Taiwan has the best vegetarian labelling laws in the world. 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. An exception to this can occur when imported food is labelled as being 奶素 because its label specifies that it "may contain traces of dairy products" and this is misinterpreted to mean that it does, but this is very rare.
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' (though there is talk of introducing a word into Chinese) so most people translate it to 全素, and therefore assume that if food contains onion or garlic it's not vegan. 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.
Chinese Vegetarian Characters
Su4. Literally 'simple', this word is almost exclusively to mean 'vegetarian'.
shi2 = food
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 = mei3 shi2 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.|
A person who [something]
This is not often used and can be ignored.
可, 吃, 用These three characters can always be ignored.
吃= chī = eat
用= 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 dou4 nai3 = soymilk (literally 'bean milk') so this character doesn't necessarily indicate the presence of dairy. However, 豆漿 (dou zhang where the zhang is a thick liquid) is more common for soymilk than dou nai.
奶油 = nai3 you2 = 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. You3 dan4 ma? = “does it have egg?”
蛋白質 = protein (literally egg white) and could be soy derived, so the character for egg in a long word doesn't necessarily indicate the presence of egg (but if unsure it's still a pretty good bet it's not vegan).
This is one of the five official vegetarian labels.
This official label is uncommon.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian. This is another common label.
Quān = fully, completely.
Totally Vegetarian (Vegan)
|Inari Sushi from a Family Mart Store|
Vegan and also does not contain onion, spring onion, garlic, leek or hing (asafoetida). This food is eaten by Buddhists (and I Kuan Tao followers). This symbol 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.
chún (pronounced more like chuwen) = pure
純水 (pure water) is commonly found on bottled water.
Pure Vegetarian (Vegan)
|soy sauce labelled vegan in English and Chinese|
This new label is becoming increasingly common, especially on products from large corporations, such as those sold at convenience stores. This food is vegan, and also doesn't contain onion or garlic.
無 = withoutMore 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 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 most Buddhists and I Kuan Tao followers are (unfortunately) more concerned about onion and garlic than factory farming. Hopefully a new vegan label will solve this, and there is increasing demand for it as more Taiwanese become vegan for non-religious reasons.