The purpose of this guide is to make your vegan transition easier. Given that, it would be disingenuous to pretend that it’s all smooth sailing. Real talk: Some of the most difficult challenges we face as vegans come from how entrenched and pervasive animal cruelty is, making it impossible to avoid accepting at least some of it. Living as a vegan in a non-vegan world can present some challenges that are unavoidable stumbling blocks to maintaining a life that is free of animal exploitation simply because most cultures are profoundly oriented toward using other animals as we humans see fit.
Animal remnants can be found in everything from the wood glue in the chair you’re sitting on to animal fat-derived stearic acid in the bus, car or bike tires that take you to vegan restaurants. This is because since the dawn of animal agriculture, there has been a need to use last every bit of an animal’s remains to be resourceful and to make as much money from it as possible. This is why animal “ingredients” are virtually everywhere, not because they are necessary. Multi-million dollar industries have emerged to provide outlets for these various animal parts, which go into everything from gelatin, used in food products as well as supplements, to sugar processing, which uses bone char to bleach sugar cane white. (In addition to beet sugar, this resource lists some bone char-free brands.)
There is also the issue that many brands that vegans love are now owned by parent companies that are not vegan, which is the case for too many brands to mention, from Daiya to Field Roast. Don’t want to support the new dairy-free line by Ben & Jerry’s because it’s a non-vegan company and it’s owned by animal testing Unilever? That is your prerogative but please note that So Delicious is owned by WhiteWave, whose parent company is Danone, owner of many dairy companies, from Dannon to Stonyfield Farm.
Along these lines, some compassionate consumers believe that purchasing plant-based foods from non-vegan businesses - for example, meals from fast food chains - is unethical because you are giving your money to companies that cause so much animal suffering and your money would be better spent supporting businesses with similar values to yours, whereas other vegans believe that supporting plant-based choices at such places is a powerful way to back alternatives to meat and make them more accessible for those who are less affluent.
The ethical challenges don’t end there. In the United States, for example, new ingredients - even plant-based ones - must undergo animal research to get FDA certification as GRAS, or Generally Regarded As Safe, for products to be sold in different markets, such as large retail outlets. Ingredients such as flax seeds, pea protein and the hemoglobin used in a popular new “bleeding” burger are just a few examplesof plant-based foods that have had to be researched on animals for FDA approval. Life-saving prescription drugs in the U.S. have also undergone rigorous animal research to be approved by the FDA and many vaccines contain animal products.
If you are vegan for ethical reasons, our inability to completely disentangle ourselves from products containing animal-derived components or developed through animal cruelty can present an overwhelming challenge. The futility of being consistent in this reality has also sidelined many a well-intentioned potential vegan. Admittedly, it is a complicated, complex, divisive and difficult issue.
Here is what I propose: first, take a deep breath. Now, take another breath.
We live in a world where animal exploitation and use is stitched into its very fabric to the point of near-invisibility. Knowing this, we can expect that impossible to avoid compromises abound, as well as quandaries that we have some measure of control over, like our capacity to use make an informed decision of buying one food product over another. Or not.
We live in a very imperfect world and because of this, many of our decisions will necessarily be encumbered with shortcomings. The best we can do is remember that living as a vegan - as best we can - is not about satisfying our egos or impressing someone else but being guided by compassion, justice and our own internal moral compasses. A final note: If you are accused of being a “purist” by a vegan who thinks you’re too strict or “lazy” by a vegan who thinks you’re not strict enough, do your best to tune out that noise. At the end of the day, you only have to be at peace with your informed decisions, not jump through hoops to please critics.