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Buying Vegan Foods: But Why Aren’t They All Labelled Vegan?

Updated on November 5, 2015

It's All Gravy

Photo credit: Rick (Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.)
Photo credit: Rick (Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.)

Is It Non-Vegan Or Does It Just Not Say?

Are you a vegan? Perhaps, like me, you’re a naughty carnivore but with a vegan loved one. Either way, there are some issues related to trying to follow a vegan diet which can really be extremely annoying. I don’t mean vegans themselves. God bless them and love them, I used to be one myself and I have the highest admiration for their dedication and discipline in following a policy of ahimsa.

No, when it comes to trying to buy vegan foods and stock up my larder, it’s the food manufacturers and retailers who really annoy me, and who can make becoming vegan such a chore. Do you know what I’m talking about? If you’ve been there then you will. I’m talking about food labelling, and vegan labelling and vegetarian labelling specifically.

Let me give you an example. My other half has been a loyal customer to Sainsbury’s supermarkets for many years, and one of the reasons is their vegetarian/vegan instant gravy mix. This stuff hasn’t changed for years: a big green tub, pics of veggies on the front, clearly labelled as suitable for vegans on the back. How can you lose? It is what it is and it fulfils the job description – being vegan gravy – admirably. Very tasty too.

But now what have they done? A few weeks back, hubby went to do the weekly food shop on his lonesome. And then he came back fuming, and gravyless. ‘Where’s the gravy, lover?’ I innocently asked him. And the reply, “You may well ask!” came back, before the whole sorry tale came tumbling out. Let me cut to the chase, because I think you may already have guessed: Mr S’s vegan gravy was vegan no more.

I Want Vegan Cookies NOW!

At least, it was ostensibly vegan no more. Because nothing on the list of ingredients had changed. Only the ‘vegan-friendly’ symbol was missing. But why? Was it now being made on a production line otherwise packed to the gills with dairy products? (Which some vegans might object to: some might not. You draw the line where you see fit.) Or had Sainsbury’s decided to source one of those mysterious E-numbers from some alternative, non-vegan-friendly source? Who knew? It didn’t say there on the tub. You start to wonder: are these apparently vegan foods vegan, or aren't they?

I guess manufacturers have a right to make their products exactly the way they see fit. And if a product has genuinely had non-vegan ingredients added, then I’m all for accuracy and honest information. But when my loved one made a few – rather persistent – phone calls and emails, it turned out that that wasn’t, in fact, the case. There had simply been ‘an error’ made regarding the packaging of the lovely brown stuff that should have been gracing our mashed potatoes all week.

Are vegans not men? Do they not breathe, laugh, bleed and eat gravy? I have to say I do sometimes suspect that the many instances of apparently vegan foods not being labelled as such is pure laziness, or perhaps a cost/benefit analysis. It’s a small niche market, is it really worth the time spent assessing whether a certain product meets its requirements… Probably not. But it's an omission that makes following a vegan diet so much more difficult than it needs to be.

Alternatively it may be concerns about the litigious nature of human scuzzballs. Make a vegan cookie on a line that normally pumps out milk chocolate digestives, and who knows whether some nutball is going to take it into her head to sue you? Add allergies and the possibility of medical documentation of damage done and you can see some manufacturers not wanting to put ‘vegan’ on their products without it being signed off in triplicate by the liability lawyers.

I see it up and down the cookie aisle: I’m the lady squinting at the packet of dark chocolate digestives, reading the packet ingredients over and over, asking myself how the hell can those ingredients NOT be vegan? Is it the sugar the manufacturers worry about? Sure, sugar can be a contentious issue, but in the UK at least it’s pretty damn hard to find sugar that isn’t vegan approved.

In the end, I understand the difficulties of food production and pleasing everyone, i.e. you can’t. But let me make a plea: can the manufacturers and retailers just try a little harder? You see, vegans, and people who are becoming vegan, are people like everybody else. And people need cookies.

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