When is a steak not a steak? When is butter not a substance churned from an animal’s mammary secretions? What do you call an egg that comes before — and beyond — a chicken?
That’s the challenge for the thriving “plant-based food industry,” as it’s called. (Don’t think too hard about that term, or you’ll end up wondering whether anything you eat could exist without being based on plants.) According to one estimate, the U.S. market for plant-based food substitutes reached $7 billion in sales in 2021, and is expected to grow another 50 percent by 2027. Dozens of new companies are vying for grocery shelf space, which means names and descriptions are crucially important.
This new language can be creative, but it can also be confusing, subject not only to culture and convention but also to legal constraints, as when the state of Mississippi banned the use of “burger” and “hot dog” in the names of vegetarian substitutes. Such bans ignore linguistic history: our words for foods have changed their meaning over time. Meat once meant simply “nourishment” or “sustenance”; we’ve retained that generic sense in words like nutmeat. The etymology of steak reveals that it used to mean “something that was stuck” on a spit. Could have been a zucchini, right? Sausage originally meant “seasoned with salt”—no animal parts required. Milk can mean “any whitish liquid,” as in coconut milk and the trade name Milk of Magnesia. And dairy was once dey, a kneader of bread; the sense of “production of milk, cheese, and butter” didn’t evolve until the 1670s.
So what’s an enterprising maker of plant-based alternatives— a veggiepreneur, if you will — to do? Here are some of the linguistic strategies you’re likely to encounter.
Accentuate the negative. “No,” “less,” and “not” appear frequently in the names of flesh-mimicking foodstuffs, sending a signal about what you’re missing but not necessarily what you’re getting. One of the earliest, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! (which contains some dairy byproducts), was first sold in 1981; it took its name from a comment made by the husband of a company secretary as he sampled the product. (The name inspired many exclamatory imitations, including Butter It’s Not! and You’d Butter Believe It!) More recently, Trader Joe’s has introduced Beef-less “ground beef,” Chicken-less “chicken,” Meat-less “meatballs,” and Sausage-less “sausage.” A brand called No Cow — tagline: “No Cow. No Bull. No Whey.”—sells dairy-free protein bars and powders. A plant-based “ice cream” calls itself Nada Moo! (with an exclamation mark), combining the Spanish word for “nothing” with a representation – or a synecdoche – of a cow. (The name is a homophone of “not a moo.”)
Meanwhile, in the dairy aisle there coexisted for a while no fewer than three “milks” with similar Not- names: Not Milk (parent company: NotCo), NotMilk (which recently rebranded as Nuthatch), and Shhh… This is Not MLK, in which a white droplet replaces the I in “milk.” (I wrote about the battle of the not-milks in 2021.) A German brand, Unmilk, uses a tagline that’s ambiguous in the best way: “No Milk Is Better.” (Yes, ambiguity can be a virtue.) And if you want to duplicate the taste of tuna without the fins and gills, there’s Tuno from Loma Linda Foods. What a difference a vowel makes.
Insert an apostrophe. The oddly apostrophe’d names of some vegan alternatives — chik’n, turk’y, bac’n, saus’ge—signal that somethin’s missin’ (namely, the animal parts). Bac’n Buds, introduced in 1972, are a “bacon flavor vegetable protein product.” Turk’y, sold by Quora, is made from mushrooms. A company called Gardein—a portmanteau of garden and protein — sells Ste’k & E’gs Breakfast Bowl, Sweet and Sour P’rk Bites, Saus’ge Benny Breakfast Bowl, and Chick’n Fajita Bowl.
Misspell it. If it’s Krab with a K, you know it’s crustacean-free. If it’s Mylk—there are two, from Myracle Kitchen and Mooala — or MALK (“No Artificial Anything”), it comes from a lab, not a farm. For more about unconventionally spelled and punctuated foods, see my 2011 Vocabulary.com column “Phood for Thought.”
Portmanteau it. If your product is made from one thing (soy, tofu, macadamia nuts) but resembles another thing (milk, turkey), a portmanteau can be a catchy way of communicating the blend. One of the oldest and best examples is Silk, introduced in 1977 as a satiny-smooth blend of soy and milk and now an umbrella brand for a range of plant-based beverages made from coconut, almonds, oats, and other substances. Tofurky, which debuted in 1995, chose to stick with that tofu-plus-turkey brand name even as the company diversified into plant-based substitutes for chicken, sausage, and ham. Milkadamia, launched in 2015 by Australian-based Jindilli Beverages, is committed, so far at least, to its single-origin origins: macadamia nuts. Its tagline: “Moo is moot.”
Switch the grammar. Maybe you’re skeptical about a non-mammalian substance that calls itself “milk.” Well, how about changing the noun to a verb? That’s what Hive Brands has done with its line of shelf-stable “plant-based dairy” beverages: Milked Oats, Milked Almonds, Milked Walnuts, Milked Cashews. Reversing the order also places the emphasis on the main ingredient rather than on what the finished product resembles.
Go abstract. One of the most conspicuous new trends in plant-based-food naming, especially among companies founded in the last decade, rejects negatives and similes in favor of high-concept abstract words: Impossible, Beyond, Daring, Just. These brand names say “We’re not fake anything—we’re real change.” Their brand stories often emphasize not merely taste and texture but health and environmental well-being. Impossible Foods, whose burgers are sold in supermarkets and fast-food chains and which has branched out into plant-based chicken and pork alternatives, declares on its home page, “You deserve better. You deserve Impossible.” Beyond Meat, founded in 2009, challenges us to “Take your health beyond.” In January, Daring Foods, founded in 2017, took out a four-page ad supplement in the New York Times to trumpet that it’s “making chicken better by making it out of plants.” (On its website, Daring calls its product “the plant chicken for people who love the taste of chicken chicken.”) And JUST Egg (2011), which makes “plant-based alternatives to conventionally produced egg products,” pulls off a double meaning with “JUST,” which can signify both “solely” and “righteous.”
Where do we go from here? One indication may be a new Swedish brand of milk made from — wait for it — potatoes. It’s called DUG, as in “dug up out of the soil”—a literally down-to-earth name with a homely appeal and a sly secondary meaning: dug is an old synonym for teat. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of digging it.