegan.
“The lack of regulation leaves it up to manufacturers to do the right thing. As a result, I would encourage individuals and health professionals to look for the Certified Vegan or Plant Based logos when selecting vegan or plant-based foods until there’s more legislation around plant-based items. The exception would be fruits, vegetables, grains, or seeds of a single origin, as they don’t fall in the category of plant-based certification, even though they are plant-based,” Cormier says.
Consumers should also beware of plant-washing—a food being plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthful. “The phrasing ‘plant-based’ has the potential to appear on foods and products across all categories and even in nonconsumables like health and beauty care, detergents, and pet food,” Cormier says.
Duester adds that while there’s no FDA definition for “plant-based” from a labeling perspective, using that claim means it needs to be truthful and not misleading, though that’s in the eye of the beholder. For example, she stresses food companies should be careful about consumers’ perception of a health halo when stating “plant-based” on a product (after all, sugar is plant-based), as the food industry doesn’t want class action attorneys pouncing on them.
“The role of marketing is to make a product or service attractive to the customer. There’s no doubt that marketers will use the term ‘plant-based’ to increase profitability,” Cormier says, adding that this was the case with the “cholesterol-free” movement years ago, in which foods such as potato chips that never inherently contained cholesterol were marketed as “cholesterol-free.”
“Consumers need to be educated on how to choose healthful plant-based or vegan foods based on their individual health goals and values,” Cormier says.
According to Innova data regarding plant-based product launches in the United States, growing categories with a plant-based claim include bakery, desserts, and especially snacks, Hermann says.
What Do Consumers Want?
The shift among consumers from using the term “vegan” to “plant-based” also impacts the confusion around food labeling. While the majority (54%) of Americans may be interested in eating more plant-based meals, a small but growing subset of people eat a vegetarian (6%) and vegan (3%) diet, according to Vegetarian Resource Group.1 And the term “plant-based” has become increasingly synonymous with “vegan” in the vegan community.
However, it isn’t just vegans using this term to signify their lifestyle. Many people are shifting to more plant-based diets, or simply trying new plant-based products, such as trendy burgers, nondairy milks and ice cream, and egg substitutes. Recent data from The NPD Group found that 86% of people buying plant-based products still consume meat and animal-based dairy products.7
“‘Plant-based’ has been shown to be more consumer-friendly than ‘vegan,’ which connotes more of a lifestyle commitment,” Hermann says. “Innova Market Insights consumer research suggests that ‘plant-based’ may appeal to those looking for culinary variety and adventure rather than a full vegan experience. Consumers also perceive plant-based as healthier and better tasting than vegan. Growth in plant-based claims far outpaces vegan and, even more so, vegetarian,” Hermann says.
Plant-Based in the Supermarket Aisle
In addition to certification labels, some retail companies such as Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Safeway have shelf tags that identify vegan foods, and most grocery stores have search engines on their websites that can easily point out plant-based foods and ingredients, Cormier says. But she stresses that since the definition of plant-based can be tricky, retail companies should communicate their definition of plant-based to help consumers make informed decisions when selecting products.
Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, a retail dietitian team leader based in central Pennsylvania, reports, “At my retailer, we are in the process of creating a custom pricing tag attribute that will speak to the plant-forward trend. Some of the considerations made so far have included that the items are primarily made from plants but aren’t necessarily vegan. Items also would have limited amounts of fat, saturated fat, and sodium, with exceptions given to select nondairy plant foods made with nuts and coconut. The tagging would not apply to obvious plant-forward foods such as nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables, and instead would appear on plant-based meals, ingredients, and beverages, to name a few.”
Identifying Plant-Based in Dining
How has plant-based labeling entered the dining space? Wolfram reports there’s no industrywide standard labeling, but many foodservice establishments note which menu items are vegetarian and vegan. “These labels are not always correct, and I advise clients to read the menu item description,” she says.
Kharod would like to see a standardized logo or symbol that clearly indicates the vegan menu items on restaurant menus. She says some common oversights include soups that may have chicken broth, dishes that may have fish-based sauces, and items that may have milk-based ingredients.
As the demand for plant-based items in dining increases, some companies are adding plant-based logos to their private product lines and in their signage programs, Cormier says. For example, RDs at Sodexo have developed working definitions for vegan, plant-based, and vegetarian, which are used to tag ingredients and recipes. “This information then interfaces with the consumers through our Bite app, which displays a plant-based icon to identify ingredients and recipes meeting the criteria. This tool makes it easy for the customer to select plant-based items at the point of purchase, as it is available on their phone,” Cormier says.
Some restaurants, such as Burger King and Dunkin’, offer plant-based menu items and market them using specific brand names on their websites and signage, Cormier says. For example, Dunkin’ features a “Plant Based Beyond Sausage Sandwich” on its menu, made with plant-based sausage from meat alternative company Beyond Meat.
If dining operations are interested in offering completely plant-based or vegan menu options, how can they ensure they’re meeting these goals? Cormier says at Sodexo, it starts with the specification data sheets they receive from vendors, and dietitians analyze the ingredient statements, claims, and data included on these sheets. If the product isn’t certified vegan or plant-based through a third party, they request letters of certification on components, such as sugars, so they can determine in which category the item is tagged internally. As in the case of food allergens, Sodexo has disclaimers that their facilities aren’t vegan or plant-based. There could be cross-contamination, even though food safety programs and practices are in place that reduce this risk.
Stark stresses that with so much interest around plant-based eating, coupled with the amount of consumer confusion on this topic, dietitians have a role to play beyond labeling. “As a dietitian in the retail space, I work with my team to regularly communicate about the benefits of such an eating pattern and provide various types of education to our shoppers. Such examples have included easy and affordable recipes via our in-store magazine, tips for converting meat-based meals to those that contain less meat or none at all, plant-based cooking classes and workshops, social media posts, traditional media appearances, and more.
“To properly [be educated], consumers certainly need more guidance and support than a package claim,” Stark says. “While product innovation within the plant-based category is a wonderful thing, it doesn’t replace the healthfulness, affordability, and approachability of a diet built on the basics—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and beans.”
— Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, is a plant-based sustainability expert based in Ojai, California.
What Does the Certified Plant Based Label Mean?
The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) Certified Plant Based labeling standards for terminology are voluntary, according to the following description, per Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, a food and nutrition communications consultant, based in metro New York, and market research consultant for Innova Market Insights.
Suggested qualifiers include the following:
• Plant-Based: Consists mainly of ingredients derived from plants and doesn’t contain animal ingredients of any kind.
• Vegan: Doesn’t contain animal ingredients of any kind.
• Meatless: Doesn’t contain meat from any animal.
• Meat-Free: Doesn’t contain meat from any animal.
• Vegetarian: Consists mainly of ingredients derived from plants but may contain small amounts of animal-derived ingredients, such as eggs or milk, but doesn’t contain meat from any animal.
• Veggie: Short form of “vegetarian.”
• Additional acceptable qualifiers include “made from plants,” “veggie-based,” and other similar terms.
NSF International’s labeling program (owned by PBFA) includes the following eligible categories:
• tofu and tempeh;
• meat alternatives to beef, pork, chicken, fish, etc;
• milk alternatives such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, novelty and frozen desserts, butter, dips, dressings, sour cream, and beverages and creamers;
• egg substitutes and mayo;
• meals with meat or dairy alternatives (including pizza);
• baked goods;
• protein powders; and
• plant-based ingredients that are used as a primary ingredient.
The following products are excluded:
• products that are inherently plant-based, such as single-ingredient vegetables, nuts, and fruits;
• products that contain any amount of animal-derived ingredient(s), including honey or casein;
• tobacco products;
• dietary supplements; and
• pet food.
Ingredients not of plant or animal origin are allowed for use in a Certified Plant Based product as long as individually or combined they don’t exceed 10% of the product formula (excluding water and salt).
— Source: Stein R. What is the Certified Plant Based seal? The Food Industry Association website. https://www.fmi.org/blog/view/fmi-blog/2019/12/03/what-is-the-certified-plant-based-seal. Published December 3, 2019.
1. How many adults in the U.S. are vegan? How many adults eat vegetarian when eating out? Asks the Vegetarian Resource Group in a national poll. The Vegetarian Resource Group website. https://www.vrg.org/blog/2020/08/07/how-many-adults-in-the-u-s-are-vegan-how-many-adults-eat-vegetarian-when-eating-out-asks-the-vegetarian-resource-group-in-a-national-poll/. Published August 7, 2020.
2. Brown C, Mathew J, Wolf I, Kerckhoff A. What does “plant-based” actually mean? The Vegetarian Resource Group website. https://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2018issue4/2018_issue4_plant_based.php. Published 2018.
3. Stein R. What is the Certified Plant Based seal? The Food Industry Association website. https://www.fmi.org/blog/view/fmi-blog/2019/12/03/what-is-the-certified-plant-based-seal. Published December 3, 2019.
4. Plant-based meat labeling standards released. Plant Based Foods Association website. https://plantbasedfoods.org/plant-based-meat-labeling-standards-released/. Published December 9, 2019.
5. Simon M. Voluntary standards for the labeling of plant-based milks in the United States. Plant Based Foods Association website. https://plantbasedfoods.org/voluntary-standards-for-the-labeling-of-plant-based-milks-in-the-united-states/. Published July 10, 2018.
6. What is the Certified Vegan logo? Certified Vegan website. https://vegan.org/certification/
7. Plant-based proteins are harvesting year-over-year growth in foodservice market and broader appeal. Benzinga website. https://www.benzinga.com/pressreleases/18/06/p11836149/plant-based-proteins-are-harvesting-year-over-year-growth-in-foodservi. Published June 6, 2018.