Vegan or plant-based: What’s the difference and does it matter?
Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of Stem & Glory restaurant in Cambridge, discusses what these terms mean.
People defining themselves as ‘vegan’ sometimes seem to take exception to the term plant-based. It’s true that the plant-based term was coined to make plant-based appealing for health reasons without getting into the ethical debate, but does that mean that vegans are more ethical than those defining as plant-based? And why do vegans sometimes have a go at people describing themselves as plant-based? Are they really ethically inferior? What’s going on with this ‘plant-based ‘definition?
This is something that comes up often at Stem & Glory, Most recently because our new tagline is ‘Gloriously Plant-based’. I get asked quite frequently if that means I have abandoned veganism? I find that rather curious, as for me the two things mean the same. In fact, if you really want to get down to the nitty gritty, the truth is, Stem & Glory is all about wholefood plant-based ingredients, ethically sourced, low carbon, circular, compassionate and cruelty free. So, is that vegan or plant-based? And what is the difference anyway?
So, I decided to dip my toe into this argument, and try to deconstruct it in my own mind once and for all.
The term vegan was first coined in 1944 by Donald Watson and friends, although it wasn’t until the 80’s that veganism was clearly defined as follows: “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals”.
Interestingly, in the US, Dr T Colin Campbell coined the term ‘plant-based’ around the same time following research at the National Institutes of Health which showed the therapeutic impact of a low-fat, high-fibre, vegetable-based diet on cancer. He was seeking a term that described this diet without invoking ethical considerations. The term was further defined by Campbell by adding ‘whole-food’ to plant-based to draw the distinction that it is specifically a whole-food plant-based diet that has health benefits.
In other words, veganism is about the abstention from animal products, not necessarily with reference to healthy foods, whereas whole-food plant-based is very much focussed around the health benefits of following the diet.
So, it looks like vegans in this case do have the ethical high ground, but from that perspective, it looks like I, and Stem & Glory, are neither vegan or wholefood plant-based, but rather vegan AND wholefood plant-based.
But the above perspective doesn't account for younger people who may well be ethical vegans but prefer the term plant-based. Certainly, looking at my own evolution within the movement, when I was in my early twenties in the early 80s, veganism was very fringe, and plant-based was unheard of.
But through the 80s and 90s as people’s consciousness started to shift. Mad cow, and other animal-borne diseases played their part in a growing awareness of poor farming methods. And as well as these perceived health risks, people started to question the ethics of eating meat.
At this time it was activist movements, such as the Hunt Saboteurs that were driving the vegan movement forward. But the activist associations were uncomfortable for some people, and a mainstream negative association kept veganism as a fringe movement. Veganism just didn't seem attractive to the average person.
Once we turned the corner into the noughties, that started to change, and the term plant-based began to break into the mainstream
There were a few notable American plant-based chefs, such as Matthew Kenny who were well ahead of the game both in using the term, and also writing books from 1995. But it was as we moved into the ‘Teenies’ that the movement, and the term, suddenly started to gain traction.
But is it a bad thing for the vegan movement that the term plant-based was popularised? I would like to suggest that the term plant-based has contributed significantly to the rise in popularity of veganism, and that they share responsibility for the rise of interest in the vegan movement with regard to animal welfare and health.
But there is another huge factor in the growth of both movements, and that is the environment. Back when I became vegan, it was for the animals. But back then, in the same way that health was not a key driver for those adopting a vegan lifestyle, the environment also wasn't mentioned. Climate change wasn't a thing, and it was for pure ethical reasons that people became vegan. But now, the environmental arguments have become increasingly compelling to the point that they can no longer be ignored. Most people I know now actively try to eat fewer animal products. But are these people eating more vegan food or more wholefood plant-based food? And is one better for the environment?
I had an academic friend that questioned my veganism many years ago. He held up a processed vegan product and said to me ‘this doesn’t contain animals, but it does contain humans’. He made a good point, and one that has stayed with me. The life blood of humans goes into processing and manufacturing, and processing is wasted energy. The more you process a food product, the more energy you use. Much in the same way that if you feed a cow food fit for human consumption and then eat the cow, that’s a very wasteful and extravagant way to eat. Now eating processed vegan food isn't as bad for the environment as eating a cow, but it is on the same spectrum. As is eating vegetables air flown from Peru (that's a whole other topic!).
So, on this point, and this point alone, a wholefood plant-based diet is definitely better for the environment and health than a vegan diet containing processed foods.
I’ll finish by moving away from diet to other products. This is something I've also seen evolve rapidly in the past decade. When I was a young vegan it was quite hard to find vegan fashion, for example non-leather shoes. When you could find them, products were made from plastic-derived materials, and were definitely not good for the environment. Fast forward to today, there is an explosion of not only vegan fashion and products but specifically sustainable plant-based products. It’s clear that just being vegan does not make a product environmentally sound. There has to be a deeper dive into production beyond simply avoiding animal derived ingredients.
Sustainable fashion is rapidly growing, with all kinds of materials, such as banana stems and pineapple leaves being used to create a wide variety of fashion and home products from sustainable fabric to biodegradable faux leather. But is sustainable fashion vegan? Well no, often it is not. Many sustainable fashion houses still use products such as wool and silk. Many use ‘eco-wool’ and ‘eco-silk’ which are animal products supposedly done more ‘ethically’, but the truth is, unless they explicitly state they are vegan wool or vegan silk, they will still be made of animal products, and neither vegan nor truly sustainable.
All this actually feels like my life has gone round in a huge circle. When I first gave up eating meat, I became very interested in certain principles of macrobiotics, namely eating whole food natural pulses, legumes and seasonal vegetables grown in a climate local to you. This seems to tick all the boxes for animals, health and sustainability.
For now, I am going to stick with being both wholefood plant-based and vegan, but I do think we will see wholefood plant-based and veganism converging in the coming years.
So please, wholefood plant-based and vegan people, make your peace with each other. You have both made a huge contribution to the growth in the movement towards living in a more compassionate and sustainable world.
About the writer and Stem & Glory
Louise Palmer-Masterton is founder of multiple award-winning restaurants Stem & Glory - hip and trendy but accessible wholefood plant-based restaurants, serving delicious gourmet vegan food from locally sourced ingredients. Stem & Glory also offers a range of ready meals and recipe kits available for delivery across the UK. Visit stemandglory.uk and follow @stemandglory on social media.
Read more from Louise in the Cambridge Independent - find out about home delivery and our digital subscription offer