How “Vegan” Is Vegan?

I am sometimes asked if I ever cheat on my vegan diet. Of course I do; it is nearly impossible to be 100% vegan 100% of the time.

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There are animal products in the vast majority of things humans eat and wear. My goal is to be as close to 100% vegan as I reasonably can, but even that is challenging at times.

For example, when I visit a restaurant, I make a reasonable effort to ensure my meal is vegan (“Do you know if the refried beans are made with lard? Do you happen to know if the rice was made with chicken stock? Can I have that with no mayo, no cheese, and no sour cream please?”). Often, the servers, and even the cooks, do not know how their food is made (“I’m not sure; it’s pre-cooked and shipped to us; we just heat it up. I think the beans are vegetarian. That bun was toasted with butter before we put the veggie patty on; were you trying to avoid all dairy?”).

Unless I grow the ingredients in my garden and make the meal from scratch myself, I do not assume any meal is 100% vegan.

The important thing is, to as close as possible, live up to my values and reasons for being vegan. For new vegans, I tell them, “If you cut meat and dairy from your diet and stop wearing leather, then you are 99% vegan. Everything else is just arguing over the last inch.”

That last inch can be debatable. Some vegans choose not to eat honey because it is made by bees. Insects are animals, too, and store-bought honey is mass-produced, causing the bees to work beyond exhaustion and suffer terribly. A few vegans refuse to eat broccoli because they believe it has a central nervous system. If it has nerves and a way to transmit the information collected by those nerves, then broccoli can theoretically feel pain. The ability to suffer or feel pain is one way many vegans determine what they will not eat. Ironically, there is no evidence I am aware of to support the claim of broccoli having a nervous system, so apparently, we vegans have our old wives’ tales, too.

On the other hand, oysters definitely do not have a central nervous system (since they are mollusks) and theoretically can not feel pain, yet I have never met a vegan who thinks oysters are not animals.

Another example of the fine line between vegans and omnivores is one of my favorite comfort foods. I love french fries. I avoid places that are known to use beef fat or other cheap, animal-sourced oil to fry their food, like McDonald’s.

Still, I know pretty much anywhere I order fries, they will be fried in the same oil as meaty foods like chicken nuggets, fish, or cheese sticks. It is highly unlikely any fast food or homestyle cooking restaurant can (or will) offer completely vegan french fries. Some places even batter their fries or other foods (like beer-battered mushrooms and onion rings) in animal products before dipping them in oil.

Some restaurants offer veggie burgers but fail to mention the patty is held together with egg or cheese, or that the bun has whey (a milk derivative).

I try to avoid the obvious pitfalls but I am not too hard on myself for ordering french fries when I am out with work friends and there are no better options available, or if I go to a restaurant and stupidly forget to ask the server if the guacamole is made with sour cream. Of course, I am much more strict when I am doing the cooking.

If you are a new vegan, vegan-curious, or a seasoned veteran who struggles with identifying what is or is not vegan and whether you should order a meal or send one back angrily (a HUGE pet peeve of mine, by the way–if you choose to be vegan, then you give up your right to be mad when others do not understand exactly what that means or follow your explicit instructions–the solution is to make your own food or keep your mouth shut when you go to a restaurant–literally), keep in mind it is okay to give yourself a little slack.

That does not mean treat yourself to a steak now and then (of course that is an option but I would say it disqualifies you from the vegan club…). I mean it is okay to recognize the world is not built to meet our specifications.

Easy guidelines (even if you are not committed to a vegan lifestyle):

Be the best vegan you can be.
Cause as little suffering (both to yourself and others) as possible.
Live to your potential a little more each day.

If you do that, then you will be fine. You don’t have to give up your life to be vegan; you just have to give up taking others’.

 

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