A quick trip to the grocery store is not as simple as it used to be. Every aisle is filled with products claiming to be the best, the healthiest, the highest quality, and product labels are often misleading or confusing at best. Understanding what exactly is meant by certain labels on food makes us all smarter consumers and empowers us to make better choices for our health, so in this installment of Simple Food Terms Explained, we’d like to introduce you to a term that you’ve likely seen more and more on food products at your local grocery store: certified vegan or vegan.

Get to know the major differences between a vegan and vegetarian diet, learn what type of regulations are in place for labeling products as vegan and the health implications of a vegan lifestyle to decide if vegan products are a good choice for your diet and lifestyle.

Vegan vs. Vegetarian

The biggest difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet is that vegetarians primarily abstain from eating meat that comes from beef, poultry, and fish, while vegans adhere to a much stricter diet that prevents the consumption or use of any food or product made with an animal product of any kind.

To that end, a vegan diet eliminates completely the use and consumption of any animal products including honey, fur, eggs, dairy, meats, products that are tested on animals, and more. Vegans are able to consume plants and plant-based products, nuts, and other non-animal foods.

Many pursue a vegan diet not just for health reasons, but also based on personal or ethical beliefs about how animals should be treated. Because of these restrictions, vegan consumers have to be more careful than typical consumers about reading labels on products to avoid accidental consumption of an animal product.

Vegan Labels and Certifications

Unlike organic products that can be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture, there are no standardization or labeling requirements aside from voluntary certification programs to determine whether a product meets vegan standards. These voluntary certifications cost money to participate in and are not required, so a lot of companies choose to opt out and list products as vegan-friendly without any type of certification, seal, or official label to confirm the claim.

You can do a little sleuthing on your own when a product does not have an official seal or certification to check if the item truly is vegan; look at the ingredient list for any type of animal product or byproduct or search for the product website for more information or ingredients if they are not listed on the label.

Until stronger regulatory standards are established, be wary of products that claim to be vegan in an attempt to appear healthy or safe. Just because a product is free of animal traces does not mean that it is the best option for your health.

Veganism and Your Health

The term vegan, much like the word organic, is whitewashed in the assumption that anything considered vegan or organic is healthy and can be consumed without thinking twice. Sidestep that assumption and keep in mind that just because a product is labeled vegan or organic does not mean that it is good or even healthy.

For example, most cane sugar is considered vegan because it is animal and animal-product free, but most health professionals will agree that sugar is not the healthiest sweetener available at grocery stores today. On the flip-side, because most vegan foods are strongly rooted on the basis of animal preservation and sustainable eating practices, it does happen that plenty of vegan foods are less processed, more holistic, and healthy if eaten in moderation.

As is true with many diets, a vegan lifestyle is a healthy step for some, but it is always important to consult your healthcare professional before making any major changes to your diet.

The Takeaway

The three important things to remember about the food term vegan are:

  1. Vegans and vegetarians vary in what they eat because vegan consumers do not eat or use any product that contains or uses animal products.
  2. Vegan claims are not regulated in the United States so it’s important to read labels or do a little research to ascertain that the product truly is vegan.
  3. Vegan foods can be just as unhealthy as regular foods so keeping other nutritional rules like recommended daily values in mind when shopping for vegan products in mind is still important.

Now that you understand exactly what the term vegan means, you can choose for yourself whether adding vegan products to your diet is the right choice. Everyone has different dietary needs, so understanding the meaning behind common labels is a useful way to make informed decisions about food and begin to craft a diet that suits your individual needs.