Frequently Asked Questions  

• Is a vegan diet healthy?

• Will I get enough protein?

• B-12?

• Calcium?

• Hidden animal ingredients?

• Is refined sugar vegan?

• Is honey vegan?

• Organic or Non-Organic?

• What about "free range" eggs?

• Doesn't the Bible say we should be eating animals?

• Isn't it hard to go vegan?


Is a vegan diet healthy? As with any diet, a vegan diet requires planning. However, when properly planned, a vegan diet can be considerably healthier than the traditional American diet.

In its 1996 position paper on vegetarian diets, the American Dietetic Association reported that vegan and vegetarian diets can significantly reduce one's risk of contracting heart disease, colon and lung cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, obesity, and a number of other debilitating conditions. Cows' milk contains ideal amounts of fat and protein for young calves, but far too much for humans. And eggs are higher in cholesterol than any other food, making them a leading contributor to cardiovascular disease.

Vegan foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans, are low in fat, contain no cholesterol, and are rich in fiber and nutrients. Vegans can get all the protein they need from legumes (e.g., beans, tofu, peanuts) and grains (e.g., rice, corn, whole wheat breads and pastas); calcium from broccoli, kale, collard greens, tofu, fortified juices and soymilks; iron from chickpeas, spinach, pinto beans, and soy products; and B12 from fortified foods or supplements. With planning, a vegan diet can provide all the nutrients we were taught as schoolchildren came only from animal products.

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Will I get enough protein? Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, and Mark Messina, PhD, recommend that vegans receive 0.4 grams of protein per day for every pound of healthy body weight. If a vegan consumes adequate calories and eats a variety of foods, it is very difficult not to get enough protein. This is true for athletes as well. One need not combine foods at each meal to get "complete protein."

The most important plant sources of protein are legumes, soy foods, and nuts. Grains and vegetables also contain significant amounts of protein. Eat a variety of protein sources throughout the day: e.g, a legume (such as beans, tofu, or peanuts) combined with a grain (such as rice, corn, or whole wheat breads or pastas).

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B12? There has been much debate as to what plant foods supply an adequate source of B-12. Many products that were once thought to be adequate, such as tempeh, are no longer considered so. Fortunately, there are easy solutions for vegans. Vegetarian B-12 vitamin pills are available at most drug stores; the 'sublingual' form is preferable. In addition, some foods are fortified with B-12, including Red Star Nutritional yeast. We recommend that all vegans use one of these two methods to insure that they receive the proper amount of B-12.

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Calcium? Adequate intakes of calcium vary according to one's age:

1200 mg for age 50 or above
1000 mg for ages 19-49
800 mg for ages 4-8
500 mg for ages 1-3

A number of vegan foods contain high levels of calcium per serving:

calcium-set tofu (120-200mg per 0.5 cup)
fortified soymilk (200-300 mg per cup
dried figs (50 mg per fig)
fortified orange juice (250 mg per cup)
collard greens (180 mg per 0.5 cup)
sesame seeds (180 mg per 2 Tbsp)
baked beans (130 mg per cup)
broccoli (90 mg per 0.5 cup)
almonds (50 mg per 2 Tbsp)
kale (50 mg per 0.5 cup)

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Hidden animal ingredients? Labels often include unfamiliar ingredients that may or may not be derived from animals. If you are concerned about a particular ingredient, you can consult a comprehensive animal ingredients list. Our Vegan Certification Program is working to label many vegan foods in order to make shopping easier for vegan consumers. However, most vegan foods are not yet labeled as such. In general, we recommend that vegans concentrate their attention on the most obvious animal ingredients.

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Is refined sugar vegan? It depends on how you define 'vegan.' Refined sugars do not contain any animal products, and so by an ingredients-based definition of vegan, refined sugar is vegan. However, some refined sugar is processed with animal bone char. The charcoal is used to remove color, impurities, and minerals from sugar. The charcoal is not 'in' the sugar, but is used in the process as as a filter. Thus by a process-based definition of vegan, refined sugar may not be considered vegan. For those who would prefer not to use refined sugar, there are several alternatives: raw, turbinado, beet sugar, succanat, date sugar, fructose, barley malt, rice syrup, corn syrup, molasses, and maple syrup.

However, if one accepts a process-based definition of vegan, then many other familiar products would also not be considered vegan. For instance, steel and vulcanized rubber are produced using animal fats and, in many areas, groundwater and surface water is filtered through bone charcoal filters. So, is a box of pasta that contains no animal products, but has transported to the store in a steel truck on rubber wheels and then cooked in boiling water at your home, vegan? Under a process-based definition, possibly not. But according to such a definition, it would be difficult to find any products in this country that are vegan.

There is another point about definitions that comes to mind. Perhaps, in the above example, the pasta maker also makes an egg pasta. The same machinery is used, and traces of egg are in the 'vegan' pasta; would the pasta not be vegan?

Again, we recommend that vegans concentrate their attention on the most obvious animal ingredients. In our experience, concentrating on processing or on trace ingredients can make a vegan diet appear exceedingly difficult and dissuade people from adopting it.

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Is honey vegan? Again, it depends on one's definition of vegan. Insects are animals, and so insect products, such as honey and silk, are not traditionally considered vegan. Many vegans, however, are not opposed to using insect products, because they do not believe insects are conscious of pain. Moreover, even if insects were conscious of pain, it's not clear that the production of honey involves any more pain for insects than the production of most vegetables, since the harvesting and transportation of all vegetables involves many 'collateral' insect deaths.

The question remains a matter of scientific debate and personal choice. However, when cooking or labeling food for vegans -- particularly vegans you don't know -- it's best to be on the safe side and not include honey.

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Organic or non-organic? Although 'organic' foods may be preferred for many of the same reasons that vegan foods are (animal welfare, environmental quality, and health), a food is usually considered vegan regardless of whether or not it is organic.

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What about "free-range" eggs? A growing number of people are looking to "free-range" as an alternative to factory farm eggs. Eggs (and poultry) may be labeled as "free-range" if they have USDA-certified access to the outdoors. No other criteria, such as environmental quality, size of the outside area, number of birds, or space per bird, are included in this term. Typically, free-range hens are debeaked at the hatchery, have only 1 to 2 square feet of floor space per bird, and -- if the hens can go outside -- must compete with many other hens for access to a small exit from the shed, leading to a muddy strip saturated with droppings. Although chickens can live up to 12 years, free-range hens are hauled to slaughter the same as battery-caged hens, after a year or two. Free-range male chicks are trashed at birth, just as they are in factory farms. Although free-range conditions may be an improvement over factory-farm conditions, they are by no means free of cruelty.

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Doesn't the Bible say we should be eating animals? There are many different interpretations of the Bible. Among them is the view that Eden was the state-of-being that God desired for humanity, and in this state, Adam and Eve ate no animal products. Whatever the case, nowhere in the Bible does it say people are required to eat animal products. There are plenty of devout Christians and Jews who are vegan, and most theologians would agree that a benevolent God is not going to send someone to hell for being compassionate to animals.

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Isn't it hard to go vegan? It can be, especially if you hold yourself to too high a standard at first. But the important thing is to make changes you feel comfortable with, at your own pace. While reducing your consumption of animal products completely may be ideal, any reduction is a step in the right direction. Here's what Matt Ball, a long-time vegan advocate has written:

"The vegan lifestyle is an ongoing progression. Everyone should go at their own pace and remember that all steps towards veganism are positive. It is most important to focus on avoiding the products for which animals are bred and slaughtered. Animal by-products will exist as long as there is a demand for primary meat and dairy products. When it comes to avoiding items that contain small amounts of by-products, vegans must decide for themselves where to draw the line. Some vegans will adjust their level of abstinence according to the circumstances. For example, as a consumer, you might make sure the bread you buy is not made with whey; but as a dinner guest, you may accept bread without asking to see the ingredients. These types of compromises can actually hasten the spread of veganism, in that they help counter the attitude that it's very hard to be vegan."

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2002 Black Vegeterian Society