Is that vegan?

Reflections on asking about food

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I’ve been reflecting on veg*anism lately, thinking about how it has affected me and how I want my dietary choices to develop over time.

It occurred to me that plant-based eating has a lot of benefits, but many of them aren’t directly experienced. For example, I’m confident that consuming a plant-based diet results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional diet, but I don’t perceive the difference myself. Long-term health benefits are similarly abstract.

Practicing veganism involves asking a lot of questions. In order to ascertain whether a food item contains animal products, I frequently ask, “Is this vegan?” This only sometimes yields helpful answers, as many people are unclear on the definition or interpretation of veganism, and/or have limited knowledge about the food in question. I sometimes ask targeted questions about specific ingredients instead. “Does this contain milk?” These questions are easier to understand, and at this point, people I ask will sometimes say yes or no, or check with someone else, or present me with product packaging so that I can see the ingredients list. But even after asking, information can still be pretty limited. Sometimes I don’t learn anything about the ingredients, and sometimes people aren’t very happy to have been asked. It doesn’t always feel good.

But I’m glad that I ask. Even when people don’t clearly identify vegan options, their responses can be helpful for filling in a broader picture of food cultures and systems. What information do food workers have about the food they work with? What are their roles in these systems? Which foods are purchased, and which are made there? From where do they purchase their food? How does a particular dish vary across cultures and geographies? By asking, I build my intuition for which things are likely to be plant-based, but more broadly, I deepen my understanding of the food systems on which I rely.

I also deepen my understanding of information systems when I ask about food. I often pose clarifying questions after consulting online resources like food vendor websites, Yelp, and HappyCow. Information about vegan options on these websites can be scarce or conflicting, so I occasionally do web searches for background information. Even when my prior knowledge is taken into account, things can be pretty inconclusive. Taking in information irl, like reading a posted menu or listening to a server’s statements, can lead me to notice inaccuracies in online listings. This can lead to broader consideration of the possibilities and limitations of modern-day online food listings. Which information is reliable? Who provided this information, and what motivated them to do so? These questions feel important to consider when evaluating information online in general.

Ultimately, I think the biggest benefit of asking these questions is a greater sense of connection to the world. By developing my understanding of food and information systems, I learn more about the realities of my existence. To name some examples, I become more aware of the role of agricultural workers, water policy, and nonhuman organisms. I feel gratitude, and awe.

Thus, asking questions about food can lead to learning and awareness, and thus a sense of connection. Plant-based eating has led me to continue asking questions, and to ask them more frequently. I think paying more attention to food systems can be a good place to start if you want to enrich your understanding of the world.

Thanks to my sister Aliza for the feedback on a draft of this post, and to Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, which definitely affected my thinking on this subject.