Plant-Based Foods – An Inclusive PubMed Search – Revised 2016


By Eric Rumsey, Janna Lawrence and Xiaomei Gu

Searching for nutrition topics in PubMed is tricky. It’s especially difficult to search for plant-based foods (PBF’s). In 2014, we published an article that addresses this problem that contained a hedge for searching for PBF’s. A few months ago, the National Library of Medicine introduced a new explosion that makes it a lot easier to search for nutrition topics in PubMed, which we discussed here.

In this article we are revising our 2014 PBF hedge to incorporate the new PubMed explosion. While there may still be a few occasions when our previous hedge for PBF’s would be appropriate, in almost all cases we do not recommend using the old hedge. Instead, we recommend using the hedge below:

((Plants[mesh] OR Plant Preparations[mesh]) AND Diet, Food, and Nutrition [mesh]) OR (Vegetables[mesh] OR Fruit[mesh] OR Plants, Edible [mesh] OR Dietary Fiber[mesh] OR Flour[mesh] OR Bread[mesh] OR Diet, Vegetarian[mesh] OR Nuts[mesh] OR Condiments[mesh] OR Vegetable Proteins[mesh] OR Tea[mesh] OR Coffee[mesh] OR Wine[mesh] OR Vegetable Products[mesh])

The big change in this PBF hedge from the previous PBF hedge is, of course, replacing the food-diet-nutrition hedge that was part of the previous PBF hedge with the the new Diet, Food, and Nutrition explosion. Otherwise, the main change is the addition of the new MeSH term Vegetable Products.

Advanced techniques for plant-based food searching

In most cases, you’ll probably want to start with the hedge above. But if that doesn’t find what you want, try the ideas below.

If you combine your subject (a particular disease for example) with the hedge above and it misses articles that you think exist, consider broadening the search by combining your subject with Plants. The Plants explosion in MeSH is very large, containing hundreds of plant species. It’s organized by taxonomic relationships, which makes it hard for a non-botanist to browse. But it’s useful to combine with other subjects in searching, because it’s so comprehensive. The main drawback in searching it is that in addition to plant-based foods, it also has many plant-based drugs, which you’ll have to sift out from the food articles.

If you combine your subject with the hedge above and it misses articles on particular plant-based foods, search specifically for those. If you do a search for food and migraine, for example, and your search doesn’t pick up specific foods that you know have been associated with migraine (e.g. chocolate), combine those foods specifically with migraine.

A caveat: There is an exploded MeSH term Plants, Edible, which might seem to be a good place to search for plant-based foods. Unfortunately, however, it’s of limited usefulness – The explosion contains only grain plants and Vegetables, which is mainly soy-based foods. The term Plants, Edible itself is mostly used to index articles that are on the general concept rather than articles on specific types of edible plants.

If you’re interested in reading some background explaining why it’s so difficult to search for PBFs in PubMed, see our companion article.