12 September 2011

A Plant-Based Diet?

Tree of Life
Like any specialized topic, veganism has it's own jargon.  A tern I see gaining traction is 'plant-based,' as in a 'plant-based diet.'  Beyond being incorrect on a biological ground, I dislike how the phrase oversimplifies the concept to a binary model of us-versus-them.

Plants and and animals, or more properly Plantae and Animalia, are just two kingdoms of life.  If you were born in a previous millennium like I was, you may vaguely remember learning these as the only two.   If you paid attention past grammar school, you may remember another kingdom, Protista, which popped in to account for all those wee things that weren't quite plant nor animal.  Later others like Fungi and Monera were popularized, the latter broken up again into Archaea and Bacteria. Like many areas in phylogeny, changes are still occurring due to advancements in genetics, but most biology textbooks currently have six kingdoms:  Bacteria, Archaea, Protista, Plantae, Fungi, and Animalia.

To take it even further back, things used to be classified as animal, vegetable, or mineral, and still are if you play twenty questions.   Even if a person eschews any synthetic additives from their diet, they still need sodium chloride and other inorganic minerals that do not derive from living organisms.

I know people who eat portabella burgers (fungi) with a sprinkle of salt (mineral), a side of non-dairy yogurt (bacteria), and seaweed salad (protista) can still keep a plant-based diet.  The main basis is still plants.  And actually that sounds like a good option for dinner.  However, a flexitarian also has a plant-based diet, despite eating some animal flesh.

Because most vegans and the like want to differentiate themselves from omnivores, a term like plant-exclusive would be better, if they ate exclusively plants and not other organisms.  I know many folks hate defining themselves in terms of a negative, preferring "I eat plants" to "I don't eat animals," but we're going to have to suck it up here.  Something like an animal-abstaining diet and not plant-protist-fungi-bacteria-and-mineral-based diet.

However, only a vegan diet and it's subgenres (raw vegan, fruitarian) abstain from animal products.  So why not say vegan?  If one wants to include vegetarians and vegans in one term, that term is vegetarian.  If one wants to include flexitarians, macrobiotic folks, and anyone who isn't a meat-and-potatoes omnivore, then a new term is required.  Maybe nomnivore?  Herbivore?  Animal-minimizing diet?  What do you think?


  1. Although "plant-based" may be oversimplified, I think it works to get the point across to the average person without having to delve into lengthy explanations.

    I shy away from the word "vegan" often, because I think it carries a negative connotation, mainly due to groups like PETA and ALF, whose extremist tactics most people find off-putting. If we want people to become inclined to a lifestyle that eschews animal products, then a good place to start would be to not scare them. I think "plant-based" has a neutral connotation, and is easily understood.

  2. Thank you for the input, MirBrewer. It's sad that vegan still has negative connotations, and it should be our priority to change that. However, I think we can have a term that is scientifically clear and isn't off-putting. Animal-free, maybe?

  3. My family had a restaurant 15 years ago when "vegan" was either an unknown term or carried negative connotations to the general public, so we simply said, "No Animal Products". I now have a food line and started off 3 years ago with "No Animal Products", and would describe it to (non-vegetarian) people sampling it as "100% plant-based--no meat, dairy or eggs". However, things have changed rapidly and I have now put the word "vegan" on the packaging and am using it more.

  4. Over the years, people have wondered why I eat from the fungi kingdom -- "Wait, I thought vegans couldn't eat yeast." In fact, recently my aunt sent me an email, asking me if I could eat mushrooms. Mushrooms! I couldn't help myself, and I sent a reply to the effect, "It's not that I only eat from the plant kingdom, it's that I don't eat from the animal kingdom. I can eat from all the other kingdoms -- bacteria, fungi (mushrooms and yeast), algae, etc. I can also eat inorganic substances such as water and salt."

  5. What an interesting dilemma! Taxonomically, a diet excluding Animalia but including all other orders of life would be paraphyletic, so perhaps "Paraphyletic Diet" would be more scientific than "vegan."

    Or, perhaps the answer lies with geology. The (still-unresolved) tripartite divergence of Animalia, Fungi and Plantae is currently estimated at the Ectasian-Stenian transition (1177 +/- 79 Mya), when the first supercontinent Rodinia assembled. So, a person who eats plants, fungi and some animals might be said to have a Rodinian diet.

    On my bad days, though, I just call meat-eaters "loser."

  6. HH, I love that last line after all the science. I think people are using the plant based term to get based the knee jerk unfounded fear of veganism. Perhaps it could facilitate at least some people reducing meat consumption which is better than nothing. But I realize that's a low bar. Hopefully vegan will soon be credited more broadly for being what it is, a grand solution to many, many problems.


Be nice! Remember everyone is entitled to their opinion.