I often get asked the question, “So, a vegetarian doesn’t eat meat, but what exactly do you mean by ‘vegan’?” My go-to answer is a pretty standard definition: As a vegan, I do not intentionally consume any animal products. My well-intentioned interlocutor usually follows up by asking how long I’ve been vegan (a little over a year) and, less frequently, why I cut meat, eggs and milk from my diet. I respond with a handful of reasons: the environment, sometimes health benefits and always animal suffering. The conversation ends with a predictable “I could never go vegan, but I’ve had some really good fake meat!”
Vegan options are mushrooming around campus, the country and the world. According to a survey published in January by the Plant Based Foods Association, one out of five restaurants in the United States has a vegan designation on its menu, a 98% growth over the last four years. As more people opt for dairy alternatives, some major cafés like Blue Bottle Coffee and Stumptown Coffee Roasters have made oat milk the default option for their drinks, and most restaurants serve at least a bean burger (the bun of which is not necessarily free of animal products). The dining halls almost always offer acceptable-to-exceptional dishes of tofu, hearty salads and greasy fries.
It’s exciting to see the vast array of plant-based options available to everyone who wants them, vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters alike. Many people will add a vegan protein to plates with sides of animal products, a choice that I firmly support. The vegan diet no longer consists solely of plain lettuce and brown rice; it is now a family of foods that can accommodate diverse lifestyles, allergies and regimens, ranging from the keto diet to convenience food.
As such, a plant-based diet is easier than one would imagine, and when asked, I always mention that I don’t find it difficult or inconvenient. In fact, in some ways, I actually find it easier to be vegan than vegetarian. For example, most regular, dairy-based cheeses contain an ingredient called rennet, an enzyme that helps the cheese set properly, which comes from the stomachs of young ruminant animals including cows, goats and sheep. Because rennet is a part of an animal’s body, they must die to provide it, so many vegetarians don’t consider the product acceptable and instead scour their supermarkets for cheeses with enzymes derived from plants or microbes.
Personally, I do not buy cheese. If I want the experience, I opt for non-dairy cheese that does not contain any animal products, let alone an animal’s stomach lining. While I’ll admit that traditional cheese has a very specific taste and texture that fake cheese rarely achieves, I’ve gotten used to it and found brands that I like. And besides, I don’t eat much cheese (or “cheeze”) anymore anyway. Furthermore, just ditching meat without reconsidering cheese and omelets doesn’t avoid many of the problems with animal farming.
The problem with a vegetarian diet, then, is moral inconsistency. On both ethical and environmental grounds, non meat animal products perpetuate harm. The dairy and egg industries cause just as much death and suffering as beef and poultry do. The conditions for almost all productive animals are far from humane, even in the case of so-labeled “free-range” livestock. Human beings are similarly at risk, as animal product industries take advantage of vulnerable migrant and seasonal farmworkers and perpetrate egregious working conditions.
Recent reports in the New York Times and NBC shed light on the human cost of animal agriculture and food packing in Michigan. The arising concerns of these reports noted that many of the eggs served around Ann Arbor every day may well be processed by 12-year-old children working 70 hours a week. Of course, consumers should not be held responsible for the slimy dealings of massive corporations. Nonetheless, the evidence only builds in the case against animal products, and more people are grappling with the ethical implications of what they put on their plate, whether vegetarian or omnivore.
Vegetarianism posits that limiting the consumption of meat tangibly reduces cruelty and climate change. This reasoning is mutual in the more “extreme” vegan diet. The diets have a lot in common, but they differ in terms of scope. To me, veganism is to vegetarianism as a square is to a rectangle. One would not be wrong in calling a shape with four perpendicular sides of equal length a rectangle, but they would be missing a more precise definition. Vegans, just as squares, strive for stricter criteria. That is, the vegan diet seeks to be congruent with an anti-suffering philosophy.
To be clear, any reduction in demand for animal products is a win in my book, and I don’t judge anyone who has not yet or cannot make the leap to veganism. People who follow majority plant-based diets but forgive some level of meat consumption describe their lifestyles with portmanteaus like flexitarian and freegan — while still attempting to lead a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, they still partake in some non-vegan habits.
I also don’t think perfect consistency is truly attainable; I certainly have my own hypocritical tendencies. While I’m not “freegan” for food, I still wear a pair of leather Birkenstocks that were given to me for free. If I forget to check a product’s ingredients before buying and it turns out to contain milk or honey, I’ll feel bad, give it to someone else and remind myself to look more closely next time.
Nevertheless, if vegetarians accept the premise that reduced personal consumption makes a difference, the choice to eat animal products displays a level of cognitive dissonance: the psychological discomfort from or avoidance of simultaneous contradictory thoughts or behaviors. Many vegetarians agree that meat eaters who claim to be animal lovers are hypocritical, and yet they do not completely cut animal suffering from their diets.
One of the most challenging aspects of veganism is sacrificing personal taste, especially when the direct impacts of that decision are not immediately apparent. No one really enjoys thinking through the structural problems of the world, nor their place in those structures, but everyone can benefit from trying new ways of interacting with the world and the market for food.
With the ease of finding a restaurant or dining hall with vegan options in Ann Arbor — Jerusalem Garden, Detroit Street Filling Station and Totoro (among other local sushi spots), for example — it’s more accessible than ever to integrate plant-based foods into any lifestyle. The cost of eating out can be prohibitive in any diet, especially a restrictive one like veganism and during a period of high inflation. However, with more options in grocery stores and with reliable classics like dried legumes and tofu, eating plant-based can actually be cheaper than spending on meat.
Omnivores and vegetarians alike should challenge themselves and try something new, and they just might be surprised by how cheap, satisfying and harmless it tastes.
Nick Rubeck is an Opinion Columnist from Williamston, Mich. He writes about what our food, media and physical spaces can tell us about ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.