How Vegan? Ingredients vs. Activism
An Animal Rights Article from


Matt Ball, Co-founder, Vegan Outreach
July 2009

When I first got involved in animal rights around 1990, "How vegan?" had a simple answer Ė either something is vegan or it isnít. The way to tell was to compare all of the ingredients on every product against lists of all animal products. This list eventually became a book, Animal Ingredients A to Z, which for years was the best-selling book at

This simple means of defining "good" and "bad" attracted many of us because it was so straightforward. But even before the list began to grow into an encyclopedia, it was inconsistent. The production of honey kills some insects, but so does driving (and sometimes even walking). Many soaps contain stearates, but the tires on cars and bicycles contain similar animal products. Some sugar is processed with bone char, but so is much municipal water. And adding "not tested on animals" to the definition of vegan added a whole new level of complexity.

Still, it can be difficult to give up a black-and-white set of rules. Over the years, people have added "exceptions," definitions of "necessity," or claims of "intention" to save the laundry-list approach. But trying to have a hard definition of what is "vegan" is, ultimately, arbitrary. Even the production of organic vegetables injures and kills animals during planting, harvesting, and transport.

Of course, we could all "do no harm" by committing suicide and letting our bodies decompose in a forest. But short of this, the best path is to take a step back and consider why we really care whether something is vegan.

The question of "How vegan?" is important because the slaughter of animals for food is, by far, the most significant cause of suffering today, both in terms of the numbers and the level of cruelty inflicted.

The Numbers

Vastly more animals are raised and killed for food in the United States each year than for any other form of exploitation. Ninety-nine of every 100 animals killed annually in the United States are slaughtered for human consumption. Thatís 10 billion animals, more individuals than the entire human population of the Earth.

The Suffering

Animals raised for food endure unfathomable suffering. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of advocating on behalf of these animals is trying to describe the indescribable: the overcrowding and confinement, the stench, the racket, the extremes of heat and cold, the attacks and even cannibalism, the hunger and starvation, the diseaseÖthe horror of every day of their lives. Indeed, every year, hundreds of millions of animals Ė many times more than the total number killed for fur, in shelters, and in laboratories Ė donít even make it to slaughter. They actually suffer to death.

Effective Advocacy

Knowing this, the issue for thoughtful, compassionate people isnít, "Is this vegan?" Rather, the important question is: "Which choice leads to less suffering?" Our guide shouldnít be an endless list of ingredients, but rather doing our absolute best to stop cruelty to animals. Veganism is important, not as an end in itself, but as a powerful tool for opposing the horrors of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.

This moves the discussion away from finding a definition or avoiding a certain product, and into the realm of effective advocacy. In other words, the focus isnít so much our personal beliefs or specific choices, but rather the animals and their suffering.

If we believe that being vegan is important, being the most effective advocate for the animals must be seen as even more important! The impact of our individual veganism Ė several hundred animals over the course of a lifetime Ė pales in comparison to what we have the potential to accomplish with our example. For every person inspired to change their habits, the impact we have on the world multiplies!

Conversely, for every person we convince that veganism is overly demanding by obsessing with an ever-increasing list of ingredients, we do worse than nothing: we turn someone away who could have made a real difference for animals if they hadnít met us! Currently the vast majority of people in our society have no problem eating the actual leg of a chicken. It is not surprising that many people dismiss vegans as unreasonable and irrational when our example includes interrogating waiters, not eating veggie burgers cooked on the same grill with meat, not taking photographs or using medicines, etc.

Instead of spending our limited time and resources worrying about the margins (cane sugar, film, medicine, etc.), our focus should be on increasing our impact every day. Helping just one person change leads to hundreds fewer animals suffering in factory farms. By choosing to promote compassionate eating, every person we meet is a potential major victory.

Hard Questions and Results

Admittedly, this results-based view of veganism is not as straightforward as consulting a list. Areas of concern range from the example we set to the allocation of resources, asking questions such as: Do I bother asking for an ingredient list when with nonveg friends and family, perhaps not eating anything, and risk making veganism appear petty and impossible? How should I spend or donate my limited money and time?

Situations are subtle and opportunities unique, thus there can be no set answers. But if our decisions are guided by a desire to accomplish the most good, we each have enormous potential to create change.

It is not enough to be a righteous vegan, or even a dedicated, knowledgeable vegan advocate. The animals donít need us to be right, they need us to be effective. In other words, we donít want to just win an argument with a meat eater, we want to open peopleís hearts and minds to a more compassionate lifestyle.

To do this, we have to be the opposite of the vegan stereotype. Regardless of the sorrow and outrage we rightly feel at the cruelties the animals suffer, we must strive to be what others want to be: joyful, respectful individuals, whose fulfilling lives inspire others. Only then can we do our best for the animals.

Return to Animal Rights Articles