We’re back with our new imperfect vegan series of posts where we're discussing many of those gray areas that appear on all of our journeys when going vegan. The idea is that we embrace the notion that all vegans are “imperfect” and how that’s a good thing, especially when it comes to helping animals. So often in this current cultural climate in which so much policing is going on, there is this focus on making pure and perfect choices. This has seeped into veganism as it has into many other movements, and the result is often the opposite of what we’re intending to do when we make kinder choices with our food and daily habits.
Today we’ll be discussing what it means when we turn a product around to check the ingredients, and the label states something along the lines of, “may contain traces of… [eggs, shellfish, milk, etc.]”. This is an important part of the nutritional label of a product mainly for people who are allergic to certain ingredients. People with severe allergies to a particular food need to be informed that the food may contain them, even in small amounts, but my hope is that after today’s post you understand that avoiding products that are otherwise vegan except for “traces of”, is not only unnecessary, but it can even go against our goal of creating change for animals, our environment and can definitely have a negative impact on our emotional health as well. No matter what your motivation for going vegan was, it’s time to peel back that “purity” coat of paint some of us have brushed all over the experience.
What does “traces of…” mean?
A lot of strict regulations exist when creating a label for a product, especially when it comes to nutritional information and possible allergens, of which many non-vegan products are (eggs, milk, shellfish, are some examples). This means that a company must add the disclaimer if there’s any possibility of either cross contamination or the accidental presence of a trace of a product. In the practical sense, it can mean that the product you’re holding in your hand, even when absent of animal products in the recipe itself, was processed in a facility that also makes products that contain animal ingredients, or where the company can’t guarantee absence of accidental cross contamination.
Why we still consider a product that contains “traces of”, a vegan product
Veganism is not about purity or perfection. This movement started with the desire to protect animals used and abused for food. Now we also know that being vegan has an impact on our health, our environment, as well as our fellow human beings, and purity or perfection is also counter productive when it comes to these other motivations for going vegan.
By staying away from vegan products that are produced by companies or in facilities that also make animal products, we are saying that the production of products that vegans are willing to consume needs to have such extreme standards of purity that it will definitely not be worth it for businesses to produce them. This means vegan options become limited, it means vegan options won’t reach smaller communities that need the massive distribution larger companies provide, it means restaurants will eliminate vegan options from menus if they have to worry about these standards of perfection too.
Why it harms the movement to avoid products with this disclaimer
A very helpful question I’m going to ask you to ask yourself throughout this entire series is “what will help animals the most?”, this could also technically be asked for any other motivations, but since animals are the reason this whole movement originated, and my personal reason for going vegan, let’s start there.
The second you ask yourself this question, many habits related to being perfect and not letting a single drop of an animal product cross your lips, begin to be seen under a different light. The moment you ignore what would be most helpful in the long run, and instead focus on purity or the need to be a “perfect vegan”, you are mistaking the destination of this journey being that of a kinder, more sustainable world, with making it all about the individual. Nothing will benefit the animals, the environment and in turn us, more than having a lot of people make a lot of choices that respect animals and the world we live in.
For that we need lots of visible options at restaurants for people to see that it’s not that hard to make more vegan choices.
For that we need lots of products found in all kinds of stores, not just health food stores in large cities, that offer vegan products even when produced in facilities that make animal products.
For that we need products that are less expensive, which often happens when companies can expand and very large numbers of a product are sold.
For that we need our friends and family to know that feeding us at family dinners or parties is not only doable but there are so many products and options to choose from where they already shop.
For that we need to let go of the pressure we make ourselves feel when we try to be perfect, obsessing over labels, and feeling stress over what to eat, which almost always means people eventually give up this very positive way of eating.
For that we need to vote with our dollars and show companies that these are the products that we want, and slowly with time, as these purchasing choices grow as they’ve been doing in recent years, many businesses will turn to a focus on plant based products because it’s what people are demanding, and maybe then towards changing to being a fully vegan producer. It’s already starting to happen, and it’s all because we’re doing our best, not because we’re label sergeant generals.
What if our motivation isn’t the animals?
The first thing I would say if this is a question you ask yourself frequently, is, that looking into what animals go through in these industries is important. We underestimate just how much internal motivation can come from learning just how much another living being can suffer because of a purchasing choice we make. If you’re already making many of your meals or food options vegan, learning about animals can be so empowering and it can take these choices to another level of understanding and respect over the choices you’re making. Having said this, if this isn’t part of your experience yet or you don’t feel ready, the same flexibility that should come with these purchasing choices will also positively impact the environment and your health.
Purchasing these products means you’re spending your money on an option where no animals were bred or raised for the specific purpose of creating what you’re buying (i.e. the ingredient is not part of the recipe).
It means that alternative, plant based resources were the ones chosen to create it, which means there is a huge impact on sustainability and a purchasing decision that protects the environment.
Traces of animal products in an otherwise vegan product will not negatively impact our environment, it will tell that company “yes! I want more products like these that are made with plants instead of animals”.
Not focusing on purity or perfection when it comes to ingredients also benefits our health. When we can step out of stress mode, and have a more flexible approach to our food choices, we improve our relationship with food, we add nuance and learn to live in the gray, which in turn prevents us from falling into disordered eating, or a battle to attempt perfect health through food, often a pursuit that when taken to these extremes backfires and can be really harmful.
Unless you have an allergy to a product, use this sentence in the back of a package as a great opportunity to remind yourself that you are an “imperfect” vegan, as all of us are, and that living in the gray right now, means you are in that very special place where change begins to happen, one purchasing choice at a time. Use it as an excuse to flex that flexibility muscle, as I like to say, and show the people around you that even through imperfections, being vegan gets easier and easier with every passing day, and that there’s no need to become a drill sergeant. You can just be you and do your best.
If you’re interested in learning more about this issue, I highly recommend the position paper on Traces of animal substances in vegan/vegetarian food by the European Vegetarian Union. It goes into a bit more detail, and has a great section towards the end talking about how these possible small amounts of animal products won’t affect many scenarios that vegans or vegetarians are concerned about.
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