How do I identify plant-based foods?

Consistent with Menus of Change, plant-based foods are defined as “fruits and vegetables (produce); whole grains; beans, other legumes (pulses), and soy foods; nuts and seeds; plant oils; and herbs and spices”, simple combinations of these foods and their derivatives, and vegetarian/vegan alternatives to meat and dairy. See Standards and Terms in the Food and Beverage Purchasing credit for more detail.

Suggested Methodologies

To identify plant-based foods, you can either assess product categories or specific items.

Product categories

The simplest approach is to count as plant-based only those broad categories of food and beverage products for which all of the items are clearly plant-based (e.g., produce). This approach is much less time-intensive than conducting a line item inventory, but it must be done conservatively to exclude categories that are likely to include animal-derived or ultra-processed foods. For example, a category of “fruit juice” would be included, but a category of “fruit drinks” (which may include fruit-flavored soft drinks or water) would not. Likewise, broad categories of “prepared foods” would need to be excluded.

Here are some suggested categories to include as plant-based based on UNSPSC and GDSN codes.

Line items

A more detailed approach would be to classify products individually. This is perhaps most easily done by excluding products that do not qualify. Products that do NOT qualify as plant-based include:

  • Animal products (i.e., meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy) and their derivatives
  • Products that contain meat, poultry, fish, or seafood (i.e., are not vegetarian)
  • Products for which the predominant/defining raw ingredients (or more than 50 percent of ingredients, by weight, salt and water excluded) are animal products (e.g., mayonnaise, cream-based soups, egg salad, yogurt with fruit)
  • Drinking water, carbonated beverages, sports and energy drinks, dairy-based drinks, and fruit-flavored drinks
  • Sweet or savory packaged snacks (except for minimally processed, whole food snacks such as sugared or salted nuts, seeds, and fruit/grain/nut/seed mixtures)
  • Chocolate and candies (confectionary) 
  • Mass produced, packaged baked goods (e.g., buns, cookies/biscuits, pastries, and cakes)
  • Powdered and packaged “instant” sauces, soups, noodles, desserts, and mixes
  • Other ultra-processed foods, including many sugared breakfast cereals and ready-to-heat products such as pre-prepared meals, pies, and pasta and pizza dishes. 

When in doubt about whether a specific item is ultra-processed or not, apply the Real Food criteria and exclude it if it contains any of the following ingredients: 

  • Aspartame
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Caramel coloring
  • Partially hydrogenated oil (trans-fats)
  • Potassium bromate
  • Propyl gallate
  • rBGH/rBST
  • Saccharin
  • Sodium nitrate added
  • Sodium nitrite added
  • Dyes: Red #3, Red #40, Yellow #5, Yellow #6

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