In a small cafe in the town of Mussoorie in Northern India, I met a man named Aadesh.

Aadesh comes from a family of farmers and wanted to know what I thought about the food in India. We talked for a little while before he asked if I had noticed the symbols on all food items in India. I said that I had (they’re hard to miss).

The symbols (examples included here) Are on the packing of retail food, as well as appearing on both physical and online menus.

I had already guessed this, but he explained that it’s because all of the most-practiced religions in India have some sort of food restriction and well over a third of the people here don’t eat any meat as a rule. So it’s important that all food be clearly identifiable.

But then he asked if I had noticed which one was on eggs.

I hadn’t noticed and he went on to tell me that it’s actually a big argument that has been going on for years in India about whether eggs should be considered vegetarian or not. Right now, the regulations consider them non-vegetarian, but he believes that’s wrong.

I looked up the actual laws concerning the labeling of products later and these are the exact words:

“Non- Vegetarian Food” means an article of food which contains whole or part of any animal including birds, fresh water or marine animals or eggs or products of any animal origin, but excluding milk or milk products, as an ingredient.

“Vegetarian Food” means any article of Food other than Non- Vegetarian Food.


As far as I can tell, this debate has actually been raging since before India was an independent nation. More recently, though, in 2012 the Indian Vegetarian Congress broke with the International Vegetarian Union after the latter announced that eggs were vegetarian.

Aadesh spoke passionately about how the mislabeling of eggs as meat has hurt his family for a long time. He argues that eggs should be treated like milk and be considered vegetarian. “It’s not a life. It’s a product of a living thing but it is not, and could never be, a living thing,” he said.

He quoted Ghandi, who said “He who can take milk should have no objection to taking sterile eggs.” (He actually got the quote a little bit wrong, but I looked it up later. It’s from a writing called “The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism”).

To be clear though, Ghandi was more of a vegan and was arguing that neither milk NOR eggs should be eaten. He was simply remarking on the hypocrisy of avoiding eggs while consuming milk. So it’s funny that Aadesh was quoting him to support the idea that more people should eat eggs. But he’s not alone. In 2005, the National Egg Coordination Committee, an association of more than 25,000 poultry farmers, pushed a campaign for more consumption of eggs using Mahatma Gandhi as its brand ambassador claiming he “endorsed” eggs as vegetarian.

I couldn’t find any images from that particular campaign, but I found lots of others.

Anyway, it’s interesting to know that misquoting and/or misconstruing the positions of important historical figures is a worldwide problem.

I’ve never thought about this distinction myself, but interestingly, I have heard a LOT of people over the years who described eggs as “dairy”, which I always found funny.

I found some polling that suggests that about a quarter of people in India who consider themselves vegetarians will eat eggs. I tried to find something from the US to compare that to, but since only about 5% of the US population is vegetarian or vegan, it was much more difficult to then find a breakdown of exactly what foods those people did or didn’t eat.

For my part, I think I agree with Aadesh. Eggs are not meat and should be classified as animal products, like milk. But I think I understand why people would feel differently. As for the law, I think the problem comes with a system that only provides two categories. and has to draw a hard line between them. On the other hand, trying to have a system that accommodates every possible combination of food preferences or observances would become too complicated to be useful. So I think the system and distinctions they have settled on are probably the right choices for them.