The term “Plant Based” is suddenly trendy. As a writer, I find this interesting—I’m always curious about the newest permutations of words and phrases that establish themselves in the English language—and I am fascinated observing which such additions evanesce, and which endure.
But I’m even more intrigued by this term’s ascension because I am a vegetarian, and have followed that diet strictly for over fifty years. Neither the term “vegetarian” nor its more stringent accomplice “vegan” have ever enjoyed quite the cachet that the term “plant based” now does.
I did a quick bit of research. The term “vegetarian” was coined by the British Vegetarian Society in the mid-1800’s, and the term “vegan” was created in 1944 by Donald Watson, founder of the Vegan Society. But the term “plant based” didn’t surface until 1980, and is attributed to Cornell University biochemist Thomas Colin Campbell, who claims he was looking for a concise term—scientifically descriptive—but devoid of political baggage.
Yet the term “plant based” has now become quite politicized indeed—and very favorably so. Restaurants and food makers who for years called themselves “vegan” have rebranded their offerings as “plant based.”
As someone who’s been a vegetarian for his entire adult life, I have a pretty good perspective on the effect the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan” have on people. I became a strict vegetarian when I was seventeen years old, way back in 1969. I had actually been trying to cut animals out of my diet for a full year prior to that, but I was living at home, and my parents were tireless at making my doing so impossible. Despite their best efforts though, I had managed to reduce my consumption of flesh foods quite significantly during that year, such that when I left for college at seventeen, the transition to a totally meatless diet was very easy.
The questions I’ve gotten over the years about my eating habits became fairly predictable. The two most common questions have endured: “Why did you become a vegetarian?” and “Do you eat fish?”
I became a vegetarian for ethical reasons—I loved animals and didn’t want to eat them—and I had begun practicing Yoga seriously, and understood that, historically, vegetarianism was an integral part of a Yogi’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. Health benefits and ecological considerations were not my driving force, but became much appreciated side-benefits over time.
As for the question about fish, when I was young I’d usually spout out something snarky like “Do fish seem like vegetables to you?”—but I quickly realized that people considered such rejoinders condescending. I was searching for a different way to respond—however, back then, simply saying “no” didn’t seem quite witty enough—so I came up with this little refrain: “If it had eyeballs, swam or crawled around, or had a mother and father, I don’t eat it.” People found that more acceptable, some even found it humorous and engaging. When the word “pescatarian” appeared in 1993, I thought that might render the whole issue moot, but that word never really caught on.
These two frequently-posed questions seemed to me to be legitimately engendered by curiosity. But many other questions I got appeared much more judgmental in nature: “Don’t you miss meat?”—“Why do you deny yourself good food?”—“Don’t you get sick a lot?”—“Isn’t it really boring to eat that way?”
Then, around the year 2000, I started hearing about vegans. As that more stringent diet became increasingly popular, it had the unexpected benefit of actually making things somewhat easier for me and my fellow vegetarians. Although most of what I eat has always been vegan, I do include small amounts of dairy and an occasional egg in my diet. For decades I had been looked at as the oddball, the rebel, the subversive—the guy who was going to be a royal pain-in-the-ass at a restaurant gathering or dinner party. But suddenly, there were people around who were even more annoying than I. So now I started getting the clarifying question, “Are you vegetarian or vegan?” And when I would answer “vegetarian,” it was as if people heaved a deep sigh of relief, and via facial expression and body language, said to me clearly: “Oh good—you’re not one of those real crazies!” I recently went on a cruise with my wife, and once everyone in the kitchen understood my dietary preferences, the maître d’ personally came over and assured me, “Oh, that will be no problem at all, sir. It’s those vegans that make things difficult.”
Moreover, the term “vegan” now carries other connotations, as well. It’s no longer just about food. People imagine vegans to be militant animal rights activists, humorless defenders of tiny animals whose protected-species status blocks vital mining and deforesting projects, enraged defacers of fur worn by unsuspecting and innocent old women, dangerous enemies of clinical science trials, killjoy haters of leather shoes and belts, and in general—people who never have fun.
However, for some reason, the new term “plant based” doesn’t seem to connote any of that. Although those accusations about vegans are not true, they nonetheless conjure up an unsavory sensibility that many people accept as fact.
Yet, the term “plant based” is blissfully devoid of such connotations. It’s just light, healthy, and fun.
And with “plant based,” there’s no commitment implied. A vegan who eats a hamburger has lapsed dreadfully and is impure and disgraced. Whereas people who follow a “plant based” diet can slip in bits of anything they like—even a few dreaded bacon bits atop their spinach salads—but their diets are still based around plants—so no harm done. As opposed to those fanatical humorless vegans, these “plant-based” folks are sensible, fun-loving souls who feel no obligation to be rigid or doctrinaire or anti-social about anything.
And while we vegetarians and vegans annoyingly try to eat whole, natural foods—these new plant-based folks don’t seem to care a bit about that. Have you read the ingredients for the “Impossible Burger?” It’s primarily genetically modified soy—its artificial “blood” comes from soy leghemoglobin made from genetically engineered yeast—plus a bunch of water and gums and vitamins. Does that sound appetizing to you?
I eat veggie-burgers made from vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes. They’re good.
I don’t eat Impossible Burgers.