More on ex-vegans

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After the “I”m not vegan anymore” post by Alexandra Jamieson a few weeks ago, there were all the expected reactions: anger, disappointment, insults, and, yes, support. I avoided responding right away because I wanted to make sure my reaction was appropriate and thought out. I like Alexandra. I interviewed her a few years ago for Herbivore and have liked her positive approach to promoting veganism and healthy eating from her appearance in Super Size Me to her subsequent books and consulting services. She’s never been confrontational or insulting, so I want to avoid being the same way.

But, I do feel there is something to be said about her post as well as celebrity ex-vegans and the whole “I’m not a vegan anymore” thing (see also).

I’ve written about my frustration with vocal “ex-vegans” before:

Who I find really difficult to deal with are militant ex-vegans. They are far worse than any so called “militant vegans” I’ve ever met. These are the people who feel they have the experience and, therefore, the right to disparage veganism or vegetarianism because they “used to be one of those.” I don’t know about you, but I can never imagine giving up veganism and I can’t imagine any truly committed vegan ever going back to animal products and disparaging their former lifestyle at the same time. These militant ex-vegans with a chip on their shoulder may not be worth engaging in an argument. Let them blow off their steam and, in turn, look like blowhards to everyone else.

Alexandra doesn’t fall into the militant ex-vegan category. Militant ex-vegans will start web sites telling you why you shouldn’t be vegan and start quoting the Weston A. Price Foundation and Dr. Mercola. Alexandra’s still promoting plant-based diets and feels they can work for many people. However, I read her announcement with more disappointment than I did with someone like Ellen who eats eggs from backyard chickens or Megan Fox who “lost too much weight”. With celebrity ex-vegans, I groan and say, “Not surprised.” We shouldn’t look to celebrities for inspiration any more than we should any random person on the street. But when someone declares “Not vegan!” when their livelihood and own celebrity has come from promoting veganism for many years, I feel like there’s potential for damage to be done to ethical veganism’s acceptance. When a vegan chef, Certified Holistic Health Counselor, and vegan cookbook author denounces her veganism, it has the effect of making veganism seem too difficult for the average person. Or worse, it makes it look like the wrong choice (“If some promoting veganism for that long decided it was wrong for her, it must be for me, too!”)

What I think disappoints me most about Alexandra’s reasoning for making the change are some of her justifications. First, the cravings:

My body started craving the “bad” stuff. Namely, meat.

It used to be that, when a friend ordered a burger out at dinner, I was slightly (though quietly) disgusted.

But I started noticing a different reaction.

Instead of disgust, I started to salivate.

The impulse to order salmon instead of salad with tofu at my favorite restaurant was overwhelming.

And, for me as a vegan, it was confusing, too.

At first, I thought: “I must be mineral deficient. Or maybe I need more concentrated protein. I’ll eat more sea vegetables. I’ll just add more nuts and hemp seeds and drink more green juice. Then the cravings will stop.”

I denied these cravings and tried to “talk my body out of them”.

I hid my cravings from myself, and my community.

I ate more sea vegetables in order to add more minerals to my diet as I had told so many of my vegan-curious friends to do. I chose more protein-heavy plant foods on a regular basis. I avoided sugar and drank green juices by the pint, all in an effort to give my body the nutrition that I thought my body was asking for.

I tried for over a year.

I felt ashamed. If I was “doing it right” I wouldn’t have these cravings, would I?

And still, the cravings persisted.

I’ve never given much value to “cravings.” To me, food cravings aren’t indicators of anything terribly substantive. I don’t think they’re indicators of “something your body lacks” like iron, protein, or some other random vitamin or mineral. Research backs me up on this. That’s not to say that cravings aren’t real feelings. They are. But rather than your body “telling you” that you’re not getting enough protein so you should eat a steak, I think it’s simply that you miss the taste, texture, or memories associated with the food you crave. Most vegans will tell you that they didn’t stop eating meat because they hated the taste. If that was the case, meat analogues wouldn’t be so popular. Vegans stopped eating meat for ethical reasons, health reasons, or some combination, and a craving for a food they used to eat simply means they want something like that again. Every so often I think, “I miss Philly Cheesesteaks.” But does that mean I’m going to go out and order a dead cow with cheese slathered all over it? No – I’ll grab some sliced seitan, fry it up all Pat’s (or Geno’s)-like, and pour some nootch-filled cheese sauce all over it. It does the trick. I think food cravings as a reason for returning to eating meat, dairy, or eggs is simply an excuse, a justification for something that feels wrong at its core.

The other part that really bothered me about Alexandra’s piece is the set of conclusions she comes to at the end. The ones that struck me as particularly bothersome:

I believe you can love and care about animal welfare and still consume them.

I believe humans are animals. And some animals need to eat other animals to be healthy. Some do not.

I mean. For real, though?

But, I do give Alexandra credit for being honest. Certainly, it wasn’t easy for her. And I sincerely hope that as she continues her journey, she looks more deeply at the reasons she’s no longer vegan and reconsiders her stance down the road.

So, rather than continuing picking the post apart (because, really, I don’t want this to come across as a personal attack), let me instead share a few other pieces that I think get it right:

First, I urge every single person reading this to read “Facing Failing Health as a Vegan” by Sayward Rebhal. This may be one of the most important pieces about veganism ever written. (I’m boldfacing that because I feel that strongly about it.) Sayward discusses her own health issues, the internal struggle it caused, and the ultimate, happy resolution where she was able to overcome her difficulties while remaining a vegan. She is proof that if the animals and veganism are really important to you, you can make it work.

Secondly, Jack Norris, RD has a couple of responses well worth reading. Jack can always be counted on for good, even-handed analysis.

Natural flavors

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I was reading through Reed Mangel’s new book The Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book (because, in case you hadn’t heard, we’ve got a second little vegan on the way!) and came across this little nugget of info that, I admit, I hadn’t heard before:

If an ingredient listing contains the term “natural flavors,” the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requires that, if the natural flavors are derived from animal sources, the label indicates this. The term “natural flavors” on a label without additional qualification means spices, spice extracts, or essential oils were used to flavor the food.

This goes against the conventional vegan wisdom of “natural flavors just mean they weren’t made in a laboratory, so they can be animal-or-plant derived.” I had no idea that it’ legally needs to state if any of those natural flavors come from animal sources.

This FAQ on the FSIS page seems to confirm this:

Can the terms “dried meat or poultry stocks,” “dried broth,” “meat extracts,” and “dried beef plasma” be listed on meat and poultry labels as “natural flavorings”?

No. Substances derived from animal sources must be identified as to the species of origin on the label and be consistent with the definition established by Federal regulation. For example, the listing on the label would read “dried chicken stock,” “lamb extract,” or “dried beef plasma.”

My only follow-up question would be if this includes things like dairy-derived flavoring, but there’s some clarification on that further down the page:

Can hydrolyzed animal or vegetable protein be identified as “natural flavoring” on the label?

No. FSIS regulation requires that animal or vegetable proteins must be specifically identified in the ingredient statement on the labels. The source of the protein must also be disclosed. On the label, you will read “hydrolyzed wheat protein” or “hydrolyzed milk protein,” not just hydrolyzed protein.

What Federal regulation defines what can be listed as a natural flavoring on the meat and poultry label?

On March 1, 1990, FSIS published the final rule, Ingredients That May Be Designated as Natural Flavors, Natural Flavorings, Flavors, or Flavorings When Used in Meat or Poultry Products. The rule did the following:

  • Defined the ingredients, i.e., spices, spice extractives, and essential oils, that may be declared as “natural flavors” or “flavors” on meat and poultry labels.
  • Required more specific listing of certain ingredients. Substances such as dried beef stock, autolyzed yeast, and hydrolyzed proteins must be listed on the label by their common or usual names because their purpose is not just for flavor. They are flavor enhancers, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and binders.
  • Required that the specific source of hydrolyzed protein be indicated on the label, for example, “hydrolyzed soy protein” or “hydrolyzed whey protein.”

Note that the title of the page with this information is “Food Safety: Natural Flavorings on Meat and Poultry Labels,” so I’m not 100% sure this applies to packaged foods like snacks and cereals, too.

“An ethic of justice doesn’t change.”

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Vegan RD extraordinaire Ginny Messina was interviewed over on The Thinking Vegan and it’s well worth a read. Ginny talks the standard nutrition talk, but unlike many RDs, she also discusses the ethical side of veganism. This section is particularly striking (emphasis mine):

No one knows what the exact “ideal” diet for humans is, or if there is any single diet that fits that definition. I talk with my colleagues frequently about new research and whether we need to reassess some of our recommendations or advice based on the latest findings – because ideas about the best way to eat are forever changing. Who knows what the research will be showing 40 years from now? But an ethic of justice doesn’t change. The argument in favor of animal rights today will be the same in 40 years. So why not stick with the argument that is 100 percent unassailable, the one that we never have to scramble to defend in light of new findings?

In addition, I think there is a real problem in shifting the focus of veganism away from an ethic of justice for animals toward more anthropocentric concerns. It actually reinforces the idea that our food and lifestyle choices should be all about us – a belief that lies at the center of animal exploitation.

I used to feel that people that came to veganism solely through a desire to eat healthier couldn’t be counted on to be in it for the long-haul. Natala proved me wrong. However, I do still think that at some point during a person’s transition to veganism, the ethical side of it should come into play to help reinforce one’s resolve.

(ETA the link to the interview. Oops.)

Guest post: Bloom’s (not-so) “healthy foods” tour

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This is a guest post, written by my wife, Huyen. Several grocery stores in our area are actively advertising “healthy food tours” of their store for children to, supposedly, show them how easy and fun it is to eat good-for-you foods. Sadly, that’s not at all how this tour went.

I had a bad feeling as I committed to attending a mom’s group local grocery store “healthy choices” tour at Bloom. But I wanted to support the moms who organized the outing and I was curious how “healthy” this tour was going to be. So we met up with a few other moms and a frazzled store manager who had had a surprise visit from a health inspector prior to our group.

The manager/tour guide began in the bakery aisle (which is right next to the health food section at this particular store). I knew this was a bad sign especially as there are never any baked goods (besides some French or Italian breads) that are vegan in most grocery stores. We got a frosting demo from a bakery person and then they gave out chocolate chip cookies. The tour guide prefaced by saying, “I know this is a healthy choices tour but…” Chocolate chip cookies at 9:45 in the morning. Good, healthy, breakfast food… Not! And definitely not vegan nor allergy friendly but at least it wasn’t donuts, right? They could have easily offered up bagels or some other healthy whole grain goodness but instead we got a dessert for the breakfast hour because preschool aged, high-energy kids need a good sugar kick to start off the day right. Needless to say, my daughter and I were not a happy campers albeit for different reasons (had to quickly grab a Zbar from the health food aisles that I paid for after the tour). They supplied a sugar cookie to the one girl who had peanut allergies- thank goodness the mom asked if they were made with or near peanuts. Of course they had no alternates for vegan children. And forget gluten-free (the mom who is doing gluten-free for her family opted not to join us for this outing and I began to see the wisdom in her decision).

At least the produce was next to the bakery section so we followed along and they opened a bag of organic baby carrots for the kids. Back on the healthy track! Then they opened up a bag of non-organic carrots for the kids to compare and several kids (including mine) decided the non-organic tasted better. Sigh. But not all variables were the same- the non-organic carrots were smaller, thinner and the organic were quite fat- and I know for certain that my daughter prefers her carrots on the cute, petite side. I ate the remainder of her baby carrots and the non-organic definitely had a slightly older taste to them, even if they were cuter.

We then got a tour of a backroom where a worker was cutting up watermelon and mango slices. The kids were given both to sample but most refused the mango. I commented to a fellow Asian mom that ironically we had the Asian kids who didn’t want mango, a sweet tropical fruit that is frequently seen in Asian kitchens and dishes. The kids got a glimpse of the first of several walk-in coolers and we left the work room shivering.

From produce, we visited the seafood area and the worker at that station pulled a live lobster from the tank to show everyone. The kids were scared but slowly gathered courage to touch the lobster. He pointed out how the big claws are tightly rubber-banded together so they don’t snap or fight with each other and there are little claws that can pinch you if you are not careful. He pointed out the gender of the lobster. The worker shared facts like lobsters can live up to 6 months in his tank without any food and the lobsters are not fed because it keeps their insides clean. I think he may have also shared some details about how to prepare and cook them but I kind of zoned out at this point. Then he told an anecdote about working at a different grocery store where a woman complained about animal abuse in regards to the lobsters but she didn’t get far because there are no laws protecting against mistreatment of food-animals. He clearly did not understand why the woman was upset and felt the law supported his own belief that the lobster were not mistreated in any way. He spoke of banging on the glass to make sure the lobsters were still alive and not fighting and how he makes sure to return the lobster right-side up because they can drown in the tank if they return to the water upside-down. Interesting bit of trivia but my daughter didn’t think it was too nice that the lobster was tied up and stuck in a tank with no food. She was shocked to hear people would buy them to eat them.

From there we moved to the meat section where my daughter and I purposely got distracted in another area as they discussed meats and demonstrated some ground beef going through a mill. Of course there were no mentions of healthy, cholesterol-free, sat fat-free, tasty meat alternates like tofu, tempeh, seitan, Gardein, Boca, Yves, etc. I kept thinking, maybe they’ll talk about these items when we come to the health food section since it is a healthy choices tour and the store was beginning to label items with a special symbol to note that it is a good choice, two symbols for a “better” choice, and three symbols for the “best” choice in terms of healthiness. I was attempting to figure out what their requirements were for each symbol designation but did not quite grasp it. I should hope that with this system, the entire produce section should be labeled/rated with three healthy symbols! I have a strong suspicion it was not.

We rejoined the group to briefly peek in the dairy and ice cream cooler (by this time all the adults and children were shivering as we were dressed for 90 degree weather) and walk down the dairy aisles. Unfortunately this particular store did not have any cheese alternatives like Daiya or Follow Your Heart on display and the manager/tour guide did not mention any dairy-free options for those who are vegan or lactose intolerant. So I tried to distract my daughter from the string-cheese giveaway (when is someone going to make a vegan string cheese?!) by perusing the frozen food aisles in search of our Tofutti, So Delicious, and Amy’s.

Finally the tour group came back to the front of the store and I thought, “At last, they are going to do the healthfood section as the grand finale to this healthy eating tour!” Nope. They gave out goodie bags to the kids which had another item in it I had to find a sub for and the manager went to the health food section to point out a single product that had a coupon special to a mom who had requested it. What?!?! The mom who organized said the store was planning to reorganize to incorporate the healthfood section in with the other foods but still, they could have said that to all the moms and shown us the items in that department anyway since it was still grouped together. I cannot imagine why in the world they would skip a section that would bring in some money and promote the healthy eating image they are attempting. Clearly the manager and the store were ignorant of healthy eating options, allergy and special diet options, and we had wasted our morning on this un-veg-friendly tour that made my child feel left out and me feel angry. Needless to say, we will not be shopping at Bloom.

For more of Huyen’s writings, see her book reviews at vegbooks.org.

Zizania

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I’ve been meaning to post about her business for a while now, and with this recent feature on a local news broadcast, it’s as good of a time as any:

Dominique is a former co-worker of mine who was pescatarian when she worked with me and went vegan shortly after she left the company. She now owns her own business, Zizania, where she teaches people in the Northern Virginia area how to live, eat, and cook in a healthy way through veganism.

It’s so exciting to see a former co-worker go on to do such positive things. Rock on, Dominique!