By Adam Campbell-Schmitt
Updated January 19, 2016
Credit: © Rita Crane / Getty Images

OK, so you're a vegetarian. Not a seafood-sneaking pescatarian, or a full-on no-animal-products-ever vegan, just a voluntary vegetarian. Can you eat jellyfish? Dean Burnett recently asked this question in The Guardian to highlight how, depending on why one comes to vegetarianism, veganism or any other diet, the minutiae can sometimes be difficult to parse.

Many people have restrictions on what they eat owing to religious doctrine or biological aversions (like allergies) and for them, making the choice of what to eat is relatively clear. However, those turning to a vegetarian diet for moral and ethical reasons have some interesting dilemmas regarding how we define animals and plants, and if/how they suffer from being consumed. If the main reason for a meat-free diet is to avoid causing any animals pain for one's dinner, some species can cause a bit of confusion.

That's where the jellyfish come in. Whether you actually want to eat one or not isn't the issue (you might!). Jellyfish are abundant and can be edible. So could a vegetarian coming to the table for the ethics of the diet eat a jellyfish? The invertebrates don't have nervous systems or brains capable of any emotional capacity, let alone pain. In that way, they're much like a plant. But they're considered animals, right? But if a person eats a jellyfish, it's scientifically safe to say no suffering occurred. So where does the line get drawn?

A similar conundrum presents itself when looking at eating insects. They too can't feel anything we'd describe as discomfort and are certainly full of nutrients and protein. Then again, the destruction of the hive or colony (when viewed as an organism) can cause greater damage than just biting down on one little bug. And what about stem cell–grown meat? No animal harm there, but it's still an animal product. But it's also stopping the slaughter of animals, and isn't that the whole point?

As we look toward the future of food and sustaining the human population without ruining the environment, these ethical questions may well be the next major conversation we need to have about our menus. Until then, eating things like jellyfish may still just be a matter of taste.