The problem with vegetarianism is that the definition has become blurred; eating fish or animal-based foods has somehow found its place under the vegetarian umbrella. People who don’t think about the exact ingredients that go into their foods sometimes have a problem discerning what is and isn’t appropriate for a vegetarian or vegan dish. Fish is easy to avoid, even if someone tries to serve it to you, because it is easy to identify on your plate. Where the issue gets muddled is when you get into animal-based flavorings or condiments; they aren’t visually apparent. Are you still a vegetarian if you consume chicken broth? I think the real difficulty is that people perceive vegetarians as simply not eating meat; so as long as there isn’t a hunk of meat on their plate it should be fine, right? But chicken broth isn’t a byproduct of an animal like milk or cheese, which vegans exclude and vegetarians don’t, it is made with chicken meat, therefore it is a meat-based food even if you can’t see it on the plate.
Soups are the worst offender. The cafe at my work has such a hard time defining for me what foods are vegetarian or vegan. They label everything on the menu with a V for vegetarian and a V² for vegan but each week the exact same dishes fluctuate in their labeling. Soups with chicken broth are labeled as vegetarian; I used to love this Thai rice noodle and tofu dish but some weeks the menu would label it as vegetarian and some weeks as vegan. I finally asked the server about it and it turns out the dish used fish broth so it was neither vegetarian or vegan.
I am not saying that people shouldn’t have control of their own diet. Every vegetarian, every person in fact, has to define for her or himself just what she or he is willing to eat and why. But when it comes to public food service in grocery stores, prepared foods, and restaurants the rules for vegetarian and vegan ingredients need to be clearly defined. And when it comes to friends who misguidedly ask if I can have cheese ravioli, I think the biggest impact vegetarians and vegans alike can have on their friends is to change their perception one at a time. A simple and kind-worded explanation is all it takes to clear the air. I try to lead by example and show my friends that what I eat is healthy, filling, tasty, and fun.
It might be time to move past the word vegan and onto a word that more aptly and clearly defines my diet. The term ‘plant-based’ is where I think we should be heading; the explanation is in the title. I only eat foods derived from plants and ‘plant-based’ says it all in two little words.