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What Can Vegans Eat?

Vegans CAN eat anything, but choose not to eat certain things.

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Freshly baked vegan pistachio cookies on a cooling rack and baking tray, with red spatula.
One Girl In The Kitchen/Moment Open/Getty Images
Updated June 16, 2014

Vegans are often asked, "What can you eat?" "Can you eat this cookie?" "Can you eat this bread?"

What Can Vegans Eat?

Ethical vegans can eat anything, but choose, not to eat animal products. Veganism is not about sacrifice, and it's not involuntary like a food allergy. It's a conscious decision not to participate in animal exploitation any longer. Veganism has been compared to a boycott, since it is a boycott of animal products. It has also been compared to being a conscientious objector, who holds a deep ethical or religious belief in opposition to animal exploitation.

This is an important distinction, because it shows that veganism is a choice that anyone can make. You don't have to be born vegan; you just have to decide that you no longer want to violate the rights of other animals.

So the better question to ask a vegan would be, "Is this bread vegan?" or "Do you eat these cookies?" (Of course the question that most vegans would love to hear is, "How can I go vegan, too?")

What Do Vegans Eat?

Vegans eat a wide variety of plant-based foods, including vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts and seeds. These foods can include the obvious (salads, hummus, veggie burgers, pasta) and the not-so-obvious (vegan mac & cheese, Creole style seitan, tofu satay in coconut sauce, vegan chocolate chip bacon cookies).

But more commonly, people think about what vegans don't eat.

What Don't Vegans Eat?

Vegans do not eat animal products, such as meat, chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, whey, honey, or gelatin. There are also animal-based additives that may end up in processed foods in small quantities, such as albumin (from eggs), casein (from milk), carmine (crushed insects), or "confectioner's glaze" (shellac, the secretions of the lac beetle).

How Do I Know If It's Vegan?

Because of these often-hidden animal products, many vegans learn to become avid label-readers. To non-vegans and new vegans, the task of reading ingredients lists may seem daunting, but restaurants can be even more difficult. Your information is only as good as your server, who may not be getting the correct information from the chef, who may not understand what veganism is or may not be getting the correct information from her supplier.

The best way to make sure you're offering vegan food to a vegan friend is to ask your friend what he likes to eat, specifying recipes or brand names if necessary. Foods marked "vegan" are rarely incorrect, although I've seen so-called "veggie" foods that contained meat, and so-called "vegetarian" foods that contained fish. Foods that are marked "egg-free" or "dairy-free" may or may not be vegan because 1) it could still contain other animal products; and 2) it could still contain dairy.

If you're taking your friend out, a vegan or vegetarian restaurant is most reliable and probably preferable, but most Italian, Indian, Chinese, Ethiopian, Japanese, or Mexican restaurants can make a vegan meal, even if it's not on the menu. But even a diner can prepare salad, steamed vegetables (hold the butter!) and baked potatoes. If the waiter seems hesitant about asking the chef about ingredients or doesn't seem to care about your concerns, go elsewhere.

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