'Plant-Based' Doesn't Mean Anything Anymore

The words 'plant-based' have become overused to the point of being meaningless. Please welcome Chipotle's Shawn Mendes cauliflower rice bowl to the chat.
shawn mendes chipotle bowl
Image via Chipotle

Several days ago, someone on Twitter asked the @MiracleNoodle account why it calls its Miracle Rice "plant-based," since the non-miracle version of rice has spent several thousand years being unquestionably plant-based. "All of our products are plant-based and our company takes pride in that," Miracle Noodle responded. "Just another way of saying we are vegan."


The words 'plant-based' have become overused to the point of being meaningless, and Miracle Rice with its pink packaging and lower-case typeface looks like it was designed to become part of the permanent collection in the Museum of the Unnecessary. "We’ve made white rice healthy," the company says on its website, noting that the rice has "zero calories and zero net carbs"—a distinction suggesting that, a couple of years ago, it would've put 'low carb' on the label instead of plant-based. 

The term 'plant-based' was first used by Thomas Colin Campbell, a Cornell University biochemist. "I wanted to emphasize that my work and ideas were coming totally from science and not any sort of ethical or philosophical consideration,” he told the New York Times

That's an important distinction to make and, as the Times notes, a 'plant-based' diet has fewer restrictions than veganism or vegetarianism. Although there are dozens of different motivators for moving to a more sustainable way of eating—animal welfare, environmental concerns, overall health and wellness—going plant-based doesn't require any additional ideological commitments. 

But the things that make a plant-based diet more accessible have also diluted the term to borderline homeopathic levels. Despite what @MiracleNoodle suggested on Twitter, it's not a synonym for vegan, even though some plant-based products fall into both categories. (Like rice, for example. Regular rice.)


Chipotle is also leaning into plant-based buzzwords, after adding cauliflower rice—and a $2-per-bowl or burrito upcharge—to its own menu. A Chipotle spokesperson told VICE that, in a test market launch last summer, "one out of three new menu item requests" was for cauliflower rice, and its Cilantro-Lime version was a popular choice among both new customers and non-regulars. 

"When we think of 'plant-based' options, we see a massive opportunity to bring more vegetables to the center of plate," the spokesperson continued. "Our customers crave simple, plant-based food, like Cilantro-Lime Cauliflower Rice, now more than ever, especially as people search for convenient ways to eat healthier at home."

But, like the Miracle marketing team, it's using plant-based as a substitute for 'low-carb' or 'keto-friendly,' as illustrated by the arrival of the Shawn Mendes Salad Bowl, which contains plant-based cauliflower rice and decidedly non-plant-based chicken. (The spokesperson also gave a shoutout to the chain's new Lifestyle Bowls, which include Vegan, Keto, and Whole30 compliant options, all of which are built on a generous scoop of cauliflower rice). 

The thing is, this isn't a new concept in the food space. If you own more than three hyaluronic acid serums or still know all of the words to the "Blossom" theme song, then you probably remember when SnackWell's were a thing. The self-described "fat free" cookies landed on supermarket shelves in 1992, and they were followed by dozens of other products labeled "fat free," like Baked Lays, Oreos, assorted cereals, salad dressings, and those strip-mall frozen yogurt stores that your stepmom was really into. 


According to the Los Angeles Times, SnackWell's annual sales topped $600 million at their peak in 1995, before plummeting to $88 million nine years later. By the early noughties, we'd all stopped calculating the amount of fat in our meals, and started worrying about carbohydrates instead. The popularity of the Atkins and South Beach diets meant we started looking for 'low carb' on food labels instead—and manufacturers were all too happy to oblige. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of products that were marketed as being low in carbohydrates jumped by more than 1000 percent. 

Low carb eventually morphed into high protein, so we all briefly pretended that hard boiled eggs were acceptable movie snacks, and that burgers were just as satisfying when they were served on little lettuce hammocks. Now the scramble for shelf-space—and market share—is dominated by anything that describes itself as 'plant-based.' 

The Good Food Institute reports that although overall retail food sales grew a modest 2 percent over the past year and 4 percent in the past two years, sales of plant-based foods have jumped by 11 percent and 29 percent, respectively. On top of that, almost a quarter (23 percent) of consumers say that they are eating more plant-based foods now than they were a year ago. The "most developed" plant-based category is plant-based milk, followed by other plant-based dairy products, plant-based meat (like burger patties from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods), and plant-based eggs. 

As plant-based products become an even bigger business, it's guaranteed that there will be an even longer list of items that are either unnecessarily labeled as such, or that are pushed out in an attempt to capitalize on everyone's newfound interest in vegetables that aren't explicitly called vegetables. If plant-based SnackWell's ever materialize, though, then I'll probably be all in.