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Vegan, Plant Based, Meat Free and Free-From - What’s the Difference?

Vegan vs Plant Based

We have all seen a massive increase in the trend towards plant based and meat free food, but what does this mean? There is a confusing range of terms ranging from Vegan, Meat Free, Plant Based and Free From. Generally, we are familiar with the terms “Vegetarian” and “Vegan”, and we understand that vegetarians will eat eggs and dairy products whereas vegans are much stricter and will not eat any products which contain any meat, fish, or products from animals such as eggs or dairy.

Have you heard of any of the following terms?

Cheegan, Reducetarian or Seagan- it has become very confusing with a range of new words used to identify the range of diets within the vegan, vegetarian and plant-based range.

* A Cheegan refers to “a cheating vegan- they eliminate most animal products from their diet, but occasionally have an ice-cream or a pizza or perhaps a product containing honey”. They have reduced their meat intake but are not always so strict with their diet.

* A Reducetarian is “someone who chooses to reduce the amount of animal products such as meat and dairy that they eat, they make an active choice to reduce the quantity but may not eliminate completely from their diet”.

* A Seagan is a modified vegan who also eats seafood-this is different from a Pescetarian who also eat fish but incorporate eggs and dairy into their diet.

It’s no wonder that the consumer can get confused with the various terminology used to describe a dietary choice.!

Definition of Vegan.

The term “Vegan” was adopted in 1944 by the founders of The Vegan Society and the definitions is as follows:

"Veganism is 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; ……. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals." (Vegan society)

Those who follow a vegan way of life are committed to a lifestyle which does not allow animals and animal products to be exploited in any way. When a consumer sees a vegan product, they will naturally expect that this product is free from meat and any derivatives of meat. If a consumer has a milk or egg allergy, they should expect that vegan products will be safe to eat.

It is important to realise that consumers with severe allergies must be particularly careful to understand the ingredients listed in vegan products. Product which declare “May Contain eggs and milk “must be avoided as the risk of cross-contamination may be enough to cause a severe allergic reaction. Food may also be labelled made to a ‘vegan recipe’ – this may mean there is a may contains issue.

Is Vegan food safe for the Food Hypersensitive Customer (FHS)

It is well known that allergy sufferers sometimes feel awkward asking questions, wanting to check the allergen chart or speak to a manager, particularly if they are young-16-24 years old. They may order food which they think is safe without checking the ingredients or allergen content assuming the product will be safe. This is particularly relevant when talking about vegan products. The Vegan market should not be aimed at the allergy consumer, and whilst we would assume that the product is free from milk and eggs, the Vegan Society certified products ‘allow traces of’ or “May Contain” milk and eggs. May Contains refers to an unintentional cross-contact of other allergens during the production process. Vegan products are aimed at a different consumer group than the Allergen Consumers.

May Contains is it safe?

It was highlighted recently due to the Celia Marsh Pret a Manger case (when Celia died after purchasing a vegan product in Pret a Manger) that even though a product is labelled as vegan -the manufacturing process may carry a risk of cross-contamination. It was identified that the stabilizer HG1 for the coconut yogurt was produced on the same line as a milk powder product during the manufacturing process, cross contamination of the milk powder with the HG1 caused the reaction. The actual details of this case are quite complicated, but in this situation “Never Assume” is good advice.

Products which are identified as Vegan, Vegetarian, Plant based or Meat Free are used to help the customer when choosing their products and are known terms, not Food Safety Claims. If a product states, “Allergen Free”, the product must have undergone suitable robust checks to confirm the absence of the allergen(s) stated. If the product subsequently causes a reaction, then this should be reported to the Local Authority - Environmental Health Offices (EHO) or Trading Standards as this is a false claim under Trading Standards Law.

What is FreeFrom?

An example of a breach in Trading Standards Law is when a consumer relies on a description such as an ingredient label, and the information is incorrect. “Free From” products are a familiar sight within most Supermarkets; however, this terminology is also confusing. Free From products are not allergen free- they are only Free From those allergens listed on the packaging. The message is to read the ingredient label even though the branding suggests the product may be “safe”. This lack of understanding caused the tragic death of Raffi Pownall when his father bought a chocolate bar which was gluten free but contained milk powder.

Plant based and Meat free are familiar terms in the supermarkets and on restaurant menus.

The British Standards Institution (BSI) have been working on this terminology to clarify the meaning of this type of product. The definitions of meat free and plant based vary, some descriptions state that products consist of mainly plants or another definition states made with few or no animal products. Clearly the range of definitions are ambiguous and although a “Plant Based” diet often indicates the consumer is choosing plant-based food for a healthier diet, rather than ethical views on meat consumption.

A National survey was conducted by the Vegan Society in 2020 across a sample of 1,000 people across the UK.

The results confirmed that.

  • 64.1% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product contains absolutely no animal products (i.e. vegan)

  • 26.9% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product may contain small amounts of milk and/or eggs.

  • 9% of the public believe that the term ‘plant-based’ means the product may contain small amounts of meat.

The survey also looked at which of the two terms – vegan and plant-based – the public preferred and found that 52.8% of consumers preferred “vegan” and 47.2% preferred “plant based”.

The survey concluded that consumers want clear and accurate labelling so that they can make informed decisions about the product they are purchasing. (Attest consumer survey for The Vegan Society – (‘Food labelling’) of 1,000 GB adults – conducted 2-3 September 2020)

Although there have been changes in trends towards vegan and plant-based products, they are not always suitable for consumers with Food Allergies and Intolerances. The Food Standards Agency have introduced new terminology to describe consumers who have food allergies, food intolerances, and coeliac disease, they are known as the FHS Consumer. The number of FHS consumers is increasing, at least 20% of the population, and it is important that products are available for this specific group of consumers.

FreeFrom vs Vegan/Plant based

It has been noticeable in Supermarkets that Free From product range has reduced in favour of Vegan/plant based/meat free products which are currently more commercially viable. The FHS Consumers are very loyal and if they find products and venues which are suitable for their diet, they will continue to purchase from them and share their delight with others. The FHS consumers are very active on social media and if they like something they will share on Instagram, Facebook and in their blogs. Remember that these are different consumer groups with different dietary needs!

The message is that manufacturers must be clear on which category their products fall under, and the ingredient label must be accurate. The consumer must know exactly what type of product they are purchasing.

There is currently no legal definition of the term Vegan food, but the food information must not be misleading. It should be accurate, clear, and easy to understand for the consumer. There are currently discussions to ensure that vegan foods should follow legal guidance to reduce the risk of confusion.

HASUK is a joint collaboration between Caroline Benjamin Director and Founder of Food Allergy Aware and Jacqui McPeake Director and Founder JACS Ltd


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