Tesco became the latest food firm to get rapped by the ASA today, as the regulator concluded ads for its Plant Chef range had breached advertising rules.

The ASA ruled the ads – which highlighted the fact Tesco had cut the prices of its Plant Chef range because “a little swap can make a difference to the planet” – were misleading.

It’s yet another example of the complexity around promoting plant-based products based on their ‘better for the planet’ credentials. Not least because it comes as the ASA ruled an advertising campaign by Sainsbury’s, which was also promoting plant-based swaps, did not fall foul of the code.

When considering the differences between the two rulings, it’s important to note the ASA accepts that “switching to a more plant-based diet is a way in which consumers can reduce their overall environmental impact”.

“Ads which make that point in general terms, and do not contain claims about an advertised product, are likely to be acceptable,” it says.

And therein lies the rub. The Sainsbury’s ads suggested by making changes such as “mixing chickpeas with half chicken in your curry”, shoppers could create dishes that were “better for you and better for the planet”.

Noting the ads did not feature or promote any particular product range, but only showed ingredients that could be purchased at many retailers, the ASA considered it was “making a general claim regarding the overall accepted premise that a plant-based diet was, in general terms, better for the environment” and therefore were not misleading.

In contrast, the ASA noted Tesco’s ads “referred to Tesco’s Plant Chef product range, and the Plant Chef plant-based burger in particular and mentioned swapping to those products”.

It therefore considered consumers would understand the ads “were promoting a swap from a meat burger, such as beef, to Tesco’s Plant Chef plant-based burger, rather than understanding the claim to be a general claim about swapping from meat to plant-based food in general”.

As a result, the ASA said it would expect to see evidence that switching to products in the Plant Chef range would positively affect the environment, based on the full lifecycle of the Plant Chef burger in comparison with a beef burger.

Because it had not seen that evidence, it concluded the claims made in the ad “had not been substantiated and were likely to mislead”.

It’s a reminder that while brands and retailers are understandably keen to sing the praises of their plant-based products, and to point out the potential environmental benefits, they should do so with caution.

Sure, the punishments for getting it wrong aren’t severe. Tesco just won’t be able to show the ad again in its current form. But with a flurry of similar rulings of late, it does risk creating scepticism around the plant-based movement as a whole. 

What’s more, these sorts of rulings are never great for public opinion – and with the discounters eating into market share, the battle for hearts and minds is arguably more important than ever.