Meat and seafood are prohibited in both vegan and vegetarian diets. Vegan diets, on the other hand, go a step further by eliminating all animal-derived foods. Vegans, in addition to avoiding meat, avoid dairy products, eggs, and honey. Vegan foods never contain any animal agriculture by-products such as lard, whey, or gelatine.
A vegan diet has significant advantages over a vegetarian diet. Eating vegetarian only reduces farm animal exploitation, whereas vegan diets eliminate it. A vegan diet may also provide health and environmental benefits over diets that include dairy and eggs. Many vegetarians eventually decide to become vegan for these reasons.
What Vegan Foods Are There?
It is surprisingly easy to become a vegan. Consider the vast array of vegan foods available:
- Pasta and bread (some contain animal products)
- Berries and fruits
- Rice, wheat, and other cereal grains
- Tofu, beans, and tempeh
- Plant-based milks (soy, almond, pea, nut, hemp, etc.)
You will not, however, be denied your favourite indulgences. Many of the most popular chocolate, wine, and beer brands are vegan. You can even get fantastic dairy-free coffee creamers.
The world's great cuisines provide an infinite number of incredible vegan meals. Whether you go vegan for life or just for a few weeks, you'll never run out of satisfying foods.
Vegan foods are available everywhere!
Every supermarket carries a wide variety of vegan foods. A good natural foods store has even more options. Most have a good selection of vegan meats, milks, and cheeses. Vegan waffles, burritos, and pizza can be found in the frozen section. Desserts will not disappoint either. Vegan ice cream, cookies, brownies, and other favourites are available. Every popular non-vegan food, including cream cheese, mayo, and eggs, is available in better natural food stores. And your options will only grow over time, as vegan food companies release delicious new products every month.
If you think you'll never be able to live without cheese, you'll be relieved to learn that there are dozens of delicious vegan cheese brands. Furthermore, you can easily make vegan cheese at home by purchasing one of the many vegan cheese cookbooks.
When it comes to cooking, there are hundreds of vegan cookbooks available that cover every conceivable niche. Vegan food will never become boring. Some of the most versatile vegan meals are also the simplest. You'll never make these dishes the same way twice:
- vegetables roasted
- wraps and sandwiches
When it comes to eating out, there are thousands of vegan restaurants around the world. And all of the best fast-food restaurants are scrambling to add vegan options to their menus. So don't let anyone convince you that a vegan diet is difficult or boring!
Non-Food Vegan Items
Veganism can refer to more than just food. People also apply the vegan concept to clothing, cosmetics, and other consumer goods.
You can call something vegan if it contains nothing made or derived from animals. A leather jacket, for example, is not vegan. However, you can buy a vegan leather jacket; several companies produce high-quality vegan leather.
Disagreements Regarding the Definition of Vegan
Vegan can refer to a sandwich, a car seat, shampoo, or even an individual. Unfortunately, the word's remarkable versatility leads to squabbles over competing definitions.
Ironically, some vegans are incapable of productively discussing vegan issues. They frequently define the word in absurdly narrow terms. Alternatively, they may have a tendency to express key points in a judgmental tone.
Vegans frequently assert that only people with specific motivations are truly vegan. They argue that unless you are motivated by animal protection, you are not truly vegan. Instead, they'll call you "plant-based," even if you don't consume any animal products. What a nonsense distinction! It almost appears to be aimed at discouraging people from making dietary changes. Advocates who are preoccupied with who gets to call themselves a vegan should abandon the vegan police routine and find a hobby.
Motivation is unimportant. I might go vegan just to eat healthier food. Perhaps I eat vegan because animal farming increases the likelihood of a global pandemic. In fact, I believe our extraterrestrial overlords require us to eat vegan in order to achieve fifth-dimensional unity consciousness. In any case, what possible benefit can be derived from requiring people to embrace a specific reason for eliminating animal products from their diets?
Vegan vs. Plant-Based
I find it offensive to use the term "plant-based" as code for a second-rate vegan who isn't motivated by animal rights concerns. However, the term can be useful in other contexts.
Plant-based refers to a less strict version of veganism with some intentional wiggle room. Assume you eat only vegan food with the exception of a couple of pieces of chicken once a month. Because your diet is almost entirely composed of plants, we could call it plant-based. However, we would never refer to this diet as vegan.
Plant-based food may contain entirely vegan ingredients or trace amounts of animal products when it comes to meals.
The plant-based concept may inspire people who want to eat mostly vegan while allowing for some cheating. Let's get back to veganism. I'll try to define vegan in the most reasonable and inspiring terms near the end of this essay. But first, let's go over the word's very first definition.
The Original Vegan Definition
In 1944, Donald Watson coined the term vegan. That year, in the first issue of The Vegan News, he defined the term and introduced it:
We should all think carefully about what we want to call our Group, our magazine, and ourselves. 'Non-dairy,' like 'non-lacto,' has become a widely understood colloquialism, but it is too negative. Furthermore, it does not imply that we are against the use of eggs as food. We need a name that implies what we do eat, and preferably one that conveys the idea that even with all animal foods off-limits, Nature still provides us with a bewildering array from which to choose. 'Vegetarian' and 'Fruitarian' are already associated with societies that allow the 'fruits' (!) of cows and fowls, so it appears that a new and appropriate term is required. As the title of our first issue of our periodical had to be chosen, I chose "The Vegan News." If we do this, our diet will quickly become known as a VEGAN diet, and we should strive to be VEGANS. Suggestions from members will be welcomed. Those of us who have to type or write the word vegetarian thousands of times a year as secretaries of vegetarian societies understand the value of having a short title!
Watson did an excellent job of explaining the vegan concept in simple and inspiring terms. You'll notice that he only defined veganism in terms of diet.
You might think that a given food's vegan status is obvious, but there are a variety of exceptions. Let us consider a few of these.
Vegan Food Made in Non-Vegan Plants
In light of Watson's definition, determining a food's vegan status appears straightforward: if the item contains no animal ingredients, it is vegan. I see no harm in erring on the strict side here. A chocolate bar containing 1% milk powder, for example, should not be considered vegan.
But now I'm going to throw you a curve ball. Despite being made entirely of vegan ingredients, some chocolate bars contain traces of milk. This is due to the fact that they were produced on the same assembly line as milk chocolate bars. The same can be said for a variety of other foods, such as vegan ice cream.
These products frequently include a warning near the ingredients list that says something like, "may contain traces of milk." These warnings are in place to warn customers who have severe allergies. Denying these foods vegan status may give the impression that vegans have absurdly high standards. This, in turn, may discourage people from adopting plant-based diets.
I believe these foods can legitimately be labelled vegan. They do not contain any non-vegan ingredients. As a result, they do not support animal cruelty. An omnivore will inevitably consume a few extra vegan molecules that came from your product, no matter how much milk you consume because your vegan product shares a manufacturing line.
Veggie burgers can be cooked on the same grill as hamburgers. Animals are not harmed in any way by this cooking method. Personal disgust may lead you to avoid eating a veggie burger cooked in this manner. However, claiming that such food is not vegan amounts to virtue signalling, which is likely to confuse and annoy the people we hope to win over.
Problems Veganism Cannot Solve
Veganism is by far the most effective way to eliminate foods associated with animal cruelty and slaughter from your diet. However, a vegan diet cannot eliminate all forms of exploitation associated with your food choices because many widely planted crops involve objectionable farming practises.
Consider palm oil, which is produced by crushing palm fruit and extracting the oil. What food could be more vegan than this? Despite this, the industry is a major force in deforestation, exterminating at least a thousand endangered orangutans each year. Consider coffee and chocolate, two tropical foods that were frequently harvested by slaves.
Other crops have unseen but horrifying human costs. Workers who process cashews, for example, frequently suffer from disfiguring skin damage on their hands. The caustic oils that coat the inedible fruit that is manually removed from each nut cause this harm.
Many of the world's farmworkers work in deplorable conditions and for pitiful wages. Even the most sustainable small-scale farming practises frequently involve killing. Your local organic lettuce farmer may poison gophers or shoot deer that threaten the crop. Pesticides used on orchards and fruit crops also cause significant harm to honey bee populations.
Vegan does not (and cannot) imply perfection
As the examples above demonstrate, many vegan foods involve abhorrent farming practises. As a result, it's tempting to redefine vegan to exclude all forms of human and wildlife exploitation.
Unfortunately, reaching agreement on such a redefinition would be impossible, and the attempt would quickly render the word obsolete. To revoke the vegan status of crops grown in particularly unethical ways, everyone must agree on where to draw the line. Some may only want to exclude uncertified palm oil, while others may want to exclude dozens more food crops. The term vegan would lose its meaning because no one could agree on the criteria for determining which foods should be included.
Moving Past the Vegan Idea
As we've seen, veganism cannot address every ethical food concern. Nonetheless, if you want to eat in the least harmful way possible, a vegan diet should be seriously considered. When necessary, you can always go beyond the vegan concept. Vegan chocolate, for example, protects cows, whereas fair-trade vegan chocolate protects both cows and people.
Almost all vegans oppose exploitative food production methods, even when the item in question is vegan. Superior alternatives almost always exist for the most problematic vegan foods. Sometimes it will be a sustainably grown version of the food, and other times it will be an entirely different option. Your food may end up costing more because fair-trade certified foods and the like are always more expensive. Overall, however, it takes little effort and money to better align your food purchases with your values.
Crops grown or harvested in unethical ways are vegan but completely objectionable. Despite the enormously complex ethical realities of food production, we can keep the definition of vegan simple and straightforward. Going vegan does not solve all food-related issues. However, it is an excellent starting point. Veganism provides us with a solid foundation as we work individually and collectively to eliminate the remaining injustices in our food system.
Vegan as a Personality
Is there a more narcissistic debate than who gets to call themselves a vegan? I prefer to avoid the subject whenever possible. Alternatively, sprint in the opposite direction.
I rarely tell people I'm vegan because it implies that I base my identity on my diet. Personal identification frequently draws attention to how you differ from others. This invariably complicates the task of finding common ground on critical issues.
So, rather than saying, "I'm vegan," I prefer to say, "I eat a vegan diet." "I follow a vegan lifestyle," I'll say if I want to communicate that I avoid animal products in both my food and non-food purchases.
I try to keep my personal preferences out of vegan discussions. The less focused the conversation is on me, the better. I'd rather draw attention to the cruelty and environmental damage associated with animal agriculture, as well as the abundance of excellent vegan alternatives.
Having said that, keep in mind that veganism was originally defined solely in terms of food. So if someone wearing a leather belt tells me she's vegan, I'm not going to argue. I believe we all have more important things to be concerned about.
It's not as if being vegan guarantees a kind and exemplary personality. Some well-known vegans are among the most heinous people I've ever met. Expecting decency and integrity from someone simply because they eat a vegan diet can lead to disappointment. Instead, consider veganism to be just another path toward becoming a better person, similar to telling the truth, using kind words, and refusing to steal.
Animals are saved by flexible definitions
Many animal advocates want to do more than just reduce animal suffering; they want it completely eliminated. As a result, they frequently define veganism in the most restrictive terms possible. However, imposing onerous standards, particularly on newcomers, can unnecessarily repel people. As one slaughterhouse after another closes, animal byproducts will gradually disappear as we move toward a vegan world. To achieve this, we must talk about veganism in ways that inspire the majority of people to switch to plant-based diets.
To bring veganism into the mainstream, we must avoid saying things that scare people away. This entails approaching the subject in ways that both entice and encourage. I frequently employ the foot-in-the-door technique, which seeks to persuade people to make a small but immediate shift toward veganism. Even the smallest concession today can often result in much larger changes tomorrow.
What could be more counterproductive than placing unreasonable demands on new vegans? Newcomers must concentrate on the big picture: eliminating meat, eggs, and dairy products from their diets. Those commitments can be daunting at first. Should we expect new vegans to throw out their leather shoes right away, or to be concerned about the fourteenth ingredient in their shampoo?
The Snake of the Plumber
I try not to make veganism a major part of my identity. Even during lengthy discussions about food politics, I rarely feel compelled to reveal that I am vegan. And I refuse to take the word seriously, especially as a defining characteristic of who I am as a person. I regard veganism in the same way that I regard a plumber's snake. It's just a tool for getting the job done.
I use the term vegan in any way I can to inspire change. Just as a plumber's snake bends this way and that to clear obstructions, I bend the word vegan in whatever way suits my purpose at the time.
Are You "Mostly Vegan"?
Let me share some phrases I frequently use to encourage people to adopt plant-based diets:
- Eighty percent vegan
- vegan road tests
- Vegetarian at home
- primarily vegan
- Vegan before 6:00 p.m.
These phrases irritate vegan fundamentalists. They'll argue that "a little bit vegan" is as illogical as "a little bit pregnant." They'll even pretend to be perplexed about what "mostly vegan" or "80 percent vegan" means.
However, I assume that the people I speak with have a functional level of intelligence. Qualifiers like "mostly" or "80%" can increase the utility of the vegan concept while inspiring whatever steps forward each person feels ready to take.
Two Modern Definitions of Vegan
Now that we've gone over the most important issues and controversies surrounding the vegan concept, let's try to define it in the most concise and sensible way possible.
The Vegan Society has existed since 1944, when Donald Watson and others founded it. The organisation revisited the task of defining veganism over time and produced this effort:
Veganism is a philosophy and way of life that seeks to eliminate, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and, by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans, and the environment. In dietary terms, it refers to the practise of avoiding all products derived entirely or partially from animals.
Because that definition appears to have been written by a committee, I'd like to offer my own:
Vegan refers to any food made without ingredients derived from or produced by animals, as well as any diet made up entirely of these foods. A vegan lifestyle avoids the use of any products associated with animal exploitation whenever possible and safe.
You'll notice that my definition is not only shorter and simpler, but it also excludes motivation from consideration.
Why Personal Motivation Isn't Important
The main difference between the Vegan Society's definition and mine is that the Vegan Society considers veganism to be a philosophy accompanied by a set of beliefs. Veganism, in my opinion, is a practise that has numerous large and small advantages. My approach, I believe, is more straightforward. Furthermore, it is less likely to cause disagreements and confusion.
What benefit could there be in refusing to call someone vegan if their diet contains no trace of animal products? That appears to be petty and pointless. In any form of activism, humility is essential. Who am I to say that someone else's reasons for avoiding animal products are less valid than mine?
To put it another way, it's fine to promote whatever you believe to be the most compelling reasons to avoid animal products. But it's not so fine to say that people can't call themselves vegan unless they avoid animal products for those specific reasons.
Because no definition can please everyone, neither mine nor the Vegan Society's is the final word on the subject. Even if we cannot define veganism in a way that pleases everyone, we can all agree that moving in a vegan direction is desirable. As long as the vegan concept is used to reduce demand for animal products, there appears to be little reason to obsess over finding the One True Definition.
Everything revolves around one's attitude
Some vegans define themselves entirely by their diet. These people invariably try to keep the definition of vegan as restrictive as possible. Veganism becomes all about reinforcing their sense of self.
This is the definition of vegan fundamentalism. And no form of fundamentalism, spiritual or secular, ever achieves widespread acceptance. The rigidity of fundamentalist thinking always repels the majority of society. We have to be cool if we want plant-based lifestyles to become the norm. This entails using the vegan concept to invite and encourage rather than to exclude.
Now that we've thoroughly examined the meaning of the word, we'll move on to more important topics. It's time to move on from what vegan means to why people embrace the concept.
My essay "Why Go Vegan?" explains the most compelling reasons to become vegan. You should be able to complete the piece in under an hour. If you find its arguments convincing, you should also read my "How to Go Vegan" guide. It takes surprisingly little effort to rid your life of animal products.
Maintain Simplicity and Ease
Begin with diet when transitioning to a vegan lifestyle. Because food production accounts for the vast majority of animal exploitation, this provides the greatest and simplest payoff. It is extremely simple to incorporate more vegan foods into your diet. There are countless delicious vegan foods to try, so do so whenever possible. You should also educate yourself on vegan nutrition to avoid deficiency in essential nutrients.
You may decide to transition your clothing and personal care purchases as your diet becomes more plant based. Begin by reviewing our list of common animal ingredients, followed by our beauty and clothing guides.
Vegan is without a doubt the most powerful word ever coined in the service of animal welfare. Unfortunately, the term is frequently twisted in ways that turn off mainstream audiences. As a result, I've attempted to define the term in a way that unleashes its full power without coming across as rigid, preachy, or uptight. I hope you will apply the vegan concept in whatever ways allow you to eliminate animal products from your life while inspiring others to do the same.
Erik Marcus is the publisher of Vegan.com and the author of several vegan-related books. For more information, read his essays Why Go Vegan? and How to Go Vegan.