Dive Brief:

  • Plant-based and clean-eating are two diet choices gaining popularity, but not everyone knows what those terms mean, according to the International Food Information Council’s annual Food and Health Survey. The survey was conducted online by Greenwald & Associates on behalf of the IFIC. Participants were 1,012 Americans ages 18 to 80.
  • Clean eating was the most frequently cited diet of those surveyed, with 10% saying they follow that eating style. Another popular option was plant based, even though people expressed confusion surrounding the definition.
  • About 32% of those surveyed described a plant-based diet as vegan, while almost the same number (30%) described it as a diet that emphasizes minimally processed foods that come from plants. Another 20% thought it was a vegetarian diet, and 8% said the diet encouraged eating a maximum amount of fruits and vegetables with no limit on consuming animal meat, eggs and dairy.

Dive Insight:

Labeling has become a hot discussion point in the last few years. From Food and Drug Administration regulations — or lack thereof — of definitions of “healthy” and “natural,” to the term “milk” becoming a point of contention between the dairy industry and its plant-based competition, a lot of what is printed on today’s food and beverage products asks consumers to read between the lines. And it seems like manufacturers may be causing more confusion than clarity.

Although IFIC recently released another survey that found about three-quarters of consumers know that plant-based milk doesn’t contain cow’s milk, this more recent survey demonstrates that when it comes to foods and beverages overall, the terminology isn’t clear cut. That may be due to people’s different exposure to plant-based diets as a whole.

Americans across the country aren’t eating the exact same foods, so their familiarity with the versions of plant-based diets vary with circumstance. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the most vegan-friendly cities in America are concentrated on the coasts and more liberal cities like Austin, Texas. Unsurprisingly, the Huffington Post reported more liberal individuals are more likely to be vegan or follow a plant-based diet. What is surprising, however, is that less affluent consumers tend to also be vegan.

With different social circumstances and backgrounds affecting consumers’ associations with what “plant based” means, it’s no wonder there is little consensus. To help straighten this out, companies will likely have to work with trade associations and regulatory bodies to agree upon the best practices for using the term. Leaving the label nebulous could result in lost sales or unhappy customers, depending on the set of expectations each individual carries into a purchase. 

As for clean eating, although IFIC did not report any confusion over the use of the term, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Shoppers have started to see chemical-sounding ingredients as red flags for products they don’t want to put in their bodies. Although manufacturers have tried to respond, it’s a bit of a challenge for the industry to provide foods with fewer ingredients and the same functionality. This has caused consumer confusion, conflating the terms “clean” and “healthy.” Consumers often take issue with multi-syllabic words that sound like chemical formulas, but are actually common ingredients. Regulatory requirements, for example, require vitamin E to be labeled “tocopherol.” 

The result of the intersection of the clean eating trend with regulatory requirements, Roger Clemens, the former president of the Institute of Food Technologists, told Food Dive earlier this year, causes confusion. “The consumer wants clean to be simple, but in the science of food, clean is not simple.” 

Both plant-based and clean eating trends are tied into the wider push toward sustainability. As consumers look to keep both themselves and the planet healthy, they are searching for minimally processed products with the fewest ingredients and the least environmental impact possible. Until the trend toward environmental sustainability takes a back seat, it is unlikely that either clean eating or plant-based trends will disappear. It would behoove manufacturers to work toward a consensus on what these terms mean — either through regulation or continued conversations with consumers — to provide clarity.

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