Plant-based vs. vegan: What's the difference?
The essential differences between vegan and plant-based eating styles. Impact on your health and the environment. Learn more now!
Plant-based vs. vegan: What's the difference?
"Germany among the top 5 worldwide": What no longer seems to apply to the German men's national soccer team now applies to vegan nutrition - at least this is what evaluations of Google search queries by the online portal Chef's Pencil suggest. According to the Allensbach Market and Advertising Media Analysis, the number of people in Germany who classify themselves as vegans was 1.52 million in 2023 and thus almost twice as high as just ten years ago. The same study comes to the conclusion that currently about 8.12 million Germans eat vegetarian.
The reasons for the growing popularity of these various forms of plant-based nutrition are diverse and range from animal welfare and health aspects to environmental and climate protection. At the same time, the vegan lifestyle in particular is met with great resentment from parts of the population. Which brings us to the question: Does the concept of a predominantly plant-based diet perhaps have the potential to break through this resistance and make a form of nutrition our new standard that brings many benefits to our society?
Plant-based vs. organic vegan nutrition: What are we actually talking about?
To understand why it can be incredibly important to distinguish between "plant-based" diets and veganism, which many people classify somewhere between hip urban trend and militant youth movement, it helps to look at the origins of these terms and movements. The word "vegan" was introduced in 1944 by Donald Watson, an English animal rights activist and founder of the Vegan Society. According to him, the term describes a person who abstains from using animals for ethical reasons - a reaction to industrial agriculture and factory farming. People who call themselves vegans in this sense and live accordingly therefore not only exclude animal foods such as meat and fish from their diet, but also make a much more far-reaching decision: they also avoid buying products made from animals and avoid using any item that has been tested on animals.
The concept of a plant-based diet, on the other hand, goes back to the U.S. biochemist and nutritionist Thomas Colin Campbell, who used the term "plant-based diet" in the early 1980s to present the results of his research on nutrition at the National Institutes of Health. In keeping with his scientific background, he focused not on the ethical aspects of nutrition, but on the health aspects, which, according to his research, could best be realized with a low-fat, high-fiber, plant-based diet. Unlike vegan, or even vegetarian diets, plant-based diets are more flexible because they don't require you to completely eliminate other food sources, but rather encourage you to fill your plate with more plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, legumes and seeds. Animal products such as fish and meat or milk and dairy products are therefore not excluded completely. It rather seems important that no highly processed foods are consumed, but only whole foods.
The ecological dimension: focus on sustainable nutrition
One motive that neither Thomas Colin Campbell nor Donald Watson might have had in mind is climate protection. Today, it is likely to have even more impact. After all, the agricultural and food system in Germany, for example, is responsible for around a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide, up to 80 percent of the decline in biodiversity is attributable to the global agricultural and food system. A study published in the journal Nature Food shows that a shift to plant-based diets in the European Union and the United Kingdom would not only dramatically reduce environmental impacts, but could also improve food resilience in the face of crises. Reducing meat consumption and shifting to a plant-based diet could therefore be a win-win situation for one's life, the environment and food security.
It is no surprise that against this backdrop, the German government is working on a national nutrition strategy that supports a shift toward plant-based foods to both improve public health and reduce climate impacts. The associated key issues paper states, "Our diet represents an important aspect of the transformation to a resource- and climate-friendly as well as sustainable economy. The transformation of the entire food system toward a plant-based diet is the most important adjusting screw in the food sector for achieving our national and international climate, biodiversity and sustainability goals." The keyword resilience also appears in the paper - albeit only in a subordinate clause.
The environmental benefits of a plant-based diet are therefore clear and are further underlined by policies and scientific evidence. Reducing the consumption of animal products and promoting plant-based alternatives appears to be a promising way to address both the health and environmental challenges facing the global community today.
Organic vegan nutrition: The power of 'plant-based' terminology for health and sustainability
Even though over time veganism has evolved into a movement based not only on ethics and animal welfare, but also on scientifically confirmed positive health and climate protection aspects, it still retains the image of an extreme fringe group with a very specific philosophy of life. Due to their history, the terms "plant-based" and "vegan" have very different connotations, which in turn significantly influence the acceptance of these eating styles. For example, a study conducted in California found that more than 80 percent of respondents preferred the term "plant-based" to "vegan" when describing a dietary style that avoids all types of animal products.
When a product is labeled "plant-based," the brand or consumer does not have to be in complete agreement with the philosophical or ethical values of vegans. It is no surprise that research by the Good Food Institute has found that a "plant-based" label increases consumers' willingness to buy by about 20 percent compared to a "vegan" label. In summary, the terms "plant-based" and "vegan" carry different psychological and social meanings. Accordingly, the success of marketing plant-based products and lifestyles depends significantly on the exact terminology used.
Plant-based diets: big opportunity in schools and workplaces
Introducing plant-based meal options in schools and workplaces offers numerous benefits and opportunities for both the institutions and the people who learn and work there. In schools, for example, plant-based options are often cheaper and quicker for the school to source and cook, which means there is increased capacity to prepare higher quality and more exciting meals for students. In addition, such offerings support sustainability and reduce the school's carbon footprint. Furthermore, they open up a new world of different vegetables and meals to students.
The non-profit Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT) and the NGO ProVeg International estimate that children who receive a plant-based lunch at school once a week for a year could reduce their combined carbon footprint by more than 1,000 metric tons of CO2. This would already be a significant contribution to reducing environmental impact and promoting sustainable eating habits among children. Plant-based eating options can also offer significant benefits in the workplace. After all, in Germany, for example, one in five working people uses the company cafeteria. More than 1.5 billion main meals are prepared each year in Germany's roughly 14,000 company cafeterias.
Overall, plant-based food options in schools and workplaces offer great leverage to promote health and sustainability and play an important role in creating an environmentally conscious and health-promoting environment - especially when whole foods rather than highly processed organic foods are used.
Organic quality and sustainability: key aspects for 'plant-based' products
The quality and origin of ingredients play a role in the degree to which positive effects of a plant-based or vegan diet are expressed that should not be underestimated. "Organic allows farmers and food producers to contribute to solving multiple crises. Because organic provides with every hectare for more biodiversity, water protection, healthy soils, climate protection and species-appropriate animal husbandry. Organic farming positively contributes to the necessary changes in our food systems," explains Peter Röhrig, managing director of the German organic farming association BÖLW. After all, organic farming is a regenerative circular economy that functions without fertilizers from fossil energy and also builds up humus in the soil, thus binding CO2 from the air and also making farmers independent. According to BÖLW, organic products already save 1.5 billion euro a year in climate damage in Germany alone thanks to their resource-conserving economic practices, and they also help to keep food prices stable in turbulent times.
A plant-based diet of organic origin that is low in processed foods is considered particularly valuable for a sustainable nutrition profile because it addresses health concerns as well as environmental ones. Such a mainly plant-based diet, which is also low in salt, saturated fats and added sugars, is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as part of a healthy lifestyle. Such diets are generally associated with a lower risk of premature mortality and offer protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes mellitus. Nevertheless, there is a growing trend toward plant-based meat alternatives, many of which are classified as highly processed foods (ultra-processed foods). Yet initial studies are already showing that people who frequently consume ultra-processed foods not only have an increased risk of colorectal cancer, but also of death.
A big step in the right direction: For a sustainable plant-based diet
The various manifestations of plant-based diets have become a significant trend that appeals to more and more people worldwide. This trend is a response to a variety of factors, including health considerations, environmental and climate protection, as well as a growing awareness of the ethical implications of food choices.
Compared to veganism, which takes a stricter ethical stance and avoids all animal products, the "plant-based" diet offers a more flexible approach that allows people to explore the benefits of a plant-based diet without completely disengaging from animal products. In addition, an awareness of the different psychological impact of the terms "plant-based" and "vegan" is important, as they can influence people's acceptance and commitment to their dietary choices.
Firmly establishing and continuously expanding plant-based meal options in schools and workplaces, as well as emphasizing the benefits of organic agriculture and organic quality in food choices are important steps to further promote the benefits of these diets and achieve wider acceptance in society. It is therefore essential that consumers, producers, and policymakers recognize and promote this in order to take full advantage of the positive impacts of plant-based diets.
 Source: Scientific Advisory Council on Agricultural Policy, Nutrition and Consumer Health Protection and Scientific Advisory Council on Forest Policy at the BMEL (2016): Climate protection in agriculture, forestry, and the downstream sectors of food and wood use. Expert opinion. Berlin