Q: How do you know if someone’s vegan?
A: Don’t worry: they’ll tell you within the first two minutes of meeting you.
People often ask me questions about veganism. Here’s how I answer some of the commoner ones.
Why are you vegan?
I realised that eating, drinking or using things made from or by other animals causes immense suffering, and that it’s easy not to eat, drink or use those things.
Other reasons people sometimes give for being vegan are because they’re concerned about climate change, or for their health. Climate change is a great reason to be vegan: it’s hard to reconcile concern about climate change with not being vegan. As far as health is concerned, a vegan diet can be healthy, but there are healthy and unhealthy vegan diets, just as there are healthy and unhealthy omnivore diets.
Do you think non-vegans are evil?
No! We each make our own decisions, and I’m in no position to judge others. My partner and most of my friends are omnivores.
Of course, I hope you might decide to reduce your consumption and use of animal products. But whether you do is none of my business.
Is eating well not that important to you?
I love great food. It’s a big part of my life, and one of the reasons I so enjoy cooking and travel.
I’ve found myself eating better since I became vegan, partly through taking more of an interest in cooking, and so becoming a bit better at it.
What do you eat?
Here are some things I often cook.
Ice-cream and chocolate are big loves, and there’s wonderful vegan ice-cream and chocolate to be had. (Much dark chocolate is vegan.)
Where do you get your protein?
From plants, the protein source of all herbivores, elephants and bison included. Beyond that I honestly don’t know. I like running long distances up mountains: I think I’m doing OK for protein.
Don’t you miss cheese/butter/bacon?
I missed cheese when I first became vegan: my previous diet had contained a lot of cheese.
Interestingly, when you sustain changes to your diet, your palate changes. I don’t miss non-vegan things at all, now, and I’ve started to love new things that I didn’t appreciate before.
Taste is a lot more than flavour. What you know about what you’re eating affects your enjoyment of it, be it a salad of freshly-picked, home-grown ingredients or pâté de foie gras.
Vegan cheese is all crap, though, isn’t it?
A lot is. A few great vegan cheeses are available now, though they aren’t cheap.
Innovative companies are now synthesising milk products that are culinarily identical to cows’ milk. This should make it possible to produce ripe Camembert, buffalo mozzarella or aged Stilton that’s indistinguishable from the dairy versions, without causing suffering to cows.
On the whole, though, I think dishes that are conceived veganly, so to speak, are better than vegan versions of non-vegan food. I’m excited that a new vegan cuisine — food that does new and creative things with vegan ingredients, old and new, rather than trying to emulate non-vegan dishes — is rapidly developing, and I’m looking forward to tasting what’s around that corner.
Do you take supplements?
I take a vitamin tablet that contains vitamin D (which we should probably all be taking) and vitamin B12. Vegans should take a vitamin B12 supplement. My understanding is that this is to do with modern farming methods, which result in loss of B12 from plants.
How easy it is to travel when you’re vegan?
It depends on where you’re going. Major cities are usually a joy, as are places where a lot of people are vegan (North America, Scandinavia, the UK, and no doubt other places too). In many parts of the world a lot of food either already is vegan or easily can be vegan: India and Central America, for example. There are places where it takes a bit more effort but it’s always been possible for me. At a conference in the capital of Kazakhstan, where horse-meat was served in a show of national pride, I found a good vegan restaurant.
HappyCow is a wonderful website and app for finding vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants and other businesses.
How long have you been vegan for?
Since around 2012.
Were you vegetarian before?
Yes, for some years. Before that I ate everything — so for most of my life I was eating meat.
What does ‘vegan’ mean?
People who are vegan do their best to avoid consuming or using animal products.
Vegans therefore don’t eat or drink dairy products (cheese, butter, milk, cream, yoghurt, manufactured food containing whey protein), eggs, meat (including fish), or other animal products (including honey).
We also try to avoid other animal products, including leather, wool, silk, down (feathers), sheepskin and beeswax. There are good alternatives to all of those.
A number of alcoholic drinks aren’t vegan, much wine, especially. For example, some wine-makers use isinglass (from fish swim bladders) and gelatin (usually from cows’ bones) to clarify their wines. Most spirits and more and more beers and wines are vegan, though. Barnivore is where you can look them up.
Do eating and using animal products really cause suffering?
I don’t want to be graphic here, but the evidence is not hard to find: many exploited animals have miserable lives and terrifying deaths. There are the details of the experiences of many dairy cows and their offspring; the repeated revelations from cameras hidden by campaigners in factory farms and slaughterhouses; and much else. This isn’t OK. And that’s in countries that claim higher animal welfare standards.
Buying eggs from free-range hens, organic milk, and grass-fed beef affects only a proportion of the animal products in most people’s diets, and doesn’t eliminate the suffering involved even in those products.
But you can’t avoid causing any harm to animals, can you?
This is true. For example, arable farming destroys animals’ habitat, and ploughing and pesticides injure and kill small animals.
But all of these things happen vastly less in plant farming than they do in animal farming, and it’s our responsibility to minimise the suffering we cause to others. That’s why I think we should try to be as vegan as we can be.
What if a hen were kept in great, free-range conditions and experienced no suffering? Would you eat its eggs?
I don’t think it’s easy to know that exploiting animal isn’t causing suffering. In my pre-vegan days I gathered eggs from sitting hens a few times, and it looked to me like they didn’t want me to do that. If you’re raising chickens for eggs, half the eggs that you allow to hatch will produce male chicks, most of whom you’ll likely kill once they’re big enough to identify. I’d question the premise that it’s possible to exploit any animal without causing suffering along the way.
I’m also troubled by the use of the pronoun ‘its’ for our hypothetical hen. Our pets are ‘he’ and ‘she’. It’s when we don’t want to consider other animals’ perspectives that we depersonalise them. The hen’s a ‘she’. She has a personality, noticeably different — if you get to know her — even from those of the other hens with whom she lives.
Why don’t you eat honey?
I find it easiest to draw a line around animals with a nervous system: if you’ve got one, I’m going to do my best not to exploit you. I don’t know whether bees are conscious and experience suffering, but I’m not at all sure they aren’t and don’t. We understand little about consciousness.
You can almost always substitute agave syrup or maple syrup for honey. In fact, it often tastes better.
Can vegans eat fish?
No: fish are animals and there’s good evidence that they experience suffering.
Fish seem quite different from us and it’s harder to imagine what it’s like to be a fish than it is to imagine what it’s like to be, say, a cow. But when I think about what happens to fish when they’re caught and killed, I suspect it’s a terrifying and awful way to die.
Would you have a pet?
A rescue dog, yes. (There are great vegan pet-foods available now, even for obligate carnivores. When I lived in doggy, sheep-farming Cumbria I was regularly stopped by people wanting to know what I fed my dog, as she had such a healthy-looking coat. They seemed thrown when I said it was a vegan dog-food.)
I wouldn’t now pay for a pet animal who had been bred, as I wouldn’t want to support or encourage the breeding of animals. I suspect many pets — rodents kept in tiny cages, dogs left alone when they’re intensely social animals — have pretty miserable lives.
Would you buy a second-hand leather sofa?
If I buy a second-hand leather sofa, I increase demand for second-hand leather sofas. That increases the price of second-hand leather sofas and therefore the resale value of a new leather sofa, and so increases the price of new leather sofas. That in turn increases the profit that can be made from making and selling leather sofas. That incentivises the manufacture of leather sofas, and so harms cows.
There are enough vegans that we can make a real difference by avoiding doing things that incentivise causing suffering.
Also, knowing what was done to several sentient cows to make that leather sofa makes me prefer to sit on something else.
Why do vegans talk so much about being vegan?
I’m not sure most do. I tend not to mention it much unless I’m asked, partly because I wouldn’t want people to think I was judging their different decisions, and partly because I don’t want people to make assumptions about me. Maybe it’s confirmation bias, or perhaps discomfort with vegans’ concerns, that keeps alive the belief that vegans can’t stop talking about our veganism. And no doubt there are a some vegans who do use their veganism as a way of talking about themselves and their needs or wishes: every demographic has its narcissists.
If a vegan does go on about it, remember that she’s living in a world where something that is generally seen as normal and good is, to her, obviously wrong. She might feel a duty to speak up. And she might not always come across well.
Help! I have a vegan coming for a meal or to stay and I don’t know what do.
That’s kind of you. Don’t worry! Your vegan guest will likely be grateful to you for accommodating her, and happy to advise and help.
The internet is wonderful for finding recipes and ideas. Try Googling whatever it is you need — ‘vegan lunch ideas for children’, for example. You could look at my recipes here. A carton of vegan milk in the fridge will be much appreciated if tea or coffee could make an appearance: oat milk is a good choice for hot drinks.
If you want to cook something you’re used to, vegan substitutes for most non-vegan ingredients are available in larger supermarkets: milk, butter, cream, yoghurt, honey (try agave or maple syrup), and many sorts of meat. There are egg substitutes but, if you’re baking, it may be better to look for a vegan recipe, of which there’s an abundance on the internet. And there are usually plenty of prepared vegan meals in supermarkets’ freezer sections.
In manufactured foods the main things to look for in the ingredients, if the product isn’t marked as vegan, are milk derivatives (including cheese, cream, butter, yoghurt, and whey protein), eggs, gelatin, honey, and, of course, meat. You’d be amazed at how many things one or more of these ingredients sneaks into, usually unnecessarily.
Where can I find out more?
The most intelligent and thoughtful book I’ve read on veganism is Cornell law professor Sherry F Colb’s Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger, and Other Questions People Ask Vegans (Lantern Books, 2013). It’s well worth reading.
My favourite vegan cookbook is Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s Veganomicon (Da Capo Press, 2007).
A website full of wonderful vegan recipes that appeal to everyone is School Night Vegan.