Food producers are harming veganism because of the way they label their products “vegetarian” and in many instances mix that word with “meat free, dairy free, veggie, and 100% vegetarian.” They should not be using these terms interchangeably with, or instead of, “vegan” as we saw organizations do in Part 3, but they are.
Look as long as we like at an organization with “vegetarian” in its name and we still won’t know if it is vegan or what kind of nonvegan vegetarianism it endorses until we dig through a labyrinth of text on their website. This lack of clarity extends to food labeled “vegetarian” because it means there isn’t an easy way to tell whether the contents are vegan. Veganism and its phenomenal benefits aren’t allowed to stand and be seen in daylight. Food companies are creating the shadows by using other terms. As long as we accept veganism to be defined as a subset of vegetarianism that lack of clarity and those shadows will continue. That is where it starts.
Veganism remains substantially buried in the sediment of vegetarianism, not understood as being the original vegetarianism that was abandoned in 1847 when the Vegetarian Society allowed for eggs and dairy products. It’s been 168 years since then. How much longer are we willing to wait to correct that mistake? I hope you are saying, “Not one more day.”
This is a big change. I believe my last post regarding the messy pile of definitions that vegetarianism has come to represent and my advocacy that we explicitly state veganism is not vegetarianism may have made some readers uncomfortable. It challenges our fears about unifying or at least not factionalizing our still relatively small social movement. We will need to address possible social challenges happening between vegans and vegetarians compassionately and delicately. I’ll address some of those concerns at the end of this blog series.
For the moment, I ask you to set aside those fears or hesitations unless you want to see dairy/egg/honey and other “vegetarianisms” remain the dominant pretender to ending the suffering and killing of individuals from other species in agriculture and ecosystems alike. In this post I’ll explore the problems that arise from food and products being labeled “vegetarian” and other descriptives. Just remember that veganism is what vegetarianism once was. We are simply reinstating the original to contemporary sensibilities.
“Vegetarian” Products- Or Not?
The growth of veganism depends on the shopper’s ability to make clear and easy vegan choices. Product labeling should empower us. When it doesn’t, others, including people, are exploited, suffer, and die as well, and it fuels climate change and other environmental disasters. How can we make consumer choices that define veganism when vegetarianism means nothing vegans can use? How often have you shopped and after seeing “Vegetarian” printed on a box or bottle find dairy, egg, honey, insect parts, and perhaps extractives from fish listed in the ingredients?
Shopping under the dominance of vegetarianism creates a lot of work for budding and veteran vegans alike. Let’s look at examples.
Vitamins – what does 100% vegetarian mean? Suitable for vegetarians?
This Schiff Vegetarian Multiple vitamin label touts its veggie capsules but contains Vitamin D sourced from sheep skin lanolin without mentioning it—even on the label. The Solgar Vegetarian Multiple vitamin IS vegan though labeled vegetarian. These “vegetarian” labels mean nothing for vegan choices.
Fry’s (UK) foods are clearly labeled “vegetarian” despite the fact they are universally vegan. Their labeling, as in other companies, is inconsistent. One product box reads, “Vegetarian” along with “No meat, eggs, or dairy” but does not mention “vegan”—until you go to their website. Another Fry’s carton reads, “Meat Free” and then “vegan” in smaller letters. For their “Traditional Burgers,” they include “vegetarian” as part of their logo, “vegan,” and the description “vegetarian protein.” They use terms interchangeably. Why not save ink, stamp it “vegan” in large letters and create space to say something good about veganism without mentioning “vegetarian” given it is so radically different?
Amy’s is a company that uses a number of different labels to infer and sometimes state one or more of their products are vegetarian or vegan. But they, too, are inconsistent. Amy’s offers so many products that a person intent on being vegan has to study the labeling, which takes time. It’s an unnecessary burden on those intending to be vegans. Persistent vegans will learn that with Amy’s, “Dairy Free” equals vegan, usually without the “Vegan” banner. For instance, Amy’s Brown Rice, Black-Eyed Peas & Veggies Bowl – labeled as gluten and dairy free is actually vegan without a vegan banner. Their “Organic Vegetarian Refried Beans” is vegan but they mark their can “Vegetarian.” Amy’s Veggie Loaf was marked dairy free but it had honey until they made it vegan. A great sign of change but “Vegan” informs us, “Dairy Free” and “Veggie” misleads. We shouldn’t have to sleuth through the ingredients list but are forced to do this with Amy’s because many of their products include butter, cream, and milk ingredients. “Dairy-Free,” “Vegetarian,” and “Veggie” are not substitutes for vegan.
Field Roast is one of my favorite food makers. They exemplify another labeling approach and that is to cover it all but in a way that perpetuates the veganism = vegetarianism myth: “vegetarian deli slices” and “artisan vegan” are both printed on the front of their packaging. Their sausages are labeled as vegetarian and vegan inches apart. Only their new (fabulous) Chao slices are clearly marked “vegan” and display the Vegan Society certification label. Are we to trust the veganess of their vegetarianess? I do but that is from experience earned.
Yves decided to cover the bases as well with “Veggie Cuisine, Veggie Deli [this or that], and then imprint a very small “vegan.”
Tofurkey labels are mostly “vegan” printed in small font and they sometime add “meatless.” On its multi-serving Tofurkey meal, they boldly print a large “Vegetarian” banner and further below a much smaller “vegan” capped off with a round sealing label marked “vegan.” Greater conflicts in definitions are found on their newer labeling of the Tofurkey Vegetarian Holiday Feast: “vegetarian feast; plant-based; and flexitarian-approved” dominate the box. I can’t get to the box in person now but vegan is nowhere visible alongside those large label banners (but I’d bet it’s there somewhere small). They have a great “The Meat of the Matter” educational webpage and produce all-vegan foods but other than that it seems apparent they are marketing for sales, fear the word vegan, but not vegetarian. This is despite the fact that the dominant dairy/egg vegetarianism is nothing like veganism.
Garden Lights (“The Delicious Vegetable Company”) has egg whites and whole eggs in their Veggie Muffins. Then there’s, “The finished product: Garden Lites line of vegetarian soufflés, bakes, and muffins.” “Veggie” and “Vegetarian” labels can mean anything, but in this case, not vegan. It is more work for vegans to figure out because vegetarian is so often used with vegan simultaneously on the same packaging by other food manufacturers.
Quorn products are sourced in the U.K. I had expected them to be branded as vegetarian because they contain chickens’ eggs and calves’ milk but no, it is labeled “meatless and soy free” and “for people seeking a smart approach to healthy eating.” I found it in the nebulous “Meat Alternatives” isle at my local Puget Consumers Co-Op. We do see “vegetarian” on their website: “All Quorn products meet vegetarian dietary standards. The Quorn Vegan Burger is currently our only product suitable for a vegan diet since most Quorn products contain a small amount of egg white [This is incomplete because they also use milk proteins in some products]. We are working on an extended range of vegan products and will be sure to tell you as soon as they are perfected.” This is a unique case in they don’t label their boxes “vegetarian,” but use “meatless” labeling instead, and reference it all to “vegetarian dietary standards.” Which kind of vegetarian? Certainly not vegan.
Morningstar offers just about everything “veggie” including their “veggie” sausage patties and “veggie” bacon. Veggie here means you’ll be eating chickens’ eggs and calves’ milk. The exceptions? Their few products labeled, in small letters, “vegan.” Taking advantage of the vegan community’s laxness about vegans not being vegetarians, Morningstar labels their “Veggie Crumbles / Chipotle Black Bean Crumbles” as “100% Vegetarian.” Vegan, right? No, it contains dairy and eggs. “Veggie” and “100% Vegetarian” are invitations for vegans to stand around store isles to read labels or spend time on the internet.
Blue Natural brand has two types of frozen tamales. Though the dominant label for both was “vegetarian,” one was Green Chili Zucchini with Cheese and the other Red Chili Zucchini. On the latter vegetarian-labeled package was added, “For Vegan Diets.” It was hard to see. Vegetarian is vegan; vegetarian is not vegan according to the label. Why not put “VEGAN” on the damn vegan package and leave vegetarian off of it?
Lightlife products entice us with labels announcing “plant-based proteins”: “Our plant-based sausages pack a flavorful punch with zero cholesterol.” In addition, the package proclaimed the ingredients are meatless. So after plant-based and meatless they are vegan, right? No, they contain eggs. Their newer burgers are vegan and clearly marked with a vegan certification label. The obvious? Vegan is vegan and anything else is a time-consuming risk that diminishes the ease of adopting veganism.
The Imagine brand “No Chicken Broth” sells in a box with “Vegetarian” printed in bold letters on the front but you have to look on the back to see “vegan” in small letters, in the middle of a list of seven attributes. Vegetarian = vegan, again.
The vegetarian problem extends to restaurants as well. Thrive cafe serves wonderful vegan raw food. Their sidewalk sign read, “Vegetarian” when I discovered it. I had to ask if they were vegan on that first visit. The newer sign lists both vegetarian and below that, vegan. Sigh…
“With or without dairy and/or eggs” –
the flaw in today’s definition of vegetarianism
“With” dairy and/or eggs is the opposite of “without.” Not even close. I lament the fact no one kept reminding me that for the first few decades of my own vegetarianism. Defining vegetarianism “with or without dairy and/or eggs” has been a tidy convenience, an effort to bring everyone together under the “we don’t eat ‘flesh foods” umbrella. Beyond unfortunate, we have been co-conspirators willing to pretend that “dairy and/or egg consumption” is inseparable from the killed flesh sourced and stolen from milked cows and their calves that non-vegetarians eat and the environmental impacts it causes. We know that this is true of chickens and chicks as well. Vegetarians pay to raise cows and chickens to be slaughtered. That is direct cause and effect.
We give the vegetarianism “with or without dairy and/or eggs” lip-service and know this but have not insisted vegans should not be associated with it as an organization and in food labeling. We need vegans to come forward and be vocal, insisting that vegan terms only be used for vegan products, not vegetarian, dairy-free, or veggie labels co-mingled with veganism. How else are we going to market, brand, sell, grow veganism, and make it an easy choice if it is smothered and equated with vegetarianism?
Getting food producers to stop blending veganism with vegetarianism is a campaign I hope vegans and vegan organizations will start now. Vegetarianism is not going to turn vegan—ever. It is time that organizations and food producers / manufacturers choose and make prominent the word that truthfully reflects content. Vegetarians already know that vegan products innately exceed their dietary criteria and can buy them without more effort. That is not true for vegans who have to wade through all things vegetarian to determine what is and is not vegan. “Vegetarianism” by definition endorses the horrors and inadequacies of eating calves’ milk and chickens’ eggs. Vegans must insist on being represented accurately on food labeling that in no way alludes to vegetarianism.
NEXT: Concluding remarks that revisit the founding of veganism and contemplate the fears we may feel about standing up as vegans retaking the original vegetarianism under a different name.