What's the difference between plant-based and vegan? Foodchain ID unveils new certification schemes

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

What's the difference between plant-based and vegan? Foodchain ID unveils new certification schemes

Related tags vegan vegetarian plant-based foodchain id

While the terms 'plant-based' and 'vegan' might appear to be interchangeable (they both exclude animal products), consumers do not view them in quite the same way, claims Foodchain ID, which has just launched separate 'vegan,' 'plant-based,' and 'vegetarian' certification programs.

Echoing research from Mattson​​, which found that US consumers tend to see ‘plant-based’ as a positive dietary​ choice, whereas following a ‘vegan’ diet is seen as a lifestyle​ associated with serious commitment, deprivation, and allegiance to a ‘cause’ (animal rights, environmental activism), Foodchain ID has seen growing demand from industry for a plant-based certification scheme as well as a vegan certification, said Mark Cohen, senior director, marketing.

“We recognize that ‘plant-based’ is a newer term being recognized especially in the US market. Some producers and brands prefer this option,"​ added Cohen, who noted that there is no legal definition of ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ for food labeling purposes.

On a more practical level, he said, “Our market research shows there is a difference among consumer preferences in that some are more restrictive than others regarding support of the use of any animal products at all, in any stage or manner in the supply chain.”  

For example, he said, while Foodchain ID’s vegan and plant-based standards​ both prohibit the use of animal-derived ingredients in the final product and​ the production process, the vegan standard further stipulates that brand owners should not conduct or commission vivisection or testing on any animal, or the ingredients or inputs and processing aids used. It also extends the animal-free requirement to things like glues used in packaging labels.

‘The vegan category heeds these extra concerns."

 “The claim ‘vegan’ implies that, as far as can be determined, possible and practicable, animals have not been involved in any phase of manufacturing, preparation, treatment or placing on the market. For example: glues of animal origin are forbidden to attach labels or seal packaging.” Foodchain ID 

What has genetic engineering got to do with defining whether something is vegan or vegetarian?

One striking thing about the vegan/plant-based/vegetarian standards from Foodchain ID – a global leader in organic and Non GMO certification – is that they all exclude products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or that have been produced with GMOs.

According to the standard“It is not permitted in any step of the production process to use any ingredient, processing aid, adjuvant or inputs obtained or derived from genetically modified organisms.”

Impossible burgers retail pack
"At this point in time, the Impossible Burger would not qualify for FoodChain ID’s certification."

This would mean that one of the highest profile brands in the plant-based meat category, Impossible Foods - which uses GM soy and a genetically engineered yeast to produce its flagship ‘heme’ ingredient (the yeast is not present in the final product, which is 100% plant-based) – would not qualify for any​ of the certifications (vegan/plant-based/vegetarian).

It would also exclude other plant-based meat makers using soybeans as their core protein source (unless they are selecting Non GMO varieties).

While this might seem baffling on the face of it (what has genetic engineering got to do with defining whether something is vegan or vegetarian?), it reflects the fact that "there is considerable overlap in the sentiments and motivations among vegan consumers about animal rights, perceptions of healthy diets, and sustainability,​" claimed Cohen.

While this plays into some consumers' perceptions that Non-GMO is healthier and more sustainable (which Impossible Foods argues is not supported by data​), the "initial version of the standard is meant to be complimentary to Organic, Non-GMO Project Verification, and Non-GMO Certification programs, so it stands to reason there would be a Non-GM component,​" he added.

"To be clear, we do not believe Non-GMO is healthier or more sustainable. We are neutral on the topic and are simply responding to consumer - and thus our customers' - demand and yes, perception."

He added: "At this point in time, the Impossible Burger would not qualify for FoodChain ID’s certification. However, the standard is a living document in that stakeholders have opportunity to comment on its content at any time. FoodChain ID intends to undertake formal subsequent revision periods where additional positions can be raised for consideration."

"At this point in time, the Impossible Burger would not qualify for FoodChain ID’s certification."

Vegan dairy: Where do ‘next-gen’ animal proteins made without animals fit into the standards?

So how do the standards view whey protein, collagen, egg proteins and other ingredients from companies such as Perfect Day, Geltor and Clara Foods that are produced via microbial fermentation using fungi, yeasts, bacteria and other micro-organisms, instead of animals?

These ingredients - billed as greener and kinder than their animal-derived counterparts - might be chemically identical to animal proteins but are NOT produced by​ animals, so are they ‘vegan’?  

By most people’s definitions the answer would be yes, given that no animals are involved in their production and they are not ‘animal-derived.’

While the Foodchain ID standards “only address products that actually are of animal origin” (​which suggests they might permit these next gen ingredients), “there is however, a prohibition on any production that employs genetic engineering,” ​said Cohen.

In practice, this would mean that companies deploying synthetic biology to engineer microbes to express animal proteins would not meet the criteria, despite the absence of animals anywhere in the process.

  • Download the FoodchainID standards HERE​ and read a summary of the standards HERE​​​.


In the absence of legal definitions of the terms vegan, plant-based, and vegetarian, consumers can “encounter considerable difficulties in identifying products in the market that are suited to their choice,​” notes Foodchain ID, which says the use of ingredients of animal origin is “sometimes masked by generic terms permitted by law​.”

In other cases, their indication on the label is not required because they are contained in small quantities or serve as processing aids that are not present in the final product, says Foodchain ID. Wine, for example, could be made with ingredients of animal origin (egg albumin, caseins for clarifying wines).

plant-based -certified

Foodchain ID is not the only group to launch a plant-based certification scheme. The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA​), launched its own ‘certified plant-based​’​ scheme and logo in late 2018 (in partnership with NSF), which is limited to plant-based foods that are intended to replace animal-based products such as meat, egg and dairy alternatives.

There is the vegan stamp, and some of our members do use it, but some don’t necessarily want to use it,​” executive director Michele Simon explained when the scheme was launched.

To date hundreds of products have been certified​ from companies including Morningstar Farms (Kellogg), Daiya Foods, Miyoko’s Creamery and Arctic Zero.

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