How Do We Know the Vegan Foods We Buy Are Really Vegan?

Many supposedly vegan products on supermarket shelves still contain dangerous chemicals. (JG Photo/Diella Yasmine)

By : Diella Yasmine | on 1:07 PM June 22, 2018
Category : Life & Style, Food & Drink

Jakarta. Veganism is not all about the health benefits. For many, the driving forces behind deciding to go vegan may also include the desire to help create a more sustainable environment, reduce carbon footprints or stop cruelty against animals.

The definition of veganism itself, according to The Vegan Society who coined the term in 1944, is "a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."

In short, going vegan involves more than just cutting out meat and dairy products. It's a comprehensive lifestyle choice that strives to avoid animal cruelty and exploitation.

Many vegan festivals are now held in big cities in Indonesia like Jakarta and Bali. More vegan and vegetarian products are now available on supermarket shelves and many restaurants are becoming more vegan- and vegetarian-friendly.

Granted, it is much easier now to find vegan and vegetarian dishes and food products, but how can we be sure that the vegan products we buy are really vegan?

The head of World Vegan Organization Indonesia (WVO), Karim Taslim, said it might be hard to find out if products labeled "vegan" on supermarket shelves are actually ethically produced or genuinely vegan.

But there is a way for consumers to try to identify if a food product is genuinely vegan or not: by learning to read between the lines of the list of ingredients on food packaging and deciphering the meaning of the "E" numbers written on it.

E numbers are codes for substances that are permitted to be used as food additives for use within the European Union by the EFTA (European Food Safety Authority).

The E-code numbers indicate two types of ingredients – plant-based and animal-based.

Since most of the vegetarian products sold in local supermarkets come from European countries, consumers should look at these labels as a guide.

"If you're an ethical consumer and want to know what’s in the food you eat and feed your family with, the list might help you determine where the products really come from," Karim said.

The vegan E-code numbers include E100, E101, E101a for food colorings, E200, E201, E202 for food preservatives and E620, E621, E622 for flavor enhancers.

The animal-based E-code numbers include E441 (gelatine), E901 (beeswax – white and yellow) and E904 (shellac – resin from lac bug).

Since there are more than one hundred E-code numbers, Karim suggests customers should also check with the suppliers where they get their products from.

Plant Your Own Vegetables

Reading and deciphering E-code numbers can get confusing and, in any case, most frozen foods sold in our supermarkets would contain chemicals and preservatives anyway.

Karim encourages people to start planting their own vegetables and fruits at home to avoid dangerous chemicals in our food.

"Planting your own vegetables is part of the vegan lifestyle," Karim said.

Karim said some vegans not only plant their own vegetables and herbs at home but also recycle their food waste into compost, which can be used as fertilizers.

According to Karim, taking an interest in the origins of the food we consume will help us make better choices about what we put on our plate.

"When you grow your own food, you can control what types of fertilizers or pesticides that come in contact with it," Karim said.

Growing plants in a busy city might seem like an impossible task, especially for those who live in cramped flats in high-rise apartment blocks, but Karim said there are plenty of fruits and vegetables that can grow in tiny spaces, no backyard required.

"You just have to get creative," he said.

One way to grow vegetables effectively in tiny urban spaces would be by practicing hydroponics farming, or growing plants without implanting them in soil.

Buying fruits and vegetables from local traditional markets can also be an alternative to buying frozen vegan foods. But one has to keep in mind that not all farmers use organic pesticides.

"It's still very hard to find farmers who use exclusively organic fertilizers and pesticides. That’s why it's safer to grow our own food at home," Karim said.

But if you do buy your fruits and vegetables from the supermarket or traditional market, Karim said washing them with organic soap will help remove most of the chemicals.

When you're at a restaurant, it would not hurt to ask where it sources its ingredients and how the chefs cook them.

"Many vegan and vegetarian restaurants are very open about how they source and cook their food. You should definitely ask if you're not sure," Karim said.

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