We’re back with another episode and post in our “Imperfect Vegan Series”. I don’t think we’ve ever received as much positive feedback with one series since our Bikini Revolution and Body Image Series and this tells me a lot about the struggles many of us vegans go through and stay quiet about. Whether you’re a new vegan or a seasoned one, so many of us have moral or practical conundrums that we need support and guidance with, and my goal with these episodes, is to clear all the clutter, and especially remove any source of shame or worry you have about not being perfect, because non of us vegans are!
Today we’ll be talking briefly about a question I get often:
“What should we do about foods that DON’T contain animal products in their ingredients, but that DO use animal by-products in their production process?”
or in another way:
“Is sugar vegan?”
“Is beer vegan?”
“Are wine and other alcoholic beverages vegan?”
There are many fantastic articles, posts and videos online that you can go all science-geeky on, understanding chemical compositions, the stages of production, clarification, brewing, refining, etc., but you know me, rather than having this post and episode be about the technical and very specific details, I’ll be sharing my perspective on these questions, from a simple and practical angle, and if you want to learn more, I’ll be embedding two fantastic videos by the wonderful Bite Sized Vegan at the end of this post. She goes into so much detail when it comes to the specifics, ingredients and composition of certain products.
What naturally happens when most of our food system (especially the most profitable side of it) relies on animals
When you have a food industry that relies on animals in such a big way, meaning but not limited to, the fact that even huge amounts of the crops we grow are used to feed the animals we kill for food, animal products and by-products start appearing everywhere. When animal agriculture is so incredibly profitable and mainstream, what naturally happens is that companies will get extremely creative, figuring out additional ways to make profits even on the smallest parts of the animal.
If you’ve ever asked yourself the question “seriously? do they put animal products in everything?”, rest assured that you are not alone.
Animal by-products are in everything from the paper in the framed photos you have around your house, to your everyday electronics, medications and more. These animal by-products are also often used, not as ingredients themselves, but as part of the production of certain foods or beverages.
Using bone char (burnt animal bones) as part of the refining process of sugar to make it white.
Crushed up red beetles (yes) to make cochineal, a red pigment used for the production of some food colourings, certain alcoholic beverages, and certain candies or sweets.
Isinglass, obtained from the tiny swimming bladders of fish (a special bladder in fish that makes them buoyant and that helps them stay at particular depths in the oceans, rivers or lakes), and used in the processing of certain kinds of beer and wine. I mean… how did they even come up with this one?!
Using gelatin, made from the tendons, cartilages and bones of animals, and used as a thickener, gelling agent, etc.
Among others like casein (from milk), or albumin (from eggs) used for clarification, processing, refining, colouring, adding texture, etc.
Many of us who are vegan find it easy to stay away from a food product that clearly lists some of these non-vegan products in the ingredients. I’m thinking mostly of gelatin, or things like albumin (from eggs) or lactose or casein (from milk). When you can see this as part of the ingredients, that’s as simple a choice as not purchasing products that include meat, dairy or eggs. However, we can’t tell whether some of these I’ve mentioned, or others, were part of the production process by looking at the ingredients list, so what to do? What to do?
We go from big problem to little problem
In every new system or paradigm, from simple in our daily lives, to complex and involving policy and governmental changes, we usually go from big to small.
If a child is learning how to swim, we start their lesson out with learning how to go underwater and blow out, and coming up for air again. We teach them how to paddle and move in the water to stay afloat. Then we might teach different swimming styles. Only after a long while do we nit pick and correct their arm strokes, their speed, the strength with which they need to move their legs to have perfect and beautiful form.
As I write this, we’re currently in lockdown due to the Coronavirus outbreak, and without realizing it we’ve gone through stages of processing this and getting used to a new normal. First we simply had to get used to not leaving the house, then we learned we had to wear masks and gloves when shopping, then we realized we had to develop some kind of system when we walk into our house with our groceries. Now most of us have very specific routines for getting out of the house, grabbing keys, dog leashes, shoes, and we are very aware of not touching our faces until we’ve washed our hands properly. We went from the big things, to perfecting the little things.
Right now, in our current paradigm where our raising and killing of animals is too big to comprehend, I always recommend to our students and new vegans, to focus on big first, small later.
Big first, small later
What does that mean?
That means that we can stop supporting these cruel industries by reducing or eliminating our consumption of the big guns: meat, fish, dairy and eggs.
That means that as these industries get smaller, as a bigger market develops for kinder alternatives, there will also be a reduction in all of those by-products being used in the processing of foods, and companies will choose plant-based alternatives which are becoming more readily available these days.
But we can’t get to the small stuff before tackling the big stuff.
This in turn means that as perhaps one of the early generations that have witnessed the vegan movement going more and more mainstream, we have the responsibility to inspire many others to make this change, and often, it’s the very small things that turn people off, believing that veganism is too extreme, too rigid, too out of grasp.
Whether we want to or not, we are walking, talking, examples of a lifestyle that once felt completely fringe and is now becoming easier to understand and picture for people, and we will be the example many people have of what it means to be vegan. Showing vulnerability and imperfection in our choices won’t turn people off, it will show them that we are just like them, and that it’s a process that isn’t about perfection.
What can we do about sugar and alcoholic beverages?
Don’t worry I’m not going to keep it purely philosophical. I’ll break it down and then I’ll add lots of that nuance and gray that I always love to share.
When it comes to sugar, there are many alternatives that are already guaranteed to be free of animal products in their processing, for example:
Purchasing sugar that came from beets instead of sugar cane (although this is sometimes tricky since many companies use both of these as a source)
Using sugar that hasn’t been refined, like evaporated cane sugar (which is more yellow or light brown in color)
Raw or minimally processed sugar
Turbinado sugar or sugar in the raw
Other kinds of liquid sweeteners like agave, maple syrup, rice syrup, etc.
A little note on brown sugar, in many cases brown sugar is just white sugar coated in molasses for added color and flavour, but brown sugar that is simply ground panela or raw sugar cane hasn’t been processed through bone char
Wine, beer or other alcoholic beverages
Use the website barnivore.com where you’ll be able to check your favorite wines, beers and other spirits in terms of whether they are vegan in terms of ingredients, or in regards to the way they were processed as well, with a database of almost 50,000 brands and products.
Life in the real, imperfect world
Although I try to buy using these brief guidelines most of the time, sometimes, I think there are more important choices to help the vegan movement move forward, than looking at the small presence of animal by-products in the manufacturing process.
For example: If I’m making a vegan cake, I’ll most likely (if and when I can find it, sometimes it’s unavailable where I live), I’ll buy one of the options I just listed. If I’m going to a restaurant, or someone made me a vegan cake (i.e. no eggs or dairy in it), I don’t bother asking what type of sugar they used in the recipe. I eat it, enjoy it and I don’t think twice about it.
Same thing goes for wine and beer. I’m familiar with a few brands of beer and wine I like to buy when I’m having a party or gathering or just to keep at home, but when someone asks me out for drinks or they offer me a glass of wine or some beer, I don’t even bring up the question of whether it used isinglass or other by-proucts in the process.
Being vegan means that sometimes we need to be imperfect, and sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture.
In my opinion, and yours can be different of course, going vegan seems completely unattainable to people when we go into such perfectionistic details. Imagine a friend or neighbour or coworker who decides to make a cake or cupcakes for your birthday, they go through the process of finding a vegan recipe because they know you’re vegan and are genuinely interested, and might even ask you some questions about it while you’re sharing a yummy cupcake or two. When you get your vegan treats offered to you by a very well meaning friend, what do you think would happen if your first question is, “is the sugar vegan? Where is it sourced from?”. Can you feel the shift in energy and willingness to try just by imagining this little exchange in your head?
We can instead ask ourselves the question I’ve been using as a guiding light through this entire series, and throughout my many years as a vegan:
“What will help animals the most?”
The answer, at least right now is, focus on the big stuff, not on the small stuff. Do the best you can, and make it as simple and practical as you can for yourself and for others to feel inspired and so they can relate.
As the world changes in terms of our use of animals for food, and as more and more people get familiarized with this way of eating, so too will companies use different ingredients and ways of processing products, so too will we be able to expand the kindness that is behind our choices as vegans, and pay attention to the small details, as well as to other issues surrounding certain products when it comes to human rights, and sustainability that we are all learning more and more from as well.
To sum it up, we do the very best we can, we make it relatable and simple for others to follow if they wish to, and we don’t worry about being perfect. None of us are.
More to come in our “Imperfect Vegan Series” soon so stay tuned!
For more specifics on sugar and alcoholic beverages, check out these two videos by Bite Size Vegan
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