Vegan And Other Food Labels – Revisited

On Friday, I wrote about food labels, specifically the definition of vegan. As I was writing responses to the comments we received, one of them, a response to Elaine Vignault, grew so long it became a post of it's own. I had planned on writing about the Veggie Pride Parade, but this took precedence. Coincidentally, Elaine wrote about that tonight so you can read about it over at her blog. Click here if you'd like to see the comment that inspired this post, scroll down a bit, it's #11.

Hi Elaine,
Thank you very much for your thoughtful commentary. You presented the issue of strict labeling very well. However, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree. While I respect your conviction, it feels to me like you're trying to make "vegan" exclusive.

For my purposes, vegan is about food -- whether it's an ethical decision or otherwise, it is about what you don't consume. Therefore, the ethical part of it doesn't have to come in to play in the definition.

If there has to be a strata of definitions, then I would think "vegan" would be the general category (not eating animal products) and there would be modifiers around that: "strict" to mean avoids all products derived from animals/insects; "ethical" to mean animal rights oriented; "dietary" to mean health oriented; etc. But they're all still vegan. The modifiers could clarifiy the degree to which you practice your veganism. Kind of like Reformed, Orthodox, or Conservative Judaism.

I eat honey. I don't eat animal products. I am a vegan. I do my best to avoid by-products, but I drive a car, I feed my cats "regular" cat food, I use crayons with my nieces and nephews, the walls that surround me are made of sheetrock. I am a vegan. (All of these contain animal by-products.)

I do agree that it might be unfair to the "strict" vegans if it becomes commonplace to include honey as a vegan ingredient. However, there are many of us vegans (people who were vegan long before I was) who think honey is an acceptable ingredient. If I understand you correctly, we're "strict vegetarians" and therefore should be looking for "vegetarian" products. But often those contain dairy and eggs. I don't eat those, I'm a vegan. I'm noticing that more often, food manufacturer's are including a list of potentially objectionable items (wheat, soy, nuts) after their main ingredient list, and those key ingredients are often in bold text. Perhaps honey can be included in this list. Since there are vegans who consume honey, this makes more sense to me than saying the foods we're eating are vegetarian when we don't consume non-vegan food items (dairy, eggs).

I hope this didn't come across as being antagonistic. I like to think I'm tolerant and accepting of others' viewpoints. I have a bit of an issue with labels, though. I think they're more divisive than helpful. I understand the need to categorize foods in some way, however, I feel that all of these sub-labels are confusing, and simply set us up to be "wrong" in the way we choose to practice being vegan.


  1. I like your personal opinion about label usage and how divisive they really can be. I believe food labels play an important role; but one major problem that I see is the ingredients that are not being named on the labels.

  2. Great post.

    Although honey is an ingredient that I consider to be “non-vegan,” I do have a few vegan friends who choose to consume it and I still consider them to be vegan.

    I think the issue is sometimes made out to be larger than it should be. I once read an article that argued that whether or not one consumes honey is not so much an issue as the consequences of consuming honey are.

    For example, if being belligerent about the issue turns people away from possibly becoming vegan, it may be a good idea to just let each individual make up their own mind about it. Essentially, the question was whether the vegan movement as a whole would suffer if people lost interest in it just because of the honey issue.

    It is my belief that when it comes down to it, the word “vegan” can mean any number of things. Just like any word, it is a linguistic tool used to describe an object. The real issue shouldn’t be what exactly the word means. The real issue should be the actions of the person in question, and how large an impact they are making by taking on “veganism,” no matter what definition of “veganism” is being used.

  3. Hi Nuggat,

    Perhaps I am misinterpreting you, but your comment appears to be exactly the finger pointing attitude to which I refer as off-putting for most people considering veganism. It appears that it is more important for you to make being vegan an exclusive club membership that is difficult (or impossible) for most people to attain. I prefer to be more open in my definitions, so that “vegan” becomes a more mainstream philosophy. I’d like to see more vegans (we currently measure less than 5% of the total population). I’d like to be able to be vegan anywhere in the country without feeling left out of society. I’d like to be able to eat in restaurants with my omnivorous friends and have (several) vegan options. I believe that by being slightly more flexible, this can be achieved. In my opinion, byproducts are not as important as the overall goal of reducing the animals that live out their lives on factory farms.

    Health Seeker,
    Yes, I agree, the ingredients that are not required to be listed, and the ingredients used in processing can be very frustrating for people who want to adhere to the strictest level of veganism. I was shocked to find out that a lot of alcohol is processed over fish swimbladders, and that “natural flavorings” can include meat by-products. My personal feeling on this is that I avoid what I know is there, and I don’t beat myself up over by-products. Once animals are no longer routinely slaughtered for food, the cost of by-products will increase and companies will seek cheaper alternatives.

    Hi Joshua,
    Very well said. And my point exactly, the goal here is to reduce animal slaughter/consumption. Thank you for your eloquent defense of broader view of what being vegan means.

  4. Hi Lane,
    You wrote: “I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. While I respect your conviction, it feels to me like you’re trying to make ‘vegan’ exclusive.”

    I’m not trying to make it exclusive. I really don’t have an issue with you calling yourself vegan. My issue is with you calling “honey” vegan.

    I’m not talking about you and your identity. Feel free to call yourself vegan. I’m talking about the word and how it should be used when refering to products, not to people.

    Please understand I’m not trying to make veganism exclusive and I’m not trying to be a purity troll; I’m trying to emphasize the long term importance of keeping the original intent of the definition of “vegan.” The Vegan Society coined the term for a reason. That reason was to differentiate the vegan lifestyle from various forms of vegetarianism that included animal products. The original definition of vegan is to avoid animal products for the benefit of animals, the environment, and human health. It wasn’t intended merely as a dietary choice with blurry borders about what is and what is not acceptable. It was intended as a rejection of animal products as much as reasonably possible, including food and clothing.

    But ‘being vegan’ is a process, not a goal. And I agree with you that if we were all 95% vegan that’d be excellent. But when some vegans go around promoting nonvegan products like honey, that’s not OK.

    If you choose to eat it, fine, but please don’t call it a vegan thing to do.

  5. Hi Elaine,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    However, I’m still going to have to disagree with you about the honey. I’m not going to try to create a sea-change in peoples’ feelings about honey. But if my house were infested with termites, I’d have them exterminated without a second thought. The process of attaining honey from bees is much less detrimental to those insects.

    Again, it’s all about where the lines are drawn.

    Vegan Action, has this to say:

    Many vegans, however, are not opposed to using insect products, because they do not believe insects are conscious of pain. Moreover, even if insects were conscious of pain, it’s not clear that the production of honey involves any more pain for insects than the production of most vegetables, since the harvesting and transportation of all vegetables involves many ‘collateral’ insect deaths.

    This group has been established for over 10 years; they are a vegan outreach group. They’re calling it an acceptable vegan behavior. This is the party line I choose to follow.

    BTW, I don’t think you’re a troll 🙂 I do understand your desire to keep your perception of the “original” definition. However, the language is organic. As an example, Merriam Webster has recognized “irregardless” as a word for the past 96 years.

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