Here's What You Don't Understand About Veganism

D.R. McElroy

Misunderstandings on the road to eating plants.

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I read an ad the other day that listed the ingredients in a product. It mentioned that the product was vegan. The product was soap. Soap? Who eats soap? This is just an example of some common misunderstandings surrounding veganism.

What is veganism?

Veganism is a diet that excludes meat, dairy, and eggs. That sounds simple enough, but it gets confusing because some foods are vegan and some foods are not vegan. So, before we continue, let’s look at a deeper explanation. The definition of veganism, according to The Vegan Society, 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…In dietary terms it denotes the practice of [eliminating] all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Vegan versus Vegetarian

People can be vegetarian and not necessarily be vegan. Vegetarians usually avoid meat, fish, and dairy products (though there are a number of “versions” of vegetarianism that we won’t go into here.)Vegans take things further by refusing to use any products that have animal-based ingredients, including leather, most makeups (which may use animal products as colorings or may have been tested on animals,) old-style glues (which use rendered animal parts,) and yes, that soap I mentioned. Soaps often contain goat milk or lanolin (a sheep product) to moisturize human skin. Even though these products aren’t being eaten, vegans still don’t use them.

Why do people choose to be vegan?

Veggie burgers, plant-based diets, and other meatless products are being tried out by all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. It’s easy to politicize a philosophy like veganism because it is so radically different from the lifestyle of mainstream America. We’re the land of cowboys, right? Bring on the meat! The number one reason people give for becoming vegan is that they feel better. It takes a lot of discipline, but the benefits of a vegan lifestyle can be readily seen. Others are called to veganism by a desire to protect the lives of animals. Vegans may state that they “don’t want to eat anything with a face” or they “can’t harm other living beings.” Still others are concerned about the impacts of corporate livestock production on the planet or the risks of food-borne illnesses. Being vegan saves lives (both animal and human,) is good for the planet, and still provides delicious and filling food for us to eat.

Where is veganism popular right now?

Unsurprisingly, the highest number of people who identified as vegan in a recent survey were on the West Coast — specifically California and Oregon. What was surprising was the relatively high number of vegans in the Southwest (Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.) These numbers can be partly explained by the exodus of Californians to these neighboring states in the last two decades. Another consideration, however, is the high concentration of Mormons who live in the area (especially Utah and Arizona.) The Mormons (aka The Latter-day Saints) are guided by their religious doctrine, making Mormons some of the most strictly observant vegans in the world.

Advertisers’ take on veganism

The term “vegan” has — like “low-fat” and “gluten-free” before it — become an advertising buzzword, used to sell almost anything. Such use tends to water down the impact of these terms in labeling products. Labeling a soap, for example (again) as “vegan” only makes sense when marketing to vegans. To the rest of us, it seems bizarre. Almost incomprehensible. Practices like this continue to keep the goals of veganism obscured to most Americans, and contribute to the stereotypes that abound surrounding the vegan community. Using descriptive terms (which is common in makeup advertising) like “cruelty-free” or “no animal by-products” gets the message across to vegans while also helping the average shopper understand labeling on products and, perhaps, begin to see product ingredients in new ways.

Conclusion

So, what’s the deal with veganism? It’s a lifestyle with many health benefits that can also help save the planet, preserve animal life, and make nutritious food available to more people across the globe. Seems like a win to me.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.

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