Back in October 2020, there was a naming war going on in the EU which, in the thick of the pandemic, you might have missed. Nope, not one about naming variants but one about plant-based alternatives.
In the red corner, the meat and farming industries. Fighting for exclusive usage of terms like “burger”, “sausage” and “steak”, they argued it was confusing for consumers to see things like pea-protein burgers and that it undermined efforts of farmers.
In the green corner, environmental organizations and plant-based manufacturers. They countered by claiming terms like “veggie fingers” just weren’t that appealing and might put people off from reducing meat consumption, a behaviour which the EU should be encouraging as part of their environmental commitments.
The victors on this occasion were the environmentalists with Camille Perrin, senior food policy officer at the EU, stating: “consumers are in no way confused by a soy steak or chickpea-based sausage, so long as it is clearly labelled as vegetarian or vegan. Terms such as ‘burger’ or ‘steak’ on plant-based items simply make it easier for consumers to know how to integrate these products within a meal.”
But there was a catch.
This was just one specific proposal within a broader agricultural package – if you worked for an alt-dairy company, then this was not your day. Amendment 171 passed its first hurdle and was set to make it illegal for plant-based foods to be compared to dairy products i.e. no “milk-free oat drinks”, or “yoghurt-style” descriptors. Seemingly such comparatives were not equivalent terms for ease of diet integration.
Oatly were outraged and argued that removing the ability to compare to milk, also removes their ability to point out the environmental benefits. How can you demonstrate the reduction in greenhouse gases or water usage, for example, when you can’t compare it to milk on a pack?
Fast-forward to May 2021 and the EU Parliament rejected the amendment.
This whole saga typifies the identity paradox at the heart of the plant-based movement: how best should brands describe a product that is fundamentally not what it claims to be? And is it appealing to compare new food items to those people have deliberately decided to eliminate?
To attempt to answer those questions, we have to think bigger – to look at the bigger issue of why people change their diet: climate change. What’s the compelling narrative that unites people to take action?
Everyone (well former US presidents aside) agrees global warming is a bad thing and that we need to take action to prevent it – but it’s easier to ignore when you don’t see the impact and often there are two sides over what the right course of action is. Over the last 18 months, however, climate change has become an unavoidable local, national and global issue. And as the narrative broadens from just being about carbon or plastics, the increasing focus on water usage, food miles and farming practices means the food on our plates has never mattered more.
We know the plant-based movement is a broad church and ever-growing. There are lots of reasons why people choose to eat less meat & dairy: including health, family pressure, ethics, animal welfare and environmental impact. This also means there’s lots of emotional levers and needs for brands to activate. As this movement grows, there is a huge opportunity for brands to create clarity in a complex, combative and confusing space.
Take the millions of mums, dads, grandparents, and relatives facing difficult, guilt-inducing questions from their gen-z children on global warming, no doubt amplified by homeschooling. There is a clear need for brands to make sustainable eating that bit easier: to use accessible terminology, dispel myths, label carbon and nutrition, and package it in a sustainable way. Quorn’s advert of a Dad cooking with his daughter is a brilliant example of this in action, and their recent campaign ‘helping the planet one bite at a time’ channels climate anxiety and helplessness into easy daily action.
Brands and governments should be working together to reclaim the narrative: to prove what is gained through pursuing a more sustainable diet, rather than being bogged down in a redundant debate on nomenclature. That’s not to say language isn’t key – it is – it’s the mechanism for winning hearts and minds – but that we need the wider conversation for why people think the name matters. Forget the age-old question of “but where will I get protein from”, and point out instead the existing and ongoing deficiencies of fibre and other vitamins, minerals etc in Western diets. Better still, prove that making plant-based can be easy, healthy and – crucially – tasty.
Perceptions of taste are so closely intertwined with language and placed in a common frame of reference with foods we already know. That’s often why, for flexitarians and wannabe flexitarians, language that’s associated with meat and familiar flavour hits, like “marinated” and “sizzling” are key to appeal and countering long-standing perceptions of bland vegetarian food (something we discovered on a project with Kerry Foods). That’s also the point Camille Perrin was making – we cannot escape the parameters of a common language.
If making things easier or more appealing means calling it a “steak” or a “not milk Oat drink” then so be it. But the bigger narrative is key. Whether you’re a dairy manufacturer, a farmer or a plant-based entrepreneur we all need to be playing on the same side because these industries can, do and should coexist – after all, the planet is something we share. It’s just a question of balance.