What is a Vegan? A Straightforward Definition

Veganism involves a number of tricky to navigate issues, so let’s dive deeply into the question: “What is a vegan?” I will strive to define the term as sensibly and helpfully as possible.

Vegan and vegetarian diets both exclude meat and seafood. A vegan diet goes a step further, though, by also nixing every other food of animal origin. So, in addition to avoiding meat, vegans steer clear of dairy products, eggs, and honey. Additionally, vegan foods never contain any byproducts of animal agriculture, such as tallow, whey, or gelatin.

A vegan diet delivers powerful advantages over a vegetarian diet. Eating vegetarian merely reduces farm animal slaughter and exploitation, whereas a vegan diet eliminates every last bit of it. A vegan diet may also offer health and environmental advantages over diets that include substantial amounts of dairy products and eggs. For these reasons, many vegetarians ultimately decide to go vegan.

Which Foods are Vegan?

Becoming vegan takes surprisingly little effort. Consider the enormous variety of vegan foods available:

You won’t miss out on your favorite indulgences either. Many of the most popular brands of chocolate, coffee, wine, and beer are vegan.

The world’s great cuisines offer an endless variety of incredible vegan meals. Whether you go vegan for life or just try it out for a few weeks, you’ll never lack satisfying things to eat.

Vegan Foods are Everywhere!

Every supermarket stocks a vast assortment of vegan foods. And a good natural foods store offers even better options. Most carry a nice assortment of vegan milks, cheeses, and meats. In the frozen section, you’ll find vegan waffles, burritos, and pizza. The desserts won’t disappoint, either—you can buy vegan ice cream, cookies, brownies, and many more favorites. Better natural food stores sell at least one vegan alternative for every popular non-vegan food—cream cheese, mayo, eggs, you name it. And your options will only improve as time goes by, since vegan food companies introduce delicious new products every month.

If you feel like you could never give up cheese, you’ll be happy to discover that there are dozens of delicious vegan cheese brands. On top of that, you can easily make vegan cheese at home—just pick up one of the many vegan cheese cookbooks.

When it comes to cooking, you can choose from hundreds of vegan cookbooks covering every conceivable niche and specialty. You’ll never find vegan food monotonous. Even the most basic vegan meals can be prepared with different ingredients, dressings, sauces, and seasonings every time. Consider these simple but satisfying possibilities:

When it comes to eating out, you can visit thousands of vegan restaurants worldwide. And all the best fast food chains are rushing to add more vegan items to their menus. So don’t let anyone persuade you that a vegan diet is difficult or lacks variety!

Vegan Non-Food Items

The meaning of vegan can extend beyond food. People also make use of the vegan concept when it comes to clothing, cosmetics, and other consumer goods.

Whatever the item, you can call it vegan if it contains nothing produced by or derived from animals. So, for instance, a leather jacket is not vegan. But you could certainly buy a vegan leather jacket—several companies make beautiful and durable vegan leather, not sourced from animals.

Controversies Over How to Define Vegan

Vegan can refer to a sandwich, a car seat, a shampoo, or a person. Unfortunately, the word’s remarkable flexibility can lead to bickering over competing definitions.

Some vegans are, ironically, incapable of speaking productively about vegan topics. They’ll commonly define the word in absurdly restrictive terms. Or they may have a habit of expressing key points in a judgmental manner.

I’ve often heard vegans assert that only people with particular motivations can claim to be vegan. They argue that if your intention isn’t animal protection, then you’re not vegan but instead merely “plant-based”—even if you eat no animal products whatsoever. I can’t imagine a more pointless distinction, or one more likely to antagonize anyone contemplating dietary change. People who try to set themselves up as arbiters of who gets to call themselves vegan need to drop the vegan police routine and go find a hobby.

Motivation is irrelevant. I might eat vegan simply because I want cleaner food, or because I don’t want to contribute to increasing the risk of a worldwide pandemic. Shoot, I might follow a fringe religion claiming our extraterrestrial overlords require us to eat vegan in order to attain fifth dimensional unity consciousness. Whatever the case, what possible benefit arises from demanding people embrace a particular reason for ridding their diets of animal products?

Plant-Based vs. Vegan

I find it obnoxious to claim that, unless they are motivated in a particular way, people who abstain entirely from animal products aren’t vegan. If somebody eats no animal products whatsoever, why would their motivation for eating this way matter to anyone?

But the plant-based term does serve a valuable purpose in other contexts. Plant-based is generally thought of a a less strict variation of vegan with some deliberate wiggle room. In other words, it’s often understood to allow a minimal amount of animal products. For instance, let’s say you eat nothing but vegan food plus a couple pieces of chicken a month. We could call your diet plant-based since it’s almost entirely made up of plants. But we would certainly never call this diet vegan.

Plant-based meals may contain entirely vegan ingredients or they may contain tiny amounts of animal products. The concept can motivate people who want to make substantial dietary change while maintaining some flexibility to cheat.

Now let’s turn back to veganism. Towards the end of this essay I’ll try to define vegan in the most reasonable and inspiring terms. But first, let’s review the very first definition offered for the word.

The Original Definition of Vegan

Donald Watson coined the term vegan in 1944. That year, in the first issue of The Vegan News, he introduced the word and defined its meaning:

We should all consider carefully what our Group, and our magazine, and ourselves, shall be called. ‘Non-dairy’ has become established as a generally understood colloquialism, but like ‘non-lacto’ it is too negative. Moreover it does not imply that we are opposed to the use of eggs as food. We need a name that suggests what we do eat, and if possible one that conveys the idea that even with all animal foods taboo, Nature still offers us a bewildering assortment from which to choose. ‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Fruitarian’ are already associated with societies that allow the ‘fruits’ (!) of cows and fowls, therefore it seems we must make a new and appropriate word. As this first issue of our periodical had to be named, I have used the title “The Vegan News”. Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as a VEGAN diet, and we should aspire to the rank of VEGANS. Members’ suggestions will be welcomed. The virtue of having a short title is best known to those of us who, as secretaries of vegetarian societies have to type or write the word vegetarian thousands of times a year!

Watson did an admirable job of laying out the vegan concept in clear and inspiring terms. You’ll notice that he defined vegan solely in terms of diet.

You might think a given food’s vegan status is obvious, but it turns out that all sorts of edge cases exist. Let’s now contemplate the main ones.

Vegan Food Produced in Non-Vegan Facilities

In light of Watson’s definition, determining a particular food’s vegan status seems simple enough: if the item contains no animal ingredients, it’s vegan. I don’t see any harm here in erring on the strict side. For instance, a chocolate bar that contains one percent milk powder should not qualify as vegan.

But now I must throw you a curve ball. Some chocolate bars made exclusively from vegan ingredients nevertheless contain traces of milk. This apparent paradox occurs because they were produced on the same manufacturing line as milk chocolate bars. Ditto for several other foods like vegan ice cream.

These products usually carry a warning beneath the ingredients panel stating something like, “may contain traces of milk.” These warnings exist to alert consumers who have severe allergies. To deny these foods vegan status could create the impression that vegans have absurdly strict standards, which in turn could repel people from embracing plant-based eating.

I believe you can still sensibly call these sorts of foods vegan since they aren’t formulated with non-vegan ingredients and consequently don’t fund animal exploitation. To whatever extent you ingest a few molecules of milk because your vegan product shares a manufacturing line, an omnivore inevitably consumes a few extra vegan molecules that came from your product.

The same goes for veggieburgers cooked on the same grill as hamburgers. The only sensible reason to avoid eating such food involves personal disgust. Eating a veggieburger cooked on a shared grill obviously won’t cause any harm to animals, or jeopardize your vegan status.

Problems That Veganism Can’t Address

Veganism offers by far the most effective way to rid your diet of foods tied to animal cruelty and slaughter. But a vegan diet can’t root out all exploitation associated with your food choices, since a great many widely-planted crops involve deeply objectionable farming practices.

Consider palm oil, which is made by squashing palm fruit and squeezing out the oil. What could possibly be more vegan? Yet the industry is a primary force behind cutting down rainforest—while exterminating at least a thousand endangered orangutans every year. Or consider coffee or chocolate, two tropical foods often harvested by slaves.

Other crops carry hidden but horrific human costs. For instance, workers who process cashews often suffer disfiguring skin damage to their hands. This harm arises from the caustic oils coating the inedible fruit that’s manually removed from each nut.

Many of the world’s farmworkers toil under abominable working conditions and receive extremely low pay. And even the most sustainable small-scale farming involves more killing than most people realize. The farmer growing your local organic lettuce may poison gophers or shoot deer who threaten the crop. Pesticides applied to orchards and fruit crops likewise inflict grievous harm on honey bee populations.

Vegan Doesn’t (and Cannot) Mean Perfect

As the examples we’ve just reviewed make clear, many vegan foods involve abhorrent farming practices. It’s therefore tempting to redefine vegan in a way that excludes any and all exploitation of humans, farmed animals, and wildlife.

Unfortunately, gaining consensus on such a redefinition would prove impossible, and the attempt quickly renders the word useless. Revoking the vegan status of crops farmed in particularly unethical ways would require consensus on where to draw the line. Some people might only want to exclude uncertified palm oil, while others would demand exclusion of dozens more food crops. The word vegan would become meaningless, since nobody could agree on the criteria establishing which foods merit inclusion.

Moving Beyond the Vegan Concept

If you want your food produced in the least harmful manner, going vegan deserves strong consideration even though the diet could never address every ethical concern. You can always go beyond the vegan concept when warranted in order to make the most compassionate and sustainable choices. For instance, vegan chocolate protects cows, whereas fair-trade vegan chocolate protects cows and people.

Practically all vegans oppose exploitative methods of food production, even when the item in question happens to be vegan. Superior alternatives nearly always exist. Sometimes it’ll be a sustainably grown version of the food, and sometimes it’ll be another choice entirely. Your food may end up costing more, since fair-trade certified foods and the like invariably carry a premium. But overall, you’ll find it requires minimal effort and expense to better align your food purchases with your values.

Crops grown or harvested in odious ways are best regarded as vegan yet utterly objectionable. Although our food system operates under enormously complex ethical realities, we can keep the definition of vegan clear and unambiguous. Simply going vegan doesn’t solve every problem related to food. But it does offer a solid foundation to stand on, while we work individually and collectively to root out the remaining injustices that permeate our food system.

Vegan as an Identity

Could any debate inspire greater disgust and disinterest than who gets to call themselves a vegan? Whenever possible, I prefer to sidestep the topic.

I rarely tell people I’m vegan, because doing so suggests this lifestyle choice is part of my identity. By bringing attention to how you identify yourself, you often draw attention to how you differ from others. This inevitably complicates the task of finding common ground on important points.

So instead of using the words, “I’m vegan,” I prefer to say, “I eat a vegan diet.” If I want to communicate that I avoid animal products in both my food and non-food purchases, I’ll say, “I follow a vegan lifestyle.”

I try to keep my dietary choices out of conversations that relate to veganism. The topics I most want to discuss involve the cruelty and the environmental damage associated with animal agriculture, and the wealth of excellent vegan alternatives.

Having said all this, it’s worth remembering that a vegan diet was initially defined in terms of food. So if somebody wearing a leather belt tells me they’re vegan, I won’t protest. I think we all have better things to worry about.

It’s not as if being vegan guarantees a kindhearted and exemplary character. Some well-known vegans fall among the most despicable people I’ve ever encountered. If you expect decency and integrity from someone just because they follow a vegan diet, you may end up bitterly disappointed. Instead, think of veganism as just one more avenue toward becoming a better person, like telling the truth, keeping your speech kind, and refusing to steal.

Flexible Definitions Save Animals

When presented carelessly, vegan diets sound excruciatingly restrictive to newcomers. We can avoid scaring people off by discussing the topic in ways that entice and encourage. I often use the foot-in-the-door technique, which seeks to convince people to make a small but immediate change in a vegan direction. Even the tiniest concession today often leads to much bigger changes tomorrow.

Many animal advocates don’t want to merely reduce animal suffering—they want to eliminate it outright. They therefore seek to redefine veganism in a way that excludes as many foods and consumer items as possible. But imposing such onerous standards can needlessly repel people. Most of the incidental uses of animal byproducts will automatically disappear as slaughterhouses shut down because we’ve stopped raising animals for food. For that to happen, we must talk about veganism in ways that motivate the majority of people to shift their diets towards plants.

What could possibly be more counterproductive than overwhelming aspiring vegans with aggressively extreme demands? Someone just beginning to contemplate a vegan diet shouldn’t be urged to immediately focus on relatively minor points. Think about it: these people are just now deciding to abruptly remove all meat, dairy products, and eggs from their lives. Do we really need to hit them right away with worrying about the fourteen ingredient of their shampoo?

The Plumber’s Snake

I avoid making veganism a big part of my identity. Even during long conversations about food politics, I rarely feel compelled to disclose that I’m vegan. And I refuse to take the word too seriously, especially as a marker for who I am as a person. I see the vegan concept much the same way I regard a plumber’s snake. It’s merely a tool to get a job done.

I use the word vegan in whatever sense I can to inspire change. Just like a plumber’s snake does its job by bending this way and that in order to clear obstructions, I bend the word vegan in whichever way serves my purpose at the moment.

Can You be “Mostly Vegan”?

Let me share some phrases I often make use of to nudge people toward plant-based lifestyles:

These phrases tend to enrage vegan fundamentalists. They’ll insist, “a little bit vegan” makes no more sense than, “a little bit pregnant.” Sometimes they’ll even confusion over what “mostly vegan” or “80 percent vegan” is supposed to mean.

But I presume a functional level of intelligence on the part of my listener. Qualifiers like “mostly” or “80 percent” can add to the vegan concept’s utility, while expanding the variety of potential commitments that people feel ready to take.

Two Contemporary Definitions of Vegan

We’ve just reviewed the most important issues and controversies surrounding the vegan concept. Now let’s try to define vegan in the clearest and most reasonable possible way.

Since its founding by Donald Watson and others in 1944, the Vegan Society has continued on to this day. Over time, the organization has revisited the task of defining veganism, and produced this effort:

Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals 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 denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Since that definition sounds like it was written by a committee, I feel inspired to offer my own:

Vegan refers to any food formulated without ingredients produced by or derived from animals, or any diet consisting exclusively of these plant-based foods. A vegan lifestyle, whenever safe and practical, additionally avoids the purchase or use of any products linked to animal exploitation.

You’ll notice that my definition isn’t just simpler and briefer. It also removes motivation from consideration.

Why Personal Motivation is Irrelevant

I find it counterproductive to exclude someone who is eating no animal-derived foods from calling themselves a vegan. Humility is always a plus in any sort of activism. Who am I to say that somebody else’s reasons for avoiding animal products are less sensible than my own? And what possible benefit exists for refusing to call someone vegan, if their diet contains not a trace of animal products? I think the Vegan Society got it wrong here by taking a needlessly exclusionary position.

Put another way, it’s fine to promote whatever you regard as the most powerful reasons for dropping animal products from your life. But it’s not-so-fine to assert that unless people swear off animal products for those particular reasons, they can’t consider themselves vegan.

Since no definition can please everyone, I don’t consider either my definition or the Vegan Society’s to offer the final take on what vegan means. But even though society will never unanimously agree on a precise definition, we can certainly agree on what it takes to move in a vegan direction. If you’re not making use of the vegan concept to avoid animal products or to encourage others to do so, there seems little reason to spend time debating the word’s nuances.

The main difference between the Vegan Society’s definition and mine is they view veganism as a philosophy bundled with a set of beliefs. I view veganism as a practice that carries a staggering assortment of large and small benefits. I think my approach offers greater simplicity, and less room for disagreement and confusion.

Attitude is Everything

Some vegans base their entire identity on their diet. Invariably these people try to keep the definition of vegan as exclusionary as possible. Veganism becomes all about reinforcing their personal sense of identity.

This sort of behavior amounts of vegan fundamentalism. And no form of fundamentalism, whether spiritual or secular, ever gains widespread appeal. Invariably the rigidity of fundamentalist thinking repels the vast majority of the population. If we want plant-based lifestyles to become the norm, we gotta be cool. That means using the vegan concept to invite and encourage rather than as a means of exclusion.

Now that we have explored the word’s meaning with some care, more important topics await. Specifically, it’s time to move past what vegan means, to why people embrace this concept.

My “Why Go Vegan?” essay explains the most compelling reasons to go vegan. You can finish the piece in under an hour. If you find the arguments persuasive, you’ll also want to check out my “How to Go Vegan” guide. Ridding your life of animal products requires surprisingly little effort.

Keep Things Simple and Easy

When moving toward a vegan lifestyle, start with diet. This delivers the biggest and easiest payoff since the overwhelming majority of animal exploitation arises from food production. Adding more vegan foods to your life couldn’t be easier. You have so many delicious vegan foods to discover, so try them at every opportunity. You should also read up on vegan nutrition, to guard against coming up short on key nutrients.

As your diet becomes increasingly plant-based, you may also wish to transition your clothing and personal care purchases as well. Just review our list of common animal ingredients.

Vegan is undoubtedly the most powerful word ever coined in the service of animal protection. Unfortunately, the word often gets misused in ways that repel mainstream audiences. I’ve therefore sought to define the term in a spirit that unlocks its full power, without coming off as rigid, preachy, or uptight.  I hope you’ll use the vegan concept in whichever ways enable you to remove 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 books covering vegan topics. For further reading, see his essays: Why Go Vegan? and How to Go Vegan.

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