Before jumping into this post, a short detour:
Some people go vegan for ethical reasons. Others, like Bill Clinton, opt to go vegan for health reasons. For these individuals, those five letters are a highly prized discovery – a way to ensure that their food purchase is aligned with their values.
For many others though, the word “vegan” causes an immediate shutdown of all appetite-stimulating hormones. This gut instinct by some of our endocrine systems has had a powerful influence on food marketing, with some food retailers deeply concerned about losing “omnivore business.” The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about Jennie Scheinback, a bakery owner in Ohio who hoped using the word “vegan” would set her apart from competitors. Instead, while the local “population of hard-core vegans loved her pastries, others who wandered into the store refused to even try them.” Scheinback scaled back her vegan messaging and has since seen her business improve.
There are vegan bakery owners who see such moves as selling out, saying that “if you’re not making people aware of food choices, you’re not going to change the world around you.” Frankly, unless you have a severe allergy to eggs or dairy, you’re more likely to change the world and your health by knowing that a cupcake is a sugary treat as opposed to knowing it’s vegan. It’s at this point – when bakers rally around one word to sell what’s essentially an unhealthy product – that you’ve got to wonder whether “vegan” has been co-opted by marketing minds hungry for the next food trend.
What exactly are people trying to convince us of when they market their product “vegan?” A lot, but there is only one absolute truth that holds for this word: it means that no animal products were used. It doesn’t mean it was made by a hippie, or that it has a bunch of strange ingredients, or even that the food is healthy (french fries fried in peanut oil are 100% vegan). When it comes down to it, vegan isn’t a marketing term, it’s just a way to describe the origin of ingredients.