On vegans and vegan meals

In the post “Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan,” I wrote that some day “I might get so disappointed with vegans and veganism, that I (a vegan for the animals), would refrain from using the word vegan altogether.” That was in reaction to an article in which the author suggested “health” vegans shouldn’t call themselves vegan. In the meantime, the Bearded Vegan podcast had an episode on the question of if we should stop using the word vegan.

Now, I still think the word vegan is useful, particularly in the sense that it is a name for a concept. When you’re in a restaurant, or anywhere food is served to you, it is easy if you can just explain with one word what you want. The more people who know and understand the word, the easier it gets.

The word is less useful, more controversial, and more prone to cause discussions, disagreements and even nastiness, when it is applied to people. It is much harder for a person to be vegan than for a product or a dish to be vegan. When a product doesn’t have non-vegan ingredients, it’s vegan. You might say: when a person doesn’t eat non-vegan ingredients, they are vegan. But it’s not that simple (no, really). There’s apparently discussion about intentions, which have to be right too (otherwise you’re plant based, according to said article); there’s the matter of the tiny bits and micro-ingredients, there’s even ideological and political issues, etc.

adj noun

So here’s a subtle yet important note about grammar and how it relates to what I think is the most efficient use of the word vegan. I believe that in the case of the V-word, the nouns (“veganism,” “vegans”) are more problematic than the adjective (as in “a vegan meal”). The words “a vegan/vegans” and “veganism” are black and white or binary terms: you are it, or you’re not (even though there can be discussions about how pure you need to be to carry the label). You may have no interest in going vegan all the way, so the noun may not appeal to you. Also, if you are a vegetarian, or a part time vegan or whatever, you may feel excluded by the noun vegan. You don’t belong to that group, and “veganism” doesn’t apply to you. The nouns are very “exclusive,” they exclude you (if you’re not vegan).

This is completely different from the use of vegan as an adjective in the words “vegan meals” or “vegan products.” If you suggest that a person have a vegan meal or buy a vegan product, you are not asking them to “become a vegan.” Everybody can eat a vegan meal or buy a vegan product. You don’t need to be a vegan for that. It works much more inclusively, it includes non-vegans. Asking people to become a vegan is asking them, or is asking for what sounds like, a change of identity. As Nick Cooney writes: “The public may think of vegetarians as a distinct group of people who are different from normal (!) Americans. That’s not good. We don’t want people to think they need to take on a new identity to cut cruelty out of their diet. Why? Because most people are loath to change their sense of who they are.”

Bottom line, in our communication, let’s invite people to eat vegan, have vegan meals, try vegan products, rather than to become a vegan or adhere to veganism.


PS: apologies to blog subscribers, who got an unfinished draft of this post in their mailbox yesterday





15 thoughts on “On vegans and vegan meals

  1. Experiment to do: Ask a person saying health vegans are not vegans what she thinks of a “unintentional” vegan dish on the menu of a non-vegan restaurant. Is this dish vegan?

  2. That’s a really great shift in perspective, Tobias. In real life, the majority of people don’t become vegan overnight; they try out vegan food and products first. Let’s give people the opportunity and freedom to “try out” being vegan, and I’m sure we’ll see much better results than if we demand all or nothing.

  3. Inviting people to “vegan dishes” isn’t without problems, if the dishes aren’t crafted towards the expectations of the non-vegans….they may very well walk away with an reinforced idea that vegan food is inferior food. And just as it is case with veganism, there is really no value in getting people to eat vegan meals rather than encouraging them simple reduce their intake of meat, etc. While this is speculation on my part, when people eat vegan meals….it may encourage greater meat,etc consumption at other meals. I’ve seen this “logic” play out before.

    So no matter how you cut it, “vegan” seems to be a counter-productive notion.

    1. But doesn’t encouraging people to eat vegan meals encompass “encouraging them simple reduce their intake of meat”? If we are going to encourage people to reduce their intake of meat, what should we offer them to eat instead?

      I do agree about the idea that people “may very well walk away with an reinforced idea that vegan food is inferior food”. This is why I always try to make sure that when I introduce vegan food to others, I do my best to make sure it’s going to be something they will find tempting & delicious. As with all food, vegan or otherwise, if it doesn’t taste good, people “may very well walk away with an reinforced idea that…food is inferior food”.

  4. Christine,

    Encouraging people to eat “vegan meals” may lead them to eat less meat overall……or it could do the opposite. It just depends how it plays out for the individual, what I’ve seen is people eat vegan one day and eat a ton of meat another day……and I’ve hear some justify the feast of meat on “oh I ate vegan yesterday”. But, like I said, whether or not these anecdotes are an indication of how most people think of matters is just speculation on my part, my point is that what seems obvious often doesn’t play out as expected in the real world. In terms of what people will eat instead, obviously it would be plants, but my point is that there is no reason to focus on “vegan meals” rather than “meals with less meat”. Since how people eat is a matter of habit, focusing on overall meat reduction in meals rather than eating some vegan meals seems to be, psychologically speaking, the better choice.

    In terms of the quality of food, for obvious reasons vegans often aren’t the best judge of the expectations of “meat eaters” and most people aren’t going to give the honest opinion. I don’t know how many times I’ve had vegans claim to me that some blob of gluten tastes “just like chicken”…when it clearly does not. In any case, I think the vegan community has a variety of culinary problems. Some advocate quack diets (fruitarian, ultra-low fat, etc), others push for highly processed alternative products, etc…..while few are out there really working on a serious culinary tradition. Few are promoting a tasty, balanced and reasonably healthy diet…. Maybe more vegan advocates need to go to culinary school = )

  5. The next person who says the word vegan is getting hit in the face. Kidding. If the average meat eater were to avoid eating bird flesh, even if that spot on the plate was filled with an equal amount of pig and cow flesh, they would still move from eating over 24 farmed land animals a year to less than 1. A 95% reduction in the number of farmed land animals who suffer and die with no actual reduction in meat consumed, so pretty doable to current meat eaters. http://www.onestepforanimals.org

  6. I’ve noticed that most vegan food companies take this approach, because they want to move as much product as possible, and insulting potential diners probably isn’t the best way to do so. For example, gardein’s tagline is “cheat on meat”. This approach may get more people to try vegan food, and for that its a positive thing. However, I can only say that personally, it is my logical/ethical framework that keeps me eating vegan – not appeals to health or emotions.

    I find vegan a helpful term for letting people know that my ethics include the principle of animal equality. My ethics are a major part of my identity, so I don’t see a problem with “identifying” as a vegan.

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