A couple of months ago my friend Chelsea and I were chatting about some of the details of veganism when we realised that perhaps this discussion would be interesting for you lovely blog readers. The format is inspired by my favourite Rookie article – “Something Borrowed”. I’ve recorded our conversation and typed up the interesting bits, so keep in mind that this is an exploration and not a treatise on anyone’s position on animal rights. By having a variety of people giving their views in this post the idea is that we can introduce more perspectives and subtleties to the discussion. This is a discussion between me (J) and my friends, Amy (A) and Chelsea (C), with occasional input from Toby (T) and James when they can tear themselves away from playing the Xbox. For some context, we are all vegetarians, except for James and I who are vegan. Chelsea, Toby and I became vegetarian at a similar time, as fresh faced philosophy undergraduates passing around Peter Singer books.
J: The idea is that this should be a respectful and open ended discussion.
C: It’s good because I think that veganism is the logical conclusion of vegetarianism
A: Yeah it is
C: But I also don’t want to do it
A: Like when people say “oh, but bacon” I think “oh, fuck off” but I do the exact same thing with cheese
J: I do think it’s an analogy. When people say “oh, but cheese” it’s like when people comment “mmm bacon” on vegan posts – why do they feel the need to do that?
A: For me, the main issue would be, well several things. I find it hard enough to eat well anyway. I think you don’t necessarily need to be well off but you need to have the time or the resources to do it successfully. For me, when I’m stressed or busy the first thing to go anyway is eating well. I think vegetarianism is mainstream enough now that it doesn’t really restrict you. Because the first thing to go for me is eating well, I think that would be exacerbated if I restricted my diet any further.
J: I mean, I get that as well. James is a good influence because he tells me off when I’m not eating properly. But I guess you just get used to it because you have stuff in that you can eat and you know what food you like and what you can cook so in terms of eating at home it’s fairly easy.
A: Do you find it is more expensive?
J: It’s not for me, but – apart from soy milk and pure spread – I don’t use any fake dairy or meat products. If you did it would probably be – maybe not more expensive – but as expensive as eating real cheese and meat which are really expensive products anyway. I just have my veg box and I buy wholefood stuff from the New Leaf and little things like cereal and snacks and from Lidl, so it’s fine.
T: But things like that are much easier depending on where you live.
A: Yeah, that’s so true.
T: In the Isle of Man, being vegan…
A: Good luck…
T: It’s impossible! Everything’s either fish, or the best you can get is Quorn reproduction. You can buy baked beans and kidney beans but any other kind of beans… you’re not going to find black beans.
James: Yeah but you can buy vegetables, right?
T: Yeah, but only the basic ones like mushrooms.
A: But it is hard! And I feel like you have to recognise that.
J: But I feel like once you have lived a vegan diet for a while it’s not hard. The hard bit’s the transitioning part.
A: Yeah, which I guess is why a lot of people have a false start.
J: Once you know what you like, what meals you can eat, what things you should eat together, how to cook things without looking at recipes all the time, it’s fine. It’s just like any other diet. There are things that are “food” to you so you cook them and enjoy them. There’s nothing that I buy that I can’t find locally.
A: Yeah, like what’s your go to if you’re like, I’m so tired, I’ve just got in from work, I’ve got nothing in the house? Or can you just not let that situation arise?
J: No, you can. You can have a baked potato with hummus and salad or roast veg, you could have frozen hash browns and chips with something from a tin, you can have beans on toast, you can buy tinned spaghetti hoops or vegetable curries. You could also stock your freezer with fake chicken and vegan pizzas if you wanted to.
A: I don’t eat a lot of meat replacements anyway like quorn and stuff, but are they generally vegan?
J: Quorn itself is not vegan. But a lot of supermarket own brand versions are vegan. Like, Tesco own brand soy mince. Also, Linda McCartney sausages and dried soy mince – which is what I buy.
[Edit: Vegan quorn has been released! It’s not easily available in the UK, but some shops have it.]
A: And how do you feel about – I don’t know much about it but I have heard about it – the impact of nut milks on the environment?
J: Just buy sustainably produced nut milks. Alpro do a good job with soya as far as I know. The problem with almonds is that they’re very water intensive, so as long as you make sure you’re not buying almonds grown in California you’re alright.
James: Also, you can just buy oat milk.
A: And how is that?
J: It’s nice actually, I like it.
A: What’s your favoutrite non-dairy milk?
A: You don’t like the nut milks, do you? Cause I find that nut milk tea, like hazelnut tea. I like it, it’s just a different beverage which is not what I’m looking for.
J: James likes almond milk and coconut milk in tea, but I just want soy milk in tea. But then, in things like porridge I’ll have coconut milk.
T: One thing that convinced me that I should use soy is that the deforestation of the rainforest is a terrible thing, but coffee is much more destructive… so everything has its problems! Soy milk has less of an impact now since more consumers of soy milk are ethical and conscientious. But it’s not as if we have a load of drinks that are all isolated from being environmentally problematic.
A: But I think that you can only do your best ethically. It’s a finite amount of energy and resources that each of us have so you can’t be absolutist about it.
J: Yeah, it’s about doing your best. But the other thing is that if you eat processed non-vegan foods they all have soy in anyway. If you eat animal products, those animals are fed soy. You probably eat a bit more soy as a vegan if you’re buying a lot of tofu and soy milk but if you’re buying responsibly produced tofu and soy milk then you’re probably doing a better job than people who don’t think about where their soy comes from.
A: So, what I’ve been trying to do is – you know when people do meat free Mondays when they’re sliding into vegetarianism? I’ve been trying to eat more vegan meals although I’m not in any way ready to make the switch. And, when you started being vegan, did you do things like be vegan except when you eat out? Do you recommend that for getting into it?
J: So, at uni I had been buying soy milk and soy spread anyway whilst I was still a vegetarian. And then me and James lived together for two months whilst we were interning in York and we said “let’s do Veganuary!” and it turned into Vefebruary. I still ate vegetarian food out at restaurants and at other people’s houses. Then, I became a vegetarian again when I moved back home. When I came to Edinburgh a year and a half ago I decided to make the switch to veganism completely and once I’d done it for a while I didn’t want to eat veggie ever anymore so I didn’t.
[Edit – you can actually see my Veganuary post from that time in my life, in my archives, here]
J: I’m very lucky with friends because usually in Edinburgh if I’m there then everything is vegan.
A: That’s really good!
J: And I’m mostly friends with environmentalists so it’s fairly easy. With immediate family it’s fine and when I’m home mum mostly cooks vegan food for everyone which is really nice of her. It’s only difficult sometimes with grandparents or extended family.
C: Have you had anybody that just doesn’t understand what it is? Because I feel like everybody knows what veganism is.
A: No they don’t. Some people don’t even know what a vegetarian is! People still say like, just have a fish.
J: At restaurants often people don’t know what it is. Even earlier (ordering an Indian takeaway) I asked, “what vegan curries do you have?” and the guy kept responding to me, “what do you want, beef or chicken?” Often people try to give me fish.
A: How’ve you found it being abroad?
J: It depends where you are.
A: There must be a language barrier.
C: In Barcelona me and Toby got this thing that was called a vegetarian sandwich and it was just tuna.
J: But I found Barcelona so easy for vegans!
A: There are a lot of nice vegan eateries there now. But if you go to a general place it’s more difficult.
J: Barcelona was great for food, and Berlin was amazing obviously. It’s funny because Corfu was great – they have lots of things like fried mushrooms or baked aubergine and you could easily have a collection of starters that are vegan and then it’s like tapas. When we went to Rhodes, all of their specials are meat and cheese so that was difficult. It was also hard because I was with a big group of family. We had done research on a couple of restaurants that were veggie friendly but my family didn’t want to go to the same restaurant every night. So there were two restaurants where I could eat something substantial and then all the other places not so much…
C: So, what did you do?
J: I had chips and hummus and salad. But if I was with you guys, or if I was with James I would go out a couple of times and cook for myself the rest of the time. But it’s difficult when the other people are not up for that.
A: So what direction do you think veganism is going in? Obviously there’s been an explosion of health conscious things in the last few years. Do you think it will be like vegetarianism in a couple of decades and it will be a mainstream choice?
J: Yeah I think so. I hope so!
A: Unless Trump becomes president and we’ll all probably be dead.
C: With the big explosion of veganism I find most of it so problematic because it’s so linked to disordered eating.
A: Yeah, how do you feel about it being co-opted by what’s basically orthorexia?
J: Obviously with a lot of bloggers and vloggers being vegan and writing about it, that makes it more accessible. Or, with a lot of chain restaurants having vegan options – like, Wagamamas, Toby Carvery, Spoons, Pizza Express – that’s obviously great because it makes it more accessible. But there are a lot of vloggers who do “What I ate in a day – vegan!” and they just eat 20 bananas and 10 punnets of strawberries. I doubt it’s healthy and very few people actually eat like that.
I think the organic movement has similar problems. Places like Planet Organic are so unethical, positioning organic as this luxury product. They’re pushing it into the luxury market and I hate that.
So, positioning vegan food as this upmarket health food is really unethical too because it makes it into this “luxury” that not everyone can afford.
A: But I do think of it – I don’t know if this is a misconception – as a luxury. You have to have a certain amount of money or a certain amount of time.
J: I think it has become like that only recently and I was kind of saying to Chelsea earlier that there are some tensions now in the vegan community between these older, very activist grassroots, left-wing vegans who have been doing this stuff for a long time and the people coming into it who are using it for “clean eating!” And it always was about animal activism and being an environmentalist. And that didn’t come from a place of privilege necessarily, although obviously sometimes it does.
A: But what do you think about – obviously diet has a huge effect on your health and it’s something we don’t understand very much of yet – we’ve grasped that it’s really important and has a huge influence on your health but we haven’t grasped how it works or what to do with that information. So how do you feel about say, Deliciously Ella, who says that eating the way she does is how she manages her heart condition?
J: I feel like, this question is more about my stance on natural medicine. And I think, feel free, give it a go, if it works for you then whatever, that’s fine. But I know that Deliciously Ella doesn’t like the word vegan and she doesn’t use it. She uses “plant based.” I think there is that ideological separation between “vegan” which is a political word and “plant based” which is about diet and health.
C: Do you feel healthy? When I became a vegetarian I felt healthier but I also had low B12 and I can’t say that they’re linked but they might be.
J: Because I do still eat a lot of crap, I don’t’ ever claim to be a healthy vegan. Not eating cheese has made a huge difference to my digestive system though.
A: Oh cheese is so bad, I know it is!
J: I don’t feel that horrible like, sticky bloated feeling anymore. One of James’ friends was saying that the biggest effect that veganism has had on her life is that she now feels liberated from cheese.
A: I’m a slave to cheese!
J: You can experience the food underneath the cheese.
A: Yeah, sometimes if I make a really nice chilli with lots of black beans and dark chocolate and sweet potato and peppers I’m like “this is amazing!” but then I just smother it in cheese and sit there like, “mmm cheese” and you don’t taste it.
J: I used to eat like that when we lived in York in second and third year and it was the thing that I was most scared about giving up and most worried about and it was the thing I’m most surprised to not miss.
A: I think you can train yourself out of it.
J: Because milk is obviously meant for baby cows, it has baby cow hormones in it, but one of them is slightly addictive.
T: Apparently it’s an opiate!
J: So once you don’t have it for a while, maybe 3 weeks or something you don’t want it anymore.
C: Is a vegan diet satisfying?
J: Yeah! I mean, when you guys come and stay at mine we eat vegan food for a weekend and it’s fine. It’s delicious!
A,C: Yeah, true.
J: I feel like I’m quite aware of that one. So my milk, cereal and soy spread are all fortified and then I eat quite a lot of nutritional yeast which is full of B12.
C: I am so scared of that.
J: I’ll make you something with it, it is nice. It’s a little bit cheesy.
A: It’s like the methadone of vegans.
T: Does it not shake your confidence in it, how difficult it is to get vitamin B?
J: So you know why non-vegan diets have vitamin B? It’s because vitamin B is found in soil. So, when animals graze they get it from the soil. So the other way that you can get vitamin B which is also what I do, is eat vegetables that haven’t been properly cleaned, like from my veg box.
A: Eat dirt!
J: Yeah, eat muddy vegetables.
C: Have you found the food side harder or the other products?
J: Oh no, the other stuff for sure.
A: Like leather?
C: No, like, beauty, makeup, cosmetics…
James: It’s stuff that maybe you should be doing as a veggie anyway.
J: So, it took me a while after going vegan to become cruelty free. Some stuff is super easy, like makeup is easy. There’s some stuff that I find really hard, like finding a conditioner that is both cruelty free and works on my very specific hair type.
C: Have you got there?
J: Yeah, but I spend a lot of money on conditioner. One of the reasons it’s hard is that a lot of cruelty free stuff is also eco so they don’t put silicones in it but I need it for my hair. Good quality vegan shoes I find hard as well. I have managed to find some but it’s been a long journey. You know, unless you want to invest in some vegan docs.
C: That’s the smart decision!
J: But as a student I could never have afforded that.
T: But don’t you feel a bit – you can buy vegan doc martens but 90% of their business is like, shoe leather. Maybe you shouldn’t shop there because they use so much leather.
J: If there was an alternative that did good quality, long lasting vegan shoes that I actually like…
James: There is. There are loads on the internet.
A: I think it’s probably harder for women because women’s shoes are really fast fashion
J: Yeah, it’s all stuff that falls apart really quickly and is made from plastics that are really bad for the environment. If you can find something without an evil parent company that does good products that you can afford then get that. But if it doesn’t exist, then there’s nothing that you can do about that.
C: You’re still making a good choice.
J: It’s so hard because everything’s owned by L’oreal.
J: I personally don’t think it’s a good idea because I think that you’re buying into the idea that we need animal products. I think it’s better to set an example where you have a beautiful, happy, healthy life without using any animal products. There’s that company that uses hens that have been saved from a factory farm and if they “happen” to lay eggs then they just pick them off the ground and sell them to “vegans”. But I think this gives the impression that vegans are desperate for eggs, and in my experience that isn’t true. But it’s a grey area.
A: But at the same time I’m sure it’s true for some people. And isn’t that making the great be the enemy of the good? If you’re like, better to divorce yourself totally from it than have an ethical alternative.
J: That’s why I think that in those grey areas it’s a matter of personal choice. For me, the choice that I’m most comfortable with is to not use any animal products and separate myself as much as possible from animal exploitation.
A: What if you had a happy pet hen?
J: I just wouldn’t eat the eggs.
A: But, why not?
Do you feel like animals aren’t put here for us to use?
J: Yeah that’s exactly it. So, animal products in my mind are just not in the category of things that are food. You wouldn’t eat roadkill as a vegetarian – you could, but why would you?
A: Yeah, I used to think that I will occasionally buy meat as a treat but now I don’t enjoy it, it’s like carving a slice off my dog or something. I think about it and it repels me.
J: I feel the same.
C: Are you really strict with it? Because a lot of vegetarians eat haribo.
J: Yeah I am really strict with it, and some Food Sharers who are vegans will eat skipped food with animal products (food saved from the bin) but I won’t.
C: And within the vegan community, is there judgement about it?
J: Occasionally, because just like any fringe lifestyle choice you do get some slightly extreme people latching onto it, but the majority of people aren’t judgemental. No vegans I know in real life are.
C: And outside of the vegan community has anyone been confrontational? Has anyone been annoyed or angry about it?
J: My extended family sometimes.
C: Do they think you’re just being fussy?
J: Yeah, they don’t get it. I am in quite a sheltered community because my friends are all environmentalists, I work at like, an environmentalist social enterprise cooperative full of hippies so I never have problems really. I love the Vegan Edinburgh Glasgow facebook group and people do use that to moan about the omni people in their life so I think it is more difficult for other people.
A: Ugh, that’s so condescending.
J: It’s just people venting when co-workers are belittling them or giving them shit for being vegan and I think actually it’s important to have that outlet, especially for people who don’t have that support in real life that I have.
J: Yeah, I still wear my leather jacket. I can understand why some people wouldn’t or how it could be perceived as perpetuating the idea that leather is trendy and fashionable but it feels wasteful not to.
C: And then that would feed into the idea that you need to be rich to become a vegan. After all this I can see that you’re right but I’m still resisting. How would you advise getting over that resistance?
J: I would do veganuary. Do a month or something, like a vegan dryathlon and see how you feel.
A: I think that would be too much of a jump for me. At the moment I would just do what I am trying to do which is eat vegan more. The way people do meat free Mondays. I’m trying to eat less dairy. I think if I tried to do something like dry January with animal products I would feel like I am setting myself up to fail because it’s such a big transition. I would personally rather be more flexible.
J: I mean, whatever works for you. Everyone’s journey is different.
C: That makes sense to use up whatever you already have in your cupboard.
J: We did that as well when we did veganuary. We ate all the stuff we had that wasn’t vegan and then just replaced it with non-animal products as and when it ran out.
C: Is there any particular thing where you don’t actually like the vegan version? Because I don’t like soy milk. I’ve tried really hard!
A: I don’t like quorn.
J: I can’t think of anything. James hates vegan mayo but he hates regular mayo as well.
[Edit: there are actually some really disgusting vegan cheeses out there. But there are some incredible ones too so it’s worth hunting around! I like Nutcrafter Creamery best.]
A: I don’t really see the point in vegan faux dairy products, or vegetarian faux meet. Just eat the things you can eat. I eat a lot of really delicious vegan meals but I don’t like the ones that pretend to be something else. I ate some vegan mac and cheese recently and I was like, ughhh.
J: I never make fake meat or cheese for myself – asides from the cheese sauces I make out of cashews – but I love it when I eat out. There’s so much good vegan junkfood in Scotland and I always get vegan hot dogs and burgers.
T: Do you find that there’s less stuff that you can store, since there’s less freezer stuff and it seems like it gravitates towards being fresh?
J: It depends on what sort of things you eat. I don’t eat a lot of frozen food, but I will usually have chips, potato wedges, onion rings or hash browns in my freezer. A lot of the Tesco / Morrisons / Asda own brand veggie stuff is vegan as well. So is a lot of Linda Mccartney food, Fry’s or Amy’s is all stuff you can find in the supermarket.
A: What do you do for sweet things? It seems to me that any vegan nice desserts are so labour intensive. Like sweet potato brownies look like the take so long.
J: I love to bake anyway so I bake a lot of my own cakes. But it depends what you’re after. Coop doughnuts are vegan, so are their apple pies. Pretty much all own brand biscuits are vegan, so are Oreos. You can get Alpro puddings in even very small supermarkets. You can buy cereal bars, or those cake mixes in a box and just use soy milk and oil instead. You can eat dark chocolate, or most towns will have a health food shop with vegan chocolate. Vego is my favourite! In Edinburgh, there are lots of places where you can just buy vegan cake so that’s easy.
A: Does the way that feel about veganism from an animal rights point of view influence the way you feel about pets?
J: Yes. Just that, I don’t think you should buy pets from breeders. I do think it’s fine to have them if they’re adopted. But also, you see people treat their pets as if they are just objects there for there own amusement. Rather than these separate beings whose wishes you should respect.
A: Definitely. Like, I would say that most rabbit owners interact with rabbits against the rabbits will or the rabbit doesn’t enjoy the interaction. I think that you and your family and very mindful rabbit owners but generally I would almost make the sweeping statement that rabbits shouldn’t be pets because they don’t enjoy human interaction. I don’t think you should have any pets smaller than a dog or a cat because most of them are nocturnal and you’re fucking with their natural cycle being like, “entertain me!” during the day. I only like the reciprocal pet relationships.
J: What I like with Archie is that because he has that space, when he wants interaction he comes and find us and when he doesn’t he runs off down the other end of the garden.
A: Yeah and I guess that’s really consistent with being like, even with happy animals you shouldn’t take their products because they’re not there for you, in the same way that pets aren’t there for you.
C: It really surprised me earlier when you bought those apple pies because I didn’t know they were vegan. Is there anything else that really pleasantly surprised you?
J: Oreos! I ate so many oreos when I became a vegan, although I don’t eat them now because I don’t eat palm oil.
A: You don’t even eat ethical palm oil?
J: I’m not sure that ethical palm oil really exists.
C: Is there anything that really surprised you that it’s not vegan?
James: Toothpaste, condoms….
T: Is that because they’re tested on animals? Surely that’s not the case…
J: They are tested on animals! Obviously they don’t like, put them on the animals in that way but they test the material on animals to see if any of the ingredients are irritants. I should probably buy some cruelty free condoms online but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
[Edit – most condoms actually contain milk so even the ingredients are non-vegan. Luckily, there are some great vegan condom companies online.]
C: Do you find yourself feeling guilty about stuff like that?
James: I think you should.
J: Only if you know that it’s animal tested before you buy it. I think if you know about it and you know what the alternative is, then when you run out of the product that you’re currently using you should replace it with the cruelty free version. You should do your research, but it’s a gradual learning process and I think that’s fine.
A: There’s an endless list of moral imperatives that you can put on yourself.
C: How does it feel to think about your food or choices that much? I guess you get used to it. Obviously, I’m a vegetarian and I don’t think twice about it.
J: It’s the same for me. The transition period can be challenging but now when I go to a supermarket I don’t have to scan the labels because I already know what I can buy.
A: And then at home you just use what you have in your house. You don’t think “better not use those eggs!” because you just don’t buy eggs.
J: Obviously if you eat out then you have to think about it, but if you’re in the place where you live then you know which places cater for you.
Congrats if you got to the end of this long post! It was great to have a chat about the ins and outs of my lifestyle and I hope you find some of this interesting or useful. I think a lot of these concerns are common, especially for people who already cut out meat or have some sympathy for animal welfare. If you have any other questions for me, ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them!