Why Consumers Don’t Like the Word “Vegan” on Plant-Based Food Labels

Part of a fast-growing trend, 8% of Americans are vegetarian, and 6% are vegan1. In addition, 47% are flexitarian2. For these consumers, a certified “vegan” label makes life easier. At the same time, recently published MIT research findings highlight that non-plant-based consumers are more likely to consider plant-based products when they’re not labeled vegan.
The study included two in-person groups and asked respondents to choose between (either vegan-labeled or unlabeled) plant-based and non-plant-based menu items. Six in every ten chose unlabeled items, while just over a third chose vegan-labeled items–a statistically significant difference3.
Hence, understanding consumer response to labels is essential to climate-saving meat consumption reduction. Food providers can choose not to label offerings to help customers feel more disposed to plant-based options.
However, why might a “vegan” label be unacceptable to mainstream consumers? And what about plant-based labels?
Vegan Label Perceptions
Psychologists have hypothesized that negative attitudes towards vegans and vegan references can hide underlying discomfort around animal welfare and the environment4. This theory may carry weight, with two-thirds of US households owning a pet5 and a majority acknowledging climate change and believing the federal government should do more to reduce its impact6.
Vegan labeling may also alienate consumers based on the associated stringent philosophy, lifestyle, and history of activism. The extreme connotation may make publicly choosing these products appear scary or misleadingly aligning for more casual or purely health-motivated reducers.
However, thanks to historically unsupportive media references and older-style vegan alternatives, it’s possible that the label may repel the mainstream due to perceptions of the food itself.
Plant-Based Alternative Perceptions
It’s common for meat-eaters to perceive vegan food offerings as flavorless, textureless, or similar to “rabbit” food. With negative taste expectations reported as one of the primary barriers to plant-based uptake, this perception is a significant obstacle to plant-based diet promotion.
Early substitutes may have been monotone in taste and lacking in familiar texture, especially for consumers used to the fatty sensation and depth of flavor of cooked animal products. Vegan products often focused on replacing missing protein. They were made from dry texturized vegetable protein (TVP), wheat gluten extrudes, soy protein concentrates, or defatted soy meal.
However, producing plant-based animal product alternatives has advanced significantly, creating a myth of tasteless and unappealing vegan food.
Progressive Plant-Based Innovation
Modern animal product analogs are satisfyingly similar to the real thing in functionality and physiochemical and sensory characteristics, often indistinguishable from animal products. This development is thanks to versatile mycoproteins, other bio-innovations, and precise, bioidentical combinations with lipids, water, fiber, natural colorings, flavor, and aroma ingredients.
Processing has also evolved, helping manufacturers replicate desired taste, texture, and odor quality. Technology also helps make meat and fish analogs available in popular formats, such as “steaks,” “sausages,” strips, fillets, nuggets, and more.
Plant-Based Marketing
According to ProVeg International, the term vegan is well-understood, with 64% of Americans knowing that a vegan product “definitely does not contain animal meat, eggs, or dairy”7. However, just half of flexitarians believe that the definition applies to plant-based labels8, with only a third associating it with vegetarian and fewer with meat-free labels.
While the term may be confusing, according to the Good Food Institute, plant-based label variants, especially “plant-based protein,” can increase purchasing intent substantially. Vegans will be used to examining packs and ingredient lists, so mentioning “100% plant-based protein” or recognized, certified icons on the back or side of your pack should suffice.
So, when packaging and marketing vegan products, exercise transparency around the offering’s plant-based nature but avoid restrictive labels. Instead, emphasize the look, feel, and flavor, and tailor your message to your market.
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1 https://veganbits.com/vegan-demographics/#
2 https://www.dairyfoods.com/articles/95683-flexitarianism-going-mainstream
3 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666323017476#ack0010
4 https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/psychology-of-anti-vegan-bias-why-do-many-people-dislike-those-who-eschew-meat-dairy/articleshow/103612163.cms?from=mdr
5 https://www.forbes.com/advisor/pet-insurance/pet-ownership-statistics/
6 https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/06/23/two-thirds-of-americans-think-government-should-do-more-on-climate/
7,8 https://corporate.proveg.com/article/plant-based-labelling/