It’s November 1st – Have you hugged a Vegan today?
November 1st isn’t just a day to recover from candy coma – it is also World Vegan Day, the kickoff for Vegan Awareness month. If that sounds familiar it’s because last month we celebrated Vegetarian Awareness for many of the same reasons that vegan awareness is important: going meat free (even some of the time) can have great benefits for your health and your budget – it can have global benefits, too.
But vegans deserve their own calendar month for taking vegetarianism to a whole new level. While there are many types of vegetarians, including those that allow certain kinds of animal meat (like poultry or fish) and/or animal products, vegans are vegetarians that avoid all animal products; meat, dairy, eggs, honey and even non-foods that are derived from animals – which can include anything from leather and wool to cosmetics and cleansers. Vegetarianism is best be described as a dietary choice; veganism is a lifestyle based on compassion for all living creatures.
The purpose of World Vegan day is to raise awareness about veganism, dispel myths (no, vegans are not all iron deficient and tired all the time) and share information. Though not everyone is ready or willing to be vegan, everyone deserves to make informed choices about what they buy and consume. For example, you might be surprised by how many of the products you encounter every day come from animals, or profit from animal cruelty.
Did you know that most cheese is not only not vegan, it’s not even vegetarian? The milk in cheese is solidified using an ingredient called rennet, which is taken from animal intestines (usually baby cows). This often comes as a shock to newly converted vegetarians and those of us who think a cheesy pasta bowl counts for Meatless Monday. Cheeses made without animal-based rennet such as cottage cheese, creamy-sweet ricotta or fresh Indian paneer are safe for vegetarians; there are also plenty of vegan cheese alternatives (also useful for people who are lactose intolerant, or who suffer dairy allergies).
Similarly, many processed foods and nutritional products (like supplement powders) include casein (a protein in dairy) or whey (a watery milk byproduct) which are off the menu for vegans. Other products you may not realize may contain animal parts include gelatin (made from collagen), refined sugar (manufacturers sometimes uses bone to process out impurities), anything with added omega-three oils (fish in your orange juice?) and raspberry-flavoring (just google it.) Even beer isn’t guaranteed vegan; sometimes animal products are used in the filtering process (something else to cry in your suds about).
Ingredients from animals are also common components in medicine, makeup, creams and lotions, flavorings, colorings, plastics, and so many other household and industrial commodities you could devote an entire website to the topic. Fortunately, many conscientious vegans have done just that. There are also blogs, books, magazines, and social networking groups dedicated to the vegan lifestyle. Even if you are not considering making the switch, these resources can help you look at your assumptions and consumption habits with a critical eye.
You can also find out more about veganism by asking questions of the vegans in your social circle, if they are open to it – but don’t pressure or argue or take their choices personally. Vegans often have to deal with discrimination and ridicule, but it is usually not a choice they entered into lightly.
There are other things you can do to support your vegan family and friends. Keep fresh fruits, vegetables and other whole foods in your pantry (it’s good for you, too!) and champion the local farms and businesses that provide them. Be open to trying plant-based dishes when dining with others, in vegan-friendly restaurants and households. Invite guests to contribute a meatless dish to your dinner party or, better yet, add vegan-friendly recipes to your cooking repertoire: a veggie casserole for the Thanksgiving table, vegan-cookies for the office. The holidays are coming, a time to focus on what unites us; you can help make the world a kinder place this month, and every month, by understanding and supporting commitment a vegan lifestyle entails.