Sunday, 28 June 2009

Food Labelling in Taiwan

March 2020 Update

This page has been my most popular for longer than I can remember. This is the first update in over a decade, to include the new 蔬食  label.

Overview of Vegetarian Labels

Introduction

Taiwan has the best vegetarian labelling laws in the world, but it's not perfect; the most obvious oversight is the lack of an official label which translates to 'vegan' as it's understood in the West. However, by memorising a few Chinese characters it's easily possible for a non-Chinese speaker to learn to find vegan food.

History

In 2009, in response to the number of vegetarians in Taiwan and the disturbing survey which found real meat (by-products) in many "vegetarian" fake meats, the government mandated that food labelled as vegetarian must specify whether or not it is vegan, vegan without "five pungents" (onion, garlic and related herbs, for Buddhists and I Kuan Tao followers), lacto-veg, ovo-veg or lacto-ovo veg. There are also serious fines for companies breaching this policy or being caught selling non-vegetarian food as vegetarian. They are explained well here, or locally in this Taipei Times article.

The following is a short 'Chinese Lesson' for identifying vegan food. Occasionally in Taiwan not all ingredients are listed, so if a product is labelled 奶素 (lacto-vegetarian) it probably is, even if the ingredients (in English or Chinese) don't specify any dairy products.

In Taiwan, Vegetarian Food Requires Separate Manufacturing Equipment

In response to the claim by the manufacturers that the real meat found in their "fake" meat products was from production lines, manufacturers are required to use separate equipment for food which carries the 素 label (in any of its forms -- see below) or at least to wash it down between using it to produce vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. On one hand, this helps to ensure that vegetarian food really is, but, unfortunately, for vegans who wish to boycott the animal industries but don't care for traces of food, this means that some food isn't labelled as vegetarian/vegan when it actually is.

For the same reason, imported food which is labelled as "may contain traces of dairy" is sometimes labelled in Chinese as 奶素 (lacto-vegetarian) because the manufacturers have noted that it may contain dairy products; therefore this must be noted under Taiwanese law.


2020 Update: The New 蔬食 


This new 'plant' based range includes a curry which may be vegan, but most of it isn't.

蔬 (pronounced 'shu') means 'vegetable', and for several years trendy restaurants have described themselves as 蔬食 instead of  素食. Some of these are completely vegan, but others use dairy and egg products, and as it's not a legal term anyone can use it how they please, although must were at least vegetarian restaurants. Until 2020 蔬食 was used almost exclusively in restaurant names and never as a food label.

Unfortunately, in early 2020, the 7-Eleven company introduced a range of food products which it is heavily promoting as being 蔬食. These mostly contain a range of animal products, including in some cases meat. The 蔬食 term is, therefore, being used much like 'plant-based' often is in the West; it means that it is based mostly on plants, but may contain some animal products. 

The curry in this range appears to not contain any animal products, so it should be vegan, although they cannot use the label because it's produced on the same lines as animal products.

I do not recommend this new 蔬食 range from the 7-Eleven.

Ignore Labels in English

Many companies label their food in English, partly (hopefully) for the benefit of the increasing number of non-Chinese readers living here, but also as a marketing tool to Taiwanese, many of whom see English as a suggestion that the food is more international. Unfortunately, however, English labels are often woefully wrong. I've seen lacto-veg labelled as "vegan" (in English) and food labelled as "vegan: no" when it actually is. This confusion is largely because there is no direct translation of 'vegan' so most food producers translate it to 全素, and therefore assume that food which contains onion or garlic is not vegan.
Occasionally the word vegan is transliterated to 維根 (pronounced 'wigan'), as is the case of the iVegan supermarket in Taiwan, although like  蔬食 it has no legal weight.
Therefore I strongly recommend all vegans to ignore labels in English and learn these Chinese characters.

Honey?

Honey is not included in any of this. It's rarely used in Taiwanese food, but its Chinese characters are 蜂蜜. Honey Peach is a type of peach, and it's often used to describe sweet food, so "honey vanilla candy" may not contain honey at all.


Relevant Chinese Characters

These are presented as a 'Chinese lesson' of sorts for the newcomer to Taiwan. The intonation (strokes above the words) indicates the tone, but can be ignored for anyone who has not learned Chinese.

Sù = simple, but is almost exclusively to mean 'vegetarian'.


Shí  = food.


素食
Vegetarian food. This used to be used as a food label, but it's now illegal because it isn't specific enough. It's still often used to advertise vegetarian restaurants, as a separate sign or as part of the name.
Not to be confused with 美食 = měi  shí which literally means 'fine food' but usually indicates a  non-vegetarian restaurant.


Huaining St, close to Taipei Main Station. The 素食 is  the sign for a vegetarian restaurant. Despite popular belief among foreigners, only a small proportion of vegetarian restaurants show the Buddhist symbol to the right.


Zhǐ  = a person who [something].
素食者 = a vegetarian
This infrequently used in 2020, and can always be ignored.

可, 吃, 用

These three characters can also always be ignored.
= kě  = can.
= chī  = eat.
= yòng  = use.

素食者可吃 = vegetarians can eat this.
素食者可用 = vegetarians can 'use' this.

This old label uses the now discontinued (now illegal) 素食 but it may still appear occasionally.

nǎi   = milk
豆奶 dòu  nǎi  = soymilk (literally 'bean milk') so this character doesn't necessarily indicate the presence of dairy. However, 豆漿 (dòujiāng where the zhang is a thick liquid) is more common for soymilk than dòu  nǎi .

奶油 = nǎi  yóu  = butter.

Dàn = egg.
Unlike in China, Taiwanese don't usually say “ji dan” (chicken egg), and if one did, I think it may suggest that duck or other eggs were ok. Yǒu  dàn  ma? = “does it have egg?”.

蛋白質 = protein (literally 'egg white') but it could be soy derived, so the character for egg in a long word doesn't necessarily indicate the presence of egg (but it often does).

Quān = fully, completely.

chún (pronounced more like chuwen) = pure.
純水 (pure water) is commonly found on bottled water.


Wú = without
More than just identifying itself as vegan for vegans, this label emphasises to the buyer that the product is made without dairy or egg products. The (enlarged) layer literally reads: 
Top row: "Without milk without egg."
Bottom row: "Vegans can eat this."

Official Vegetarian Labels Used in Taiwan 


奶素
lacto-vegetarian
This is probably the most common of the five official vegetarian labels, because it's the diet of most strict Buddhists in Taiwan.


蛋素
ovo-vegetarian
This official label is uncommon because most products which contain egg also contain dairy. 


奶蛋素
lacto-ovo-vegetarian
This is another common label, because it is the diet of followers of I Kuan Tao, Taiwan's third largest religion, whose members make up the majority of non-vegan vegetarians in Taiwan. 


全素
Vegan (sort of)
Literally 'totally vegetarian', this symbol is usually translated to mean 'vegan'. It can, however, contain honey (but this is rare -- see above) and it also doesn't contain the 'five pungents' (onion, garlic etc).

Inari Sushi from a Family Mart Store

Vegan and also does not contain onion, spring onion, garlic, leek or hing (asafoetida, an Indian spice often used in dahl). 全素 food is eaten by Buddhists (and I Kuan Tao followers).

The 全素 label is more readily used, recognised and understood by the majority of Taiwanese. However, from my experience, since Buddhists and I Kuan Tao eat dairy products, many people (even chefs and restaurant owners) will genuinely believe their food (especially fake meat products) to be quan su, even if they contains dairy products. Labelled food, however, should be fairly safe, as in the photo above.

純素
Vegan (sort of)
Literally 'pure vegetarian', this label has an identical meaning to 全素 (see immediately above) but it is more commonly used on packaged food, especially from large corporations. It is used on many vegan items at convenience stores.

soy sauce labelled vegan in English and Chinese

植物五辛素

This label is annoying. It simply means that it's vegetarian but contains the 'five pungents' (onion, garlic etc). This food may or may not contain dairy or egg. It's unfortunate that even with this great system food can be labelled ambiguously for vegans, however this is because many Buddhists and I Kuan Tao followers are (unfortunately) more concerned about eating onion and garlic than they are about factory farming.

Hopefully a new official vegan label will solve this, and there is increasing demand for it as more Taiwanese become vegan for non-religious reasons.

Unofficial Label

As noted above, in absence of a better label, the word 'vegan' is sometimes transliterated to 維根 (wigan) in Chinese. Although it's not an official label, so it could in theory be used by anyone, it's generally reliably used to mean exactly what vegan means in English: it won't contain honey (or any other animal products), it may contain onion and garlic, and it may be processed on the same factory lines as animal products, so could contain traces of these ingredients. This symbol, while rare, is most commonly associated with disciples of Supreme Master Ching Hai.   
 


Extra Information

Final Example

Here's an example of many of these characters all in one place. This photograph is from soon after the new labels were introduced; explanations like these are less common now that the symbols are better understood by vegetarians and vegans in Taiwan. 


Biscuits made by the all-vegan Light Light Industries in Taoyuan.
"Without milk or egg. Vegans can eat this."

Follow-Up

Now ready to test your recognition of these characters, and learn a few more? Read this bilingual page from the Taipei Times.

See Also

"Vegan" Restaurants which Aren't Vegan
Vegan Convenience Store Food in Taiwan 

7 comments:

  1. This is amazing!!! Thank you SO much!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you very much for this and the other pages. I think I'd be a bit lost without it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is super helpful, thanks for putting it together. I'm excited that there's vegan labelling in Taiwan, it makes travelling in a new country so much easier!

    ReplyDelete
  4. thanks! this arcticle helped me so much to do a work in university

    ReplyDelete
  5. thanks! this arcticle helped me so much to do a work in university

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ahhh thank you so much! I'm in Taiwan at the moment and you just helped a hungry vegan late at night in a 7-11! You deserve many good things in life :-)

    ReplyDelete