About 47 percent of Americans consider themselves “flexitarians,” and younger eaters especially are prioritizing healthier and more sustainable foods. To memorialize this cultural shift, Merriam-Webster decided to solidify plant-based eating into canon. This month, the dictionary organization added “plant-based” and “oat milk” to the dictionary along with 368 other new terms. The terms will join “pumpkin spice” in the dictionary’s food category.

“Names of foods from around the world become familiar to us through menus, recipes, and cooking shows,” Merriam-Webster stated. “But homegrown flavors — particularly one that’s become (in)famously associated with autumn — also give us new words that need to be defined.”

The Popularity of Plant-Based Foods

Merriam-Webster features several terms related to veganism, but the dictionary omits several plant-based words and phrases that have only become popular in the last decade. For example, both "plant-based" and "oat milk" have spiked significant interest since 2017. Previously, the two terms were relatively unsearched, according to Google Trends. Now, Merriam-Webster's decision to add these terms to the dictionary proves their popularity among consumers.

The first instance of "plant-based" is recorded in 1960, according to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers two definitions for the term, including "made or derive from plants" and "consisting primarily or entirely of food (such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, oils, and beans) derived from plants." The dictionary organization notes that "plant-based" is part of the top 30 percent of popular search terms.

Although oat milk existed in the 1980s, this plant-based milk remained relatively unknown until Oatly arrived at New York City coffee shops in 2018. Four years later, Merriam-Webster defines this product as "a liquid made from ground oats and water that is usually fortified (as with calcium and vitamins) and used as a milk substitute." The dictionary revealed that "oat milk" is among the top 34 percent of searched terms.

“The dictionary chronicles how the language grows and changes, which means new words and definitions must continually be added,” Merriam-Webster stated. “When many people use a word in the same way, over a long enough period of time, that word becomes eligible for inclusion.”

Searching for Healthier Options

This January, Google released its "Year in Search" report, revealing the most popular patterns and trends among consumers from 2021. The search engine revealed that "vegan food near me" experience a 5,000 percent increase last year, indicating the overwhelming shift to plant-based options among consumers everywhere. The tech giant categorized the term as a "breakout search."

Google interviewed Chef Jocelyn Ramirez to talk about the benefits of plant-based cooking and the rise of vegan food everywhere for the report. The chef emphasized how "plant-based" represents a broader idea of vegan eating that could be more approachable.

“I want it to feel like you could live in these in-between worlds," Ramirez said at the time. "This is also why I use the term ‘plant-based’ more than ‘vegan’; it’s a little bit more flexible for some people, and I think a little bit more of a stepping stone of the direction that we all need to be headed in.”

Similarly, delivery platform Grubhub released a report in 2021 entitled the “Year in Food” that revealed its most popular items. The company announced that Impossible Foods' Cheeseburger increased in popularity by 442 percent last year.

Regarding plant-based milk, Instacart reported that one in three shoppers purchase plant-based milk products regularly, spanning across all ages and demographics. The online shopping platform revealed that plant-based milk increased in sales by nearly 30 percent in 2020, showing how consumers are becoming more interested in healthier, more sustainable products.

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