A 'real' vegan part 1: Defining veganism and exploring its grey areas.

definitions of veganism

The word vegan was first coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, the same year he founded The Vegan Society in London. Watson was a British teacher and animal rights advocate who had been secretary of his local Vegetarian Society and first defined the term vegan as meaning 'non-dairy vegetarian' after learning about the processes involved in milk production, but in 1951 the term was refined to 'the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals'.

The Vegan is the journal of The Vegan Society. This particular issue is from 1946.

The Vegan is the journal of The Vegan Society. This particular issue is from 1946.

The term 'vegan' first appeared in a dictionary in 1962 and reflected the original 'non-dairy vegetarian' definition, and it was not until 1995 that a definition was published which reflected the 1951 definition: 'Vegan - A person who does not eat or use animal products' (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 1995).

Facets of veganism have been and still are present in many other cultures around the world, for moral, religious or practical reasons. Both Sikhism and Hinduism advocate vegetarianism, though neither are seen as compulsory. In Jainism, no animal products can be consumed and even greater efforts to avoid harm to animals are common, such as sweeping the path in front whilst walking to avoid treading on insects. These practices grew out of concerns for health and animal wellbeing, much like the British veganism movement, but were associated more broadly with society or religion. In the western world there are fewer historical examples of lifestyles eschewing animal products being promoted, and when they were it was part of fringe groups who were most often concerned with the health benefits of what we would now call a vegan diet.

Guru Ka Langar, the community meal served at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, feeds approximately 75,000 people every day. Photo: Kay Maeritz/Look/Dinodia

Guru Ka Langar, the community meal served at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, feeds approximately 75,000 people every day. Photo: Kay Maeritz/Look/Dinodia

The British vegan movement intended to refocus the elimination of animal products from the diet as an action based on moral concerns, rather than health concerns. This mirrors the various religions that advocated animal-free diets out of respect for the animals themselves, though the Vegan Society did not make reference to these practices instead progressing from the vegetarian practices of the English-speaking world.

We should never see any social justice movement as a destination but rather a journey.

The grey areas of veganism

If you are reading this, chances are that you already have taken the choice to go vegan and can see some of the more obvious ways that animals are used in our society unnecessarily. Cutting out the use of animals for food, entertainment and clothing seems absolutely daunting at first but in a short amount of time we find that we become pros at cooking without cheese, milk, meat and fish and are able to scan ingredients lists in supermarkets faster than Usain Bolt running for the night bus home. Dropping dairy, eggs and meat from your diet and maybe switching your running shoes to ones made from synthetic material will make a significant and wonderful difference in reducing the amount of animals used for agriculture and other industries and we are so grateful to everyone who does that, but what about the other perhaps less obvious ways that animals are used in our lives? When we decide to step back and think of the ethics of the way we interact in this world, so many complex and confusing issues seem to pop up. The issues that burn in our hearts will change as the world around us changes, but technology, education and experience offer us constant opportunities to understand and do better. This is why we should never see any social justice movement as a destination but rather a journey. It is a good idea to check out and properly consider some of the so called grey areas of veganism at some point along your journey so that you can be sure that your particular way of being vegan is informed and as compassionate to animals as you can be, in a way that is practical to your lifestyle.

To help you out we thought we would touch upon a couple of the grey areas of veganism that often come up in discussions or plague our thoughts at night. We have provided links so that you can read more and please let us know if you think we should add to this list.


sugar & Bone char

What the hell is bone char? Well I was thinking the same thing until I heard about it recently. It's actually a product which is used to process sugar and it is made from the bones of cattle from Afghanistan, Argentina, India, and Pakistan. The bones are sold to traders in Scotland, Egypt, and Brazil who then sell them back to the U.S. sugar industry. The European Union and the USDA heavily regulate the use of bone char and only countries that are deemed BSE-free can sell the bones of their cattle for this process so therefore you won't find bone char in most of the sugary products (like Oreos) you find in Norway and Europe. Bone char (which is often referred to as natural carbon) is widely used by the sugar industry as a decolourising filter, which allows the sugar cane to achieve its desirable white colour, but its also used in the manufacturing of brown sugar, icing sugar and some other sugar types. It's pretty difficult to know which US companies do and don't use it so we recommend that you contact them directly if you want to find out.

We started wondering about our favourite US imported vegan products that are sold in Norwegian stores. We emailed Mattilsynet and asked them if they knew whether products being imported into Norway had to state whether the sugar they contained was made with bone char and they said 'Sugar is not defined as a product of animal origin and are not at the list of non-animal risk products. Therefore there are no special restrictions about importing it' This basically means that they don't know or care. So it's pretty impossible to know if a company uses bone char unless you do a hell of a lot of digging. Personally for us, we don't worry about it.

Is your sugar vegan?

A beginners guide to vegan sugar

A guide to natural vegan sweeteners


Palm Oil

And that brings us onto another contentious issue: palm oil. This oil comes from the oil palm fruit and is widely used in cooking and food production around the world due to its low cost, and has been used in cookery possibly for as long as 5000 years. The vast majority of modern palm oil production is located in Indonesia and Malaysia, with smaller production industries also in Western Africa as well as Central and northern South America. Palm oil production does not inherently require animal suffering, but in practice huge swathes of rainforest across southeast Asia have been destroyed to make way for lucrative oil palm plantations: in Indonesia 25% of the country's rainforests were destroyed within just two years in order to plant oil palms, and whilst the government has placed a moratorium on further rainforest clearance, it is estimated that 80% of the logging in the country happens illegally, and the government seems unconcerned with the continued deforestation, which is probably because palm oil exports contribute massively to the country's economy. This is not just an environmental disaster: rainforest clearance means no more habitat for the animals that naturally reside there. The Indonesian rainforest is home to orangutans, both species of which are endangered, and in order to clear the forest are often driven out by gangs with machetes, burned with hot oil, or even set directly on fire. 

Whilst the negative impact on animals is an indirect effect of palm oil production, in reality the production involves such massively devastating consequences for animals, it is difficult to argue that palm oil production need not be of any concern to vegans who wish to protect animals. However palm oil is so ubiquitous in store bought food. Dining out in restaurants you won't see palm oil marked on any menus as it is not an allergen, so it is very difficult to detect let alone avoid. Palm oil is also used in so many other non food products from soap to fuel. If you feel that palm oil is indistinguishable from the environmental and animal harms its production causes, and wish to exclude it from your diet, then very few pre-prepared store foods and even fewer restaurant dishes will be left to choose from. We advise to be practical and support businesses which are make palm oil free products when you can, whilst offering information on palm oil and it's alternatives to other companies (vegan or otherwise) which still use it.

Is Palm Oil Vegan?

Should We Buy Products with “Sustainable” Palm Oil?

The campaign against palm oil: The other oil spill


Bad companies making vegan products

It's very difficult to find companies that are fully transparent in all aspects of their business which makes it hard for us to see how they treat their employees, where they source their ingredients from, how they are testing their products, who they do business with and how their business is affecting other communities that we are unaware of. There are some really terrible, evil companies out there. Examples include Monsantos complete disregard of safety and health as they led the industry in genetically modified crops and lied about their pollution of the waterways in Alabama to pharmaceutical companies which dump their drugs into the water supply of the towns where their factories reside, but there are numerous examples of grossly unjust and downright rage inducing acts committed by large businesses and organisations throughout history that are frankly too sad for me to list here. Saddest of all is that huge businesses are still able to get away with exploiting the environment, humans and animals in atrocious ways today. So much pain is inflicted, and all in the name of profit.

So therefore, when we buy products from these companies we are supporting everything that they do too. Buying from an unethical company may be seperate from your animal ethics but seeing as though all oppression is connected by violence, most of us feel as though our anti oppression values connected to animals cannot be seperated from the way we feel about other ethical issues in the world. This is a grey area and its up to everyone to make up their minds individually about the companies they support.


Cosmetics, skincare and cleaning products

When it comes to finding non food products which are vegan, things start to get a bit more complicated than just scanning ingredients lists because for a product to be vegan it should not be tested on animals. So many companies rely on their consumers not caring if their products are vegan or tested on animals and this is why searching out and purchasing compassionate cosmetics can make a world of difference and actually change the consumer market. When we support companies that make vegan products, we are sending a message to them about what we expect on the market. We suggest joining some facebook groups or following some blogs related to the products you want to buy, planning ahead, not expecting to revamp you entire bathroom cupboard contents overnight and also promoting the vegan products you find to your friends.

Whilst many cosmetic brands do tout themselves as 'cruelty free' it may not always be the case, especially when it comes to the big names. Whilst the product you are holding in your hand may not contain any animal ingredients and may have a leaping bunny logo on it, there are still other issues to consider which are more important to some vegans than they are to others. This is where we really get into the grey area with non food products.

For example: MAC Cosmetics is owned by Estee Lauder, who don't test on animals unless required by law. Because MAC is sold in China, where animal testing is required, MAC isn’t a cruelty-free company. By buying their products you are supporting and promoting a brand that choose money over ethics, and as a vegan knowing that your money is going towards supporting animal cruelty even though it not in an immediate way can be enough to make you boycott a brand. As vegan consumers it's our responsibility to do our research and see if a company lives up to our personal ethical standards regarding the way they treat animals with regards to the products they sell and elsewhere in their business.

Are your cosmetics vegan?

MAC Cosmetics Is No Longer Cruelty Free


Medicine developed using animal testing

All prescribed medicines have been developed using animal testing. By law, any regulated medicine you can buy at a chemist or be prescribed by a doctor must go through multi-phase testing, which includes testing in animals (usually rodents) for a drugs effectiveness against a specific illness or condition, and to test how it is metabolised. By the time the drug comes to market or clinic the animal testing is long in the past, but the development of that drug would not have been possible without animal testing. There are some ingredients of these medicines which may include animal products, including the capsules drugs come in which may be made of gelatin. Shellac may be used to bind some pills together.
There are some medicines on the market which are direct products of animals, including heparin, an anticoagulant which stops blood clotting, or insulin which allows diabetics to regulate their blood sugar.
Though directly produced from animals, drugs such as those just mentioned are essential for survival for people with various conditions, and we would never condone putting personal safety at risk.

There are many vegan blogs, which also advocate resisting medical treatment in favour of “treating” conditions with vegan diets or “alternative medicines”. Such outlets promote approaches which have, at best dubious usefulness, and at worst knowingly place vulnerable people at risk of great harm in order to vindicate their own beliefs about medicine and animals, which they have conveniently never had tested by the kind of medical conditions which require these drugs. Whilst there are established health benefits associated to veganism, it is not a panacea and we find shaming of people requiring pharmaceutical treatment by vegans in the community to be appalling, ghoulish, and unbecoming of the compassionate core of veganism.

Is Your Medicine Vegan? Probably Not

Medical Research with Animals

Suitability of common drugs for patients who avoid animal products


'insignificant' animals

The majority of advertising for veganism will usually feature animals we are familiar with and are beloved by many: cats, monkeys, whales, horses, birds, all complex beings with many behaviours that closely resemble humans. But the animal kingdom includes a vast array of organisms, and the word “animal” encompasses everything from highly intelligent apes and monkeys, through to microscopic plankton. 
Indeed, some animals seem alien to us whilst others seem familiar. Think of a cow in a field, defending her calves from a predator. She seems loving, concerned for the safety of others, self-sacrificing and even heroic. Then think of mussels, which attach themselves to an underwater rock, then passively filter nutrients out of the ocean, and reproduce by releasing sperm into the ocean currents. Both are animals yet the differences are obvious and significant. 

The most useful and widely used definition of veganism states that no animal or animal product should be used or consumed. This mainly comes from the observation that (most) animals can suffer and feel pain and that both of those are negative things we should try and avoid.

But if both the cow and the mussels are both animals, does that mean we should treat both of them the same? If you want to become vegan then people will expect that you don’t eat animals, regardless of your personal feeling about the abilities and sentience of individual types of animals. Perhaps you have come across the opinion that “vegetarians that eat chicken” or “vegetarians that eat fish”? We have heard people say this many times, and witnessed the confusion that this causes amongst others. When you use a word to describe yourself and act in a way that does not fit with the definition of that word, then you can dilute the power and meaning of that word, and we don’t think it is appropriate to be calling yourself vegan whist eating any kind of animal.

Life of a green-lipped mussel

What Animals Can Suffer?

We Asked a Biologist if Plants Can Feel Pain


More grey zones

There are probably many other grey zones or issues that will crop up as you explore veganism and what it means to make compassionate choices. You may have strong opinions on some of these issues and feel differently about the others and thats ok. However, for every question we have personally ever had about grey areas we have managed to find tons of great articles and resources online. We advise to always look outside of your own community, do as much research as possible and be critical of all the sources you come across. If you don't find an answer, you can always ask the online vegan community what they think. Whilst these grey areas may differ in importance from person to person (with wildly different perspectives on each issue) the most important thing to remember is our common goal: that we are all trying to do our best for the animals and reduce animal suffering overall.


How do we define 'vegan' in the vegan norway app?

Our app uses the most common definition of veganism, so that the app can be used by the majority of vegans that download it. If a meal is made without any animal products then we class it as vegan, however that does not mean that every restaurant which sells something that is technically vegan (like fries) will make it onto the app. We will call a restaurant vegan-friendly when it offers a dish which is labelled as vegan on the menu, or offers dishes which can be made vegan and the staff are helpful in doing so and aware of veganism and its requirements.

Our attitude towards shops is similar: all supermarkets sell carrots, but that's not enough to be highlighted as a destination of interest to vegans. The shops we feature will stock products of particular use to vegans, such as specifically labelled vegan clothing or cosmetics, specialty vegan foods such as vegan cheese or meat substitutes, or health products useful for supplementing a vegan diet. Health food shops are often quite sensitive to the needs of vegans and stock a variety of useful and essential products, and international grocery shops often stock food products from around the world at reasonable prices and allow people to expand their diet beyond the limited options at mainstream supermarkets as well as learn about the meat-free and animal product-free diets from different cultures around the world.

We hope our users understand that it is their responsibility to do their own research when it comes to the ethical, health related, environmental and human rights issues that are unrelated to or perhaps fall outside of the common understanding of the term 'vegan'. 

All of the descriptions in our app are written by us. This is so we can have a consistent approach and tone, and so our definition of veganism as discussed in this article will inform how we write. Simply by gathering information and making it accessible we are actually making a difference. We don't want to tell people what to do but instead hope that our research can help others to make up their own minds. We don't want to hide anything and we are not paid by the businesses we feature, our motivation comes from a compassion for animals and the excitement we feel when a business embraces and welcomes vegan customers, it will be those places that we feature, places that help vegans to lead a vegan lifestyle and non-vegans to approach veganism in a convenient and welcoming way. 

In Part 2 of 'A 'real' vegan' we will be talking to a vegan business owner about the importance of a clear definition of veganism for consumer products and restaurant menus. Stay tuned!