Merriam-Webster Adds ‘Plant-Based,’ ‘Oat Milk,’ and ‘Greenwashing’ to the Dictionary, Nodding to Increased Concern About Climate Change in the Food Industry

Photo: Stocksy/ Nadine Greeff
It’s official: Pumpkin spice is here to stay... well, according to Merriam-Webster, that is. In a recent release, the publishing company shared that they added 370 new words and definitions to the dictionary in September 2022. Aside from "pumpkin spice," three terms that nod to environmental efforts in the food industry—"plant-based," "oat milk," and "greenwashing"—were among the few hundred other new words that made the cut.

According to Merriam-Webster's statement, the dictionary works to chronicle how language grows and changes over time. “When many people use a word in the same way, over a long enough period of time, that word becomes eligible for inclusion,” it reads. In the slang category, you’ll find new terms like “sus” and “yeet,” which seem to have only risen in popularity only in the last few years. Meanwhile, it’s striking to find decades-old terms like oat milk, plant-based, and greenwashing just now being given a formal definition.

First things first: how were the words defined?

The new official definition for "oat milk" is pretty straightforward: A liquid made from ground oats and water that is usually fortified (as with calcium and vitamins) and used as a milk substitute. However, for the "plant-based" definition, Merriam-Webster opted for two alternatives. First: "Made or derived from plants." Think plant-based burgers. And the second: "Consisting primarily or entirely of food (such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, oils, and beans) derived from plants." Think plant-based meals. Meanwhile, "greenwash" was defined as “to make (something, such as a product, policy, or practice) appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.”

But these words *aren’t* exactly new, are they?

If we take a stroll down memory lane, in an article published by The New York Times, author Ethan Varian writes that the term “plant-based” was coined at the National Institutes of Health in 1980 by Cornell University biochemist Thomas Colin Campbell, who used it to present his research on a non-animal-product diet to skeptical colleagues. However, the dictionary also indicates that the term may have been used as far back as the 60s. I’ll let you do the math.

Meanwhile, oat milk has been around since 1994, when it was created by Oatly’s Swedish founders, brothers Rickard and Bjorn Oeste, who were researching an alternative to cow’s milk for people with lactose intolerance. And finally, New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in a 1986 essay in which he claimed the hotel industry falsely promoted the reuse of towels as part of a broader environmental strategy; when, in fact, the act was designed as a cost-saving measure.

Are we picking up on a trend here?

Why are these words finally making their dictionary debut?

Almost half a century later, these “green” terms that are often used to describe sustainability efforts are just making their *official* debut. So why now? Perhaps it has something to do with the booming plant-based F&B industry. Bloomberg Intelligence analysts say that the plant-based foods market could make up nearly eight percent of the global protein market by 2030, with a value of over $162 billion, up from $29.4 billion in 2020.

Adding these sustainability-adjacent terms to the dictionary, however, also nods to an increased interest in sustainability efforts and climate change reduction, according to research by IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV). The survey of 16,000 global consumers conducted by the company found that more than half (51 percent) of respondents say environmental sustainability is more important to them today than it was 12 months ago. It also showed that consumers’ actions are starting to match their intent.

How important is the language when it comes to sustainability and plant-based nutrition?

As plant-based protein sources continue to take a solid share of the market, meat-based purveyors are fighting back. A serious point of contention among meat industry lobby groups has been plant-based CPG labeling. These groups have worked endlessly to limit the use of words like "milk," "meat," and "burgers," just to name a few, when describing or labeling plant-based products.

Take, for example, a bill that was passed in 2018 in Missouri that prohibited companies from “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” Or Louisiana, which set to impose (but was struck down by a federal judge) up to a $500 fine per day for every marketing use of terms such as “burger” and “sausage” on plant-based meat products, even with proper qualifiers such as “vegan” or “meatless.”

So, should the official indoctrination of these new words into the dictionary be considered a definite and validating win for sustainability efforts? We’d certainly like to think so, but a small part of us can’t help but think: Is finally adding these terms to the dictionary perfect timing, or is it simply too little too late?

A few sustainability tips to eat for a healthier planet:

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