Vegan vs. Plant-Based: Is There a Difference?

What is the difference between vegan and plant-based? It depends on who asked you the question. In contrast to certain dietary identifiers such as gluten-free or dairy-free, the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” carry a wide range of interpretations. However, within this Venn diagram of dietary merit, there is a general consensus. Here’s what you need to know about what it means to be vegan, plant-based, and everything in between.

What does vegan mean?

People who identify as vegetarians refrain from eating any kind of animal or animal products. Vegans do not eat any meat, dairy, eggs, gelatin, collagen, honey or any products made from these animal ingredients. Note: Meat includes meat from all animals including birds and fish. A steak is not vegan, nor are McDonald’s French fries made with cow-derived beef flavoring.

Some vegans are more strict than others. For example, although some products may not include animal products in the ingredients list, they may be made with animal byproducts. Two common examples are wine and refined white sugar. Some wines and other alcohols use animal-based fining agents to reduce the wine’s bitterness and create a cleaner, less unpleasant final product (more on that here).

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Even if fining agents don’t end up in the bottle, many vegans look for vegan-approved wines, beers, and liquors to avoid contributing to the use of any animal products ( is an exceptional resource for verifying your alcohol is vegan). In the case of sweeteners, many commercially sold brands of refined white sugar use bone char during processing. You won’t find any bone fragments in your bag of C&H, but again, the use of animal products is enough to put some vegans off. In case you’re wondering, there are brands of white sugar that don’t use animal products. If the package says “unrefined” or “organic,” you’re in the clear.

The difference between vegan and plant-based is that vegan extends beyond nutrition. Veganism is seen as a lifestyle. Not only do vegans eat animals, they generally refuse to buy any products or systems that exploit other sentient beings. Vegans avoid wearing clothes made from animals (wool, cashmere, fur, silk, leather); using body care, homeware or makeup that has been made or tested on animals; and supporting establishments or activities that exhibit, mistreat or confine animals (circus, zoo, aquarium, dog breeding, etc.).

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Ultimately, the choice to be vegan is fueled by a sense of empathy. People may choose not to eat animals or animal products for reasons of health, sustainability, or social justice, but most vegans justify their choice by their compassion for animals. It is an ethics-driven lifestyle. No vegan is perfect, but those who identify as such try to align their actions with their ethics and live a life that causes as little harm to other animals as possible.

What does plant based mean?

The unbridled popularity of animal-free products has given rise to much confusion surrounding the term plant-based. It has become a huge buzz word, and marketers are slapping it on any label they have Unlike vegan—which is recovering from some of the negative connotations of extremism—plant-based is overwhelmingly positive. It implies a sense of health and quality, which may be true for some products, but not all (plant-based cigarettes? Yes, that’s a thing, and they can still cause cancer).

To alleviate confusion: plant-based refers to a person or persons who are animal-free. Like vegetarians, plant-based people do not eat any animal products. The difference is that plant-based is often limited to dietary choices. A plant-based person may still wear leather, or they may not go out of their way to make sure the products they use are not tested on animals. Many people (but not all) who choose to abstain from eating animal products identify as plant-based rather than vegetarian.

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Some brands, restaurants, and people have mandated plant-based as a synonym for flexibility, meaning they emphasize plants but can also include meat, eggs, or dairy in their diet. To be clear, it is not plant-based. This term should only be used for foods that are completely animal-free.

What do whole food, plant based people eat?

The term whole food, plant-based (WFPB) may fit neatly into the vegan or plant-based side of this dietary picture. Someone who identifies as WFPB does not eat animal or highly processed foods. That means animal-free baked goods, vegetarian meats, processed snacks, refined sugars and oils are off the table.

A WFPB diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and herbs and spices. Some minimally processed items are accepted such as tofu, tempeh, minimal ingredient plant-based milks and whole grain flours. Those who choose the WFPB diet do so mainly for its health benefits, as this lifestyle is rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals; Low in harmful fats; And free of cholesterol, animal-based hormones and inflammatory compounds.

Are all vegans gluten-free?

Walk into any progressive bakery, and you’ll likely find a dedicated case of vegan and/or gluten-free options. Although the omnivorous population is becoming more educated about what a vegetarian diet entails, it is not uncommon for the term to be classified under the blanket umbrella of “special diets” and confused with other dietary choices.

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The gluten-free trend has grown in popularity with the rise of veganism, and some people believe they are one and the same. However, gluten-free and vegan are two completely different things. Not all vegetarian items are gluten-free and not all gluten-free items are vegetarian. There are many vegan products that contain gluten, and many gluten-free products use animal-based ingredients. Is crossover possible? Of course. We’ve enjoyed many vegan and gluten-free cupcakes and had our fair share of these vegan and gluten-free biscuits, but one word doesn’t necessarily require the other.

Common foods that contain raw animal ingredients

Want to try a vegan or plant-based diet? High five! But before you stock your kitchen with delicious animal-free essentials, take a look at the list below to identify common foods that often contain animal ingredients. Avoid these (or check the ingredients label), and you’ll be well on your way to your best vegan or plant-based life:

tea mix (honey)
Gelatin (rendered from animals)
Gummy Candy (Gelatin)
Jell-O (Gelatin)
marshmallow (gelatin)
McDonald’s French Fries (Beef Flavor)
Protein powder (whey/casein derived from milk)
Powdered non-dairy creamer (milk derivatives)

For more vegetarianism 101, read:

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