Defining "Vegetarian"
December 31, 2017 12:01 PM   Subscribe

I have a question about the definition of "vegetarian."

I became an ovo-lacto vegetarian almost twenty years ago, but I do not think I have ever fully understood the lingo of the culture.

The only animal products I (knowingly) eat are cheese and eggs (eggs as in pasta and cookies, not eggs as in quiche or scrambled). I don't eat anything seasoned with meat, or containing animal broth or gelatin.

So for me, I guess I always thought that "vegetarian" basically meant "food derived from animals where the animal did not have to die." Therefore in my mind, if a dish contains, for example, chicken broth, it is not vegetarian. Vegan, on the other hand, obviously means no animal products at all.

However, I was recently in a restaurant, and I saw a dish on the menu that was listed as "vegetarian," but the server told me it contains chicken broth.

I am absolutely willing to admit that the 4ster definitions are too narrow or otherwise wrong. I am just interested in knowing how most people understand the term "vegetarian."

Thanks, as always, for your help. A special thanks from Mrs. 4ster for your help and for giving me a place to finally ask and resolve this question.
posted by 4ster to Food & Drink (44 answers total)
Your understanding is also mine.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:08 PM on December 31, 2017 [32 favorites]

I'm not a vegetarian, so I'm not as knowledgeable about these things as other people, but to me, chicken broth is absolutely not vegetarian.

But then, I once had someone tell me that eating mussels is vegan. So I guess there's a lot of variation in definitions.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:09 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would expect something listed as vegetarian on a menu to contain no meat or fish of any kind, including broth. But eggs and dairy are OK unless it claims to be vegan.

Informally, people might be more or less strict in their personal diets, but that’s what I would assume was the commonly understood meaning. I’m in the UK, if that’s relevant.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:09 PM on December 31, 2017 [13 favorites]

I have never heard of any definition of vegetarian that includes chicken anything. Vegetarian to me means no meat, whereas vegan means nothing that came from animals.

I think the restaurant was probably thinking that broth comes from the bones so it's not technically chicken meat and therefore vegetarian. But I still think it's kind of misleading and not in line with common understanding of the terms.
posted by bleep at 12:11 PM on December 31, 2017 [17 favorites]

They were just wrong. While Vegetarian can mean doesn't eat eggs - it never means I eat Chicken.

Vegetarian at last means doesn't eat mammals. Sometimes people use the phrase when they eat fish. Sometimes use it when they are closer to "vegan".

But vegetarians don't eat chicken. Even when it is just the broth from water being soaked in said dead animal.
posted by ReluctantViking at 12:11 PM on December 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

I would NOT consider anything containing dead animal products vegetarian. I would tell the restaurant and probably post a review online. People don’t eat dead animal products for many reasons and calling it vegitarian is highly misleading. (I am newly vegetarian I would pissed and also possibly get sick from that due to stomach issues.)
posted by Crystalinne at 12:11 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have a Japanese friend who is vegetarian and considers chicken broth to be vegetarian. Maybe this is a Japanese thing? Maybe some folks think that animal flesh is unacceptable, but other products are okay?

Mussels are absolutely not vegan by any definition I've heard, so I don't know what's up with that.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:12 PM on December 31, 2017

Vegetarian means no animals died for the food. Vegan means no animal products even if the animal didn't die (therefore, honey isn't vegan and neither are eggs or milk).

There is no definition of vegetarian that includes chicken broth. You are right. The menu was wildly wrong.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:12 PM on December 31, 2017 [14 favorites]

There certainly might be some casual vegetarians that would overlook chicken broth, because it's ubiquitous, but it's no more vegetarian than eating a buffalo wing. I mean it's usually very dilute, but nevertheless, you can't make it without chicken parts.
posted by ftm at 12:15 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree with your definition, 4ster. A "vegetarian" dish that contains chicken broth is not vegetarian. It sounds like something you'd get from a chef that thought vegetarianism was nonsense or a culture/country where vegetarianism wasn't common or well-known.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:16 PM on December 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

However, I was recently in a restaurant, and I saw a dish on the menu that was listed as "vegetarian," but the server told me it contains chicken broth.

This would strike me as strange and slightly infuriating. I understand a "vegetarian" to be someone who avoids animal products derived from the body of an animal; flesh, bone, and organs are not vegetarian, and all of those might be used for making stock.

But you're running into the "problem" with language. There's no vegetarian committee that decides what does and doesn't meet the definition of "vegetarian." The meaning of the word is based on convention--and as with most conventions, even when the convention is strong you'll find some people who don't follow it.

A minority of people understand "vegetarian" to mean "not containing meat." Chicken broth doesn't contain meat, so it's vegetarian! These people aren't vegetarian, in my experience. They've never thought about the meaning of the word beyond the shallowest "is the protein chicken or tofu" type of description.

There are also some people who are just very ignorant about food. I would be surprised if this was true of people creating menus for a restaurant, but there are legitimately people out there who don't know that chicken stock contains actual chicken. They think it's artificial flavoring, or have just never given it any thought at all.

In any case, you're right: Chicken broth is not vegetarian according to the vast majority of people. A restaurant that advertises a dish as vegetarian when it actually contains chicken broth has not communicated effectively with their customers and they should remove the "vegetarian" descriptor from the dish.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:21 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

No, it's not vegetarian. But this kind of thing is common enough that I simply avoid soup/broth when eating at restaurants that are not vegetarian or vegan as a whole.

Another issue is seafood. This almost never happens to me at home in California, but elsewhere - especially abroad - I have to be prepared for the possibility that a "vegetarian option" might contain fish.
posted by desert outpost at 12:24 PM on December 31, 2017

I have occasionally seen and used ‘meatless’ as a word for dishes that have broth made from animals but no actual animal muscle/meat.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:25 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I tend to assume most self-described vegetarians are ovo-lacto (but I wouldn't serve dairy or eggs without asking) and I believe your definition is how most folks understand the term. If a dish made with chicken (fish, geletain, etc) is "vegetarian", the term is virtually meaningless.

(Was an ovo-lacto vegetarian for 30 years.)
posted by she's not there at 12:29 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

People don't always know all the same things. It's a fundamental truth, and problem, in society.
posted by amtho at 12:32 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Chicken broth is not vegetarian, but lots of people have no understanding of what vegetarian means. I’m guessing that’s the case here. A friend was once served a turkey sandwich because she was vegetarian. Some people think vegetarians eat chicken. This is just wrong, as is the not uncommon idea that vegetarians eat fish. Some vegetarians say they don’t eat anything with a mother or a face.

Ovo-lacto vegetarians eat eggs and milk, but no meat or fish. People eating a vegan diet eat no animal products - so definitely not mussels. Vegan really means you try not to use animal products at all - so no leather or wool or toiletries with animal ingredients. So it’s clearer to say you eat a vegan diet if you otherwise use animal products. (I say “try” because it is literally impossible to live in the modern world and avoid all animal products.)

Also, it is not accurate to say that ovo-lacto vegetarians eat a diet where the animal doesn’t die. All egg- and dairy-producing animals are eventually slaughtered for their meat, and those animals only exist because people eat milk and eggs. Also, the males of those species are useless to industry, so most of them are killed at young ages. Not saying it isn’t a valid choice to be ovo-lacto vegetarian, but people who make that choice for ethical reasons should be aware.
posted by FencingGal at 12:40 PM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

In case anyone is interested, here is a primary source espousing that eating oysters and mussels is consistent with ethical veganism, using the word ‘ostrovegan’ for specificity. I have no horse in this fight, just providing food for thought and a reference for those who have never heard of the notion.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:48 PM on December 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

I work in food industry, handling regulatory affairs and labelling for large retailers, and checking whether products qualify for a vegetarian or vegan logo is something I do all the time. Chicken in any form or quantity as an ingredient would absolutely disqualify anything from being labelled vegetarian; as a matter of fact, even additives such as emulgator E471 need to be plant based to qualify as vegetarian according to our current rule book.

Eggs, dairy, honey and eg. vitamin D derived from sheep's wool are allowed in our main client's vegetarian products, but not in vegan ones. (They actually demand that eg. none of the fertilizers used during the cultivation process are of animal origin for the product to be entered in the system as suitable for vegans.)

Anyway, I agree with your definition, and I'm pretty certain most vegetarians would. But IME, it's not uncommon for people who aren't familiar with vegetarianism to eg. confuse it with avoiding red meat, and subsequently consider fish or chicken as suitable for vegetarians. Strangely enough, this sometimes happens even in restaurants.
posted by sively at 1:00 PM on December 31, 2017 [20 favorites]

As a pescetarian who has been an ovo-lacto vegetarian for years, I support and share the 4ster definition of what 'vegetarian' means. It does not include chicken stock. Anything made with body part of animals is out.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:02 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree with you. I do think restaurants should be aware of that definition and they were in the wrong. If the server offered the information, then I think that's a good step. But if you had to ask, then that's even worse.

However when I was vegetarian, a lot of my older family members thought that mean no red meat. There's a scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding that kind of sums this up when the aunt of the bride learns the groom is vegetarian and says she'll cook him lamb. People are weird.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:05 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just a thought- how are bouillon cubes made? Are they actually boiled down stock or perhaps just artificial flavor? Maybe that’s why they consider it vegetarian?
posted by raccoon409 at 1:06 PM on December 31, 2017

I've been a vegetarian for, uh, 17 years. I would agree with your definition--eschewing products of dead animals.

The only significant variation in the understanding of the word 'vegetarian' I am aware of is in India*, where 'vegetarian' without further elaboration means 'lacto-vegetarian' rather than 'lacto-ovo-vegetarian'. (There are also cultures where vegetarianism tends to coincide with avoiding certain plants, but you don't, afaik, have the situation as in India where something you and I would consider vegetarian could be explicitly labeled as non-vegetarian.)

*I don't know if this holds true in South Asia generally.
posted by hoyland at 1:07 PM on December 31, 2017

Just a thought- how are voulions cubes made? Are they actually boiled down stock or perhaps just artificial flavor? Maybe that’s why they consider it vegetarian?

Chicken bouillion cubes are not vegetarian.
posted by hoyland at 1:08 PM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Wow SaltySalticid, my acquaintance might not be full of it? Ha. This person has a history of questionable rationalizations when it's to their benefit, so I just assumed that their rationale was "I'm vegan, but I like the taste of mussels, so mussels are ok".
posted by kevinbelt at 1:08 PM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Dear fellow MeFites,

Thank you so much for your help, and for giving me a safe space to ask this question. I truly appreciate you taking time out of your day to answer my little quandary.

What happened in the specific restaurant that I mentioned is that I ate a meal labeled as "vegetarian," but the next time I went there, I asked what was the ingredient that made the meal vegetarian and not vegan, and the told me chicken broth. So I guess the answer is when in doubt, to ask the server and find out for sure.

Again, thank you so very much. This has been very helpful.
posted by 4ster at 1:12 PM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

nthing, as a former veg, chicken broth is NOT vegetarian
posted by supermedusa at 1:24 PM on December 31, 2017

I think its not uncommon for some Asian cuisines to label a dish as "vegetarian" despite containing fish sauce. I would not consider that vegetarian, but yeah cultural differences YMMV.
posted by supermedusa at 1:30 PM on December 31, 2017

I used to go to a pho place where the "vegetarian" pho was the same meat broth w tofu and no added meats, but the "vegan" pho was a vegetables only broth. I thought it was weird, but labelled, so whatever
posted by atomicstone at 2:00 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know any vegetarians that would define chicken broth as vegetarian. My vegetarian roommate has encountered restaurants in rural areas that didn't understand the term to the point they thought chicken in general was vegetarian (most likely thinking it meant no mammals). If the restaurant actually labeled the soup as vegetarian I suspect the server was confused and that it doesn't actually contain chicken stock but it's possible the chef/menu maker are very wrong.
posted by Candleman at 2:18 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

If a non-vegetarian thinks that vegetarian = no meat and yet thinks chicken is vegetarian, ask them "is chicken meat?" and I bet the response will be "no! it's poultry!"
posted by QuakerMel at 2:20 PM on December 31, 2017

I can't think of anyone who would consider chicken or fish stock to be vegetarian.

EXCEPT IN JAPAN. Seriously. Even restaurants advertised as vegetarian put fish stock in everything. My trip there a couple of years ago was the only time I've knowingly eaten animal products in almost forty years BECAUSE OTHERWISE I WOULD HAVE STARVED TO DEATH. I apologize for that, fish.
posted by pangolin party at 2:39 PM on December 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

As others have mentioned, Asian cultures seem to have a different concept of vegetarian. My vegan friends in Korea were repeatedly told a dish was vegeterian when it obviously contained chicken and/or fish. So in that context, vegeterian seems to mean "no beef" or "no pork".
posted by Brittanie at 2:53 PM on December 31, 2017

Some people think vegetarians eat chicken.

I've never met one but I've heard of naïve Californian "vegetarians" who eat fish and chicken. I've also heard there are vegetarians in India who don't eat garlic, onions or ginger, either. For me, the best definition of vegetarian is, you don't eat anything with a face (which seems to exclude jellyfish and shellfish).
posted by Rash at 6:07 PM on December 31, 2017

My converse struggle with this is that I made tofu, quinoa, or other "vegetarian" foods with a ton of meat stock, and then the good-hearted leftists move it to the vegetarian section of the buffet line even though I clearly label it as containing meat stock. It's definitely not vegetarian.

(When my parents cook their northern Chinese peasant food, they braise tofu with fish and meat stock, and then tofu becomes normal food for all, not just meat substitute / plant protein that vegetarians eat.)
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:01 PM on December 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

If a non-vegetarian thinks that vegetarian = no meat and yet thinks chicken is vegetarian, ask them "is chicken meat?" and I bet the response will be "no! it's poultry!"

Lol this exact thing happened to me when I was in college. I got into an argument with a customer at the diner I worked at. She asked whether the chicken fingers were any good. I said I didn't know, since I'm vegetarian. The argument progressed to the point of "chickens aren't animals, they're birds" before I gave up.

Anyway 25 years of various types of -tarian and whether or not broths and sauces "count" is definitely cultural. Here in the US at a standard American fare restaurant I wouldn't expect vegetarian to include chicken broth. At Chinese restaurants, I assume it does.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:14 PM on December 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think the original commentor that mentioned mussels meant OYSTERS. Oysters have a nervous system that closely resembles a plant. Oysters are different from other shellfish.

The server or restaurant was mistaken, chicken broth is not vegetarian.
posted by jbenben at 8:43 PM on December 31, 2017

I've also heard there are vegetarians in India who don't eat garlic, onions or ginger, either.

Probably Jain, although it’s more complex than just that.
posted by aramaic at 9:20 PM on December 31, 2017

What's weird about your update is that it sounds like your restaurant has items that are labelled both vegetarian and vegan on the menu. My guess would have been that a place with such a loose definition of "vegetarian" that it included chicken broth wouldn't have been veg-sophisticated enough to also know about "vegan." But that plus the pho example suggests there are at least a few places with a "no visible chunks of meat" definition of vegetarian, which is good to know.

I think I've also seen "vegetarian" used to refer to clearly non-vegetarian vegetable dishes before (e.g. x with oyster sauce), maybe a translation/cultural issue. But unless the description gave me pause like that, I wouldn't have asked if something labelled vegetarian had chicken broth either - and it would not have occurred to me to ask - so I hope you're not feeling too bad about the unpleasant revelation. :/

(I'm also an almost 20 year ovo lacto vegetarian and had a real major mistake earlier this year when I was served a regular burger and I, thinking this was the new fancy beyond burger I've been hearing about, with fake beet juice "blood" and everything, started chowing down and got through a chunk of it before I thought to ask. Felt queasy for a few days after.)
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 9:25 PM on December 31, 2017

There are some Catholic traditions of fasting where on "meatless" days (such as in Lent), people can have chicken or beef broth ... just not the actual meat of the animal, which every now and then (because the US is an immigrant nation) you run into in the US: each country's Catholic fasting rules are specific to that country, so there can be local variation, and those people emigrate with those traditions, so you'll sometimes be at a Catholic event where people have very different opinions on what constitutes "meatless." (I was at a Catholic group's Lenten lunch one time where the "meatless" soup was made with chicken broth, which was how the cook's culture did meatless Lent, which made most of the attendees freeze for a second as they were from either fish-only cultures or no-animal-products cultures, but the priest said, "The Lenten fast is observed differently in different places, and it's certainly a sin to waste food, especially food prepared with love" or something like that. And then one lady stood up from the table, marched over to the trash can, dumped her soup in it, and refused to eat anything else while loudly protesting Jesus would be pissed at the rest of us.)

Anyway I could understand a confusion about "meatless" potentially arising in the US due to that sort of thing, but I find calling it "vegetarian" profoundly bizarre ... and I agree they probably were thinking, "Oh, there's no animal flesh chunks in the meal" and not even considering the broth. (But it's one thing for your aunt to carefully prepare you a vegetarian meal and have spaced on the chicken broth being meat; it's another thing for a professional restaurant to be doing that!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:31 PM on December 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

To further compound the complexity, there are "Chicken" and "Beef" stock cubes that contain no traces of either Chicken or Beef and are essentially salted autolysed yeast extract with different spices and either turmeric (chicken) or caramel (beef) for colour. Not saying that the restaurant actually used one of those, but these low quality stock cubes do exist and are very cheap and tasty enough that I could easily see a restaurant using them instead of the bother of making their own stock daily.
posted by koolkat at 4:23 AM on January 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Rash, maybe the non-garlic vegetarians belong to a buddhist stream? I learned about this while visiting a buddhist vegetarian restaurant in Japan. (Japan and vegetarianism is... an adventure.)

That said, I as a vegetarian eat things made in chicken or fish stock, because I don't want animals to die for me, but if my mother-in-law makes a whole soup and I eat the vegetables and the other people eat the rest, I feel like I still didn't make any animal die for me. I would not declare such a dish vegetarian to others, though.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:25 AM on January 2, 2018

Looks like the term for no onions no garlic vegetarianism is Satvic, or Sattvik, or Sattvika. (I was mistaken about the ginger.) From a page of Satvic Diet recipes:
More than 40% of the households in India follow a strict vegetarian diet. On auspicious days, most Hindus, especially the Brahmans do not include onions and garlic in their diet. Those who are practicing Jain culture follow an even stricter diet which prohibits them from eating onion, garlic, mushrooms, yeast, other root and tubers like potatoes
... or brinjals (eggplant) either, apparently.
posted by Rash at 7:50 AM on January 2, 2018

There are also some Buddhist vegetarians (including my grandmother) who practice no garlic, no onion.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 8:23 AM on January 2, 2018

I've never met one but I've heard of naïve Californian "vegetarians" who eat fish and chicken. I've also heard there are vegetarians in India who don't eat garlic, onions or ginger, either. For me, the best definition of vegetarian is, Lyou don't eat anything with a face (which seems to exclude jellyfish and shellfish).

Well, mystery solved. Chicken broth has no face!

While that is kind of funny, it may actually have been similar to the reasoning used. People also are kind of funny.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:08 PM on January 4, 2018

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