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A Glossary Of Terms For Vegetarians And Vegans

Various people have abstained from animal products for thousands of years, but our vocabulary for them is relatively new.
A Glossary Of Terms For Vegetarians And Vegans

Vegetarians and vegans are not new to this world. The earliest accounts of vegetarianism go all the way back to Ancient Greece, where it was described by the mathematician Pythagoras (of Pythagorean Theorem fame). Various cultures around the world have long had a tradition of abstaining from certain animal products. There’s no doubt, however, that the practice has become more mainstream in many English-speaking countries in the past few decades. And with that popularity has come a whole slew of new words to talk about the phenomenon.

If you’re somewhat new to meatless lifestyles, the vocabulary can be daunting. Figuring out the difference between a vegetarian and a flexitarian, or what exactly it means to drink alternative milk, can be confusing for anyone. Here, we’ll break down many terms involving vegetarianism and veganism (both new and old), which will help you whether you’re meatless-curious or just hoping to navigate the grocery store better.

Terms For Different Types Of Vegetarians And Vegans

Vegetarian and vegan are the two words you’ll most commonly hear, but they’re not the only ones. Many other labels have been developed to describe people’s various relationships with animal products. While some people want to avoid animal products entirely, others have found different ways to engage with them for moral, religious or health reasons.

vegetarian — while vegetarianism in different forms has been around for thousands of years, the word “vegetarian” didn’t appear in English until the 19th century. It came into popular use after the Vegetarian Society of Ramsgate (England) formed in 1847. Vegetarians can each observe the practice in their own way, but the most basic definition is that a vegetarian is someone who avoids eating meat and other byproducts of animal slaughter. They may still consume other animal products, like eggs, milk, etc.

vegan — this word was coined in 1944 by animal-rights activist Donald Watson. He founded the Vegan Society, and invented the word to describe the kind of vegetarian that avoids all animal products and byproducts. Still, not every vegan is the same. Some might eat honey, for example, while others might not. Again, it comes down to individual choice.

raw vegan — the intersection of veganism and raw foodism, which is a diet that involves eating mostly raw foods (or, at best, heated over low temperatures). 

pescatarian — someone who avoids most animal products, but who will eat seafood. Historically, religion has been a big reason for the exception. Even today, the ban on eating meat in the Catholic Church during Lent doesn’t include fish. 

fruitarian — as you can guess, fruitarianism is a diet mainly based on fruit, as well as other raw vegetables and nuts. Some fruitarians believe you should only eat foods that have naturally fallen from plants, while others are basically vegetarians that skew toward the fruit side of things.

ovo- and lacto- vegetarians — “lacto” and “ovo” are both words that let people know where you stand on dairy and eggs. Lacto vegetarians consume dairy, ovo vegetarians consume eggs, and lacto-ovo vegetarians eat both.

flexitarian — some people want to have a largely plant-based diet without ruling out ever eating meat or dairy products. They might claim the title “flexitarian” to let people know that while they mostly stick to fruits and vegetables, they’re flexible.

Veganuary — this is a portmanteau of “vegan” and “January.” Veganuary is a UK nonprofit campaign that was held for the first time in January 2014. The main event of the month is encouraging people to give up animal products for 31 days to show that veganism is an attainable lifestyle.

Terms For Alternative Foods

A lot of vegetarian diets rely on the fruits and vegetables that already exist in nature, but food companies have started to catch on to the growing popularity of avoiding animal products. The arrival of new grocery products has led to a host of new terms to familiarize yourself with. Here are some of the hottest words and phrases you may run into when shopping.

alternative milks — the alternative milk industry has been growing rapidly over the past year, whether it’s milk made from oats, almonds, cashews or anything else. The word “milk” here is a little loose, because these products aren’t related to the animal (or human) byproducts we call milk. Instead, they’re liquids that can be used the same way cow milk can, like in coffee or baking. The dairy industry has made efforts to restrict the use of the word “milk” to dairy products, but it’s so far been unsuccessful.

aquafaba — one of the biggest challenges for vegans is finding replacements for eggs, which are integral in many, many recipes. In 2014, French singer Joël Roessel discovered a substance that could work as a useful mock egg: canned bean juice. While it may sound odd, the proteins in the liquid that is used to preserve beans has properties that make it a solid replacement. And while Roessel gets the credit for discovery, it was a Facebook group of vegans that experimented with the liquid and found its many uses. Wondering about the name? It’s Latin: aqua for water, and faba for beans.

impossible burgers and beyond meats — the words “impossible” and “beyond” are somewhat unavoidable when talking about meat alternatives. You might even think they’re generic phrases, but they’re not. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are two companies creating meatless “meats,” each using different blends of plant proteins. While they aren’t the only two companies making plant-based meat, they are certainly the two largest, and their name recognition grows every time a new fast food chain partners with one of them. 

cultured meat — a growing trend among companies looking for animal alternatives is lab-grown meat, or cultured meat. They’re meats grown from cell cultures, which may or may not be “vegetarian” depending on how an individual views the use of animal cells. Cultured meat is still in its early days — the first sale was in Singapore back in December 2020 — but many see it as a way to escape the many problems of factory farming.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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