Should schools in Britain provide vegan options for students and staff, as well as vegetarian options? Do most people even understand what vegan food is?
I recently posted the link to a petition (update: now expired) on my Facebook timeline, in the hope that my friends, especially those who are veggie and vegan would sign student, Ella Harris‘ petition to the UK government.
An interesting conversation ensued, which I love because my friends are great people to debate with. One friend suggested that vegans could just take a packed lunch. This is certainly true but why should they have to when omnivores and lacto-ovo vegetarians are catered for?
Does it not send out the message that they are not as important, or that their ethics aren’t as valid as other people’s? Why should vegans not be treated equally? Besides, it’s bad enough that adult vegans get bullied by ignorant folk and bigots. Surely if there were vegan options in schools, kids would grow up understanding that veganism is a perfectly normal way of life, plus they might even be motivated to try new food?
After all, you don’t have to be Chinese to eat Asian food, such as kung pao. Or Indian to eat curry. There’s no law to say you have to be vegan to plant-based food. I’m not vegan, yet 90% of the meals I cook contain no animal ingredients at all.
A friend of a friend replied;
… you call vegan a perfectly normal and healthy diet? The epidemiological studies show that vegans have the shortest lifespans. Fishetarians the longest.
So I started to type this…
Well, yes I do – when done properly… although you do have make sure you get B12 from supplements (or enriched foods). If you have no underlying health issues, and eat a balanced diet, there is no reason for a vegan (or plant-based, if you prefer) diet to be any less nutritious than an omnivorous one.
… but then I thought about it, and decided to write a blog post instead because, as is my wont, there was far more I felt the need to say than a Facebook post would allow me to write.
What is vegan food?
Well, it’s not bonkers, or faddy, or really much different to non-vegan food – it just doesn’t contain animal-derived stuff like meat or fish (obviously), rennet, dairy, honey, eggs, gelatin, fish sauce etc. In fact, I make an awesome vegan Phad Thai that doesn’t taste any different to the traditional one. And my vegan fish sauce is second to none.
To be honest though, unless you have access to your own plot of land, which has been completely free of any animal or chemical fertilisers and pesticides for yonks, and you grow your own food (preferably from seeds you’ve harvested yourself from organic, non-animal-fertilised crops), it’s unlikely anyone is going to be able to maintain a truly vegan diet and lifestyle. Most vegans will tell you that it’s about doing the best they can.
Even the most innocent-seeming food often contains some form of animal product, or is the result of a process involving a bit of a creature, or even contributes to the harming of other animals.
Flour and bread products
White flour, for example, along with ‘improving agents’ which involve, if memory serves me correctly, bones, is also responsible for the production of a poison which is then administered to healthy rats and mice in order to produce diabetes, so that they can be studied for research into possible type 1 diabetes treatments for humans.
This industry-standard bleaching process, which also removes a lot of the nutrients from the wheat, uses a chlorine gas (an irritant – lethal if inhaled) which, when mixed with the proteins in the flour, oxidises, and makes the by-product, Alloxan (allantoin* + oxalic acid**) – a toxin which destroys insulin-producing cells. Ergo, the chances are that most white bread is not going to be vegan.
Even making your own bread is not going to help either because of said flour. Unless you can find somewhere, such as an independent or artisan mill that sells completely vegan flour.
Very often brown bread is not all it seems either; most bread dough usually contains ‘conditioners’ which come from lactylic stearate, a dairy-derived product, although some non-animal sources do exist, and are usually reserved for higher-end products. In addition, some brown breads are made from dyed white flour. I think Hovis did this a few decades back, although presumably they’ve now cleaned up their act… and their flour.
As far as I know – in the EU at least – if bread is labelled as wholemeal, then that is what it is, but of course, unless it’s certified vegan, then it’s still going to contain animal ingredients or by-products.
That’s just one example of why it’s not just a simple case of not knowingly consuming animal ingredients but there are many more animal-derived ingredients and components out there.
Some orange and lemon flavoured fizzy drinks contain lutein – a protein used to enhance yellow and orange-red colourings. It is found in plants but is also derived from animal parts (e.g. skin). It’s also commonly added to chicken feed to make the skin appear yellowy-golden, and to enhance the colour of egg yolks, which is a kind of cannibalistic recycling programme.
Of course, neither of these affect vegans. But how do you know that your can of fizzy pop’s lutein comes from a plant source, such as marigold petals, and not an animal?
An amino acid derived from feathers, pig bristles, hooves – and sometimes, human hair – is found in several foods (and again, in bread – it makes it soft), bagels, tortillas, doughnuts (yes, in Dunkin’ Donuts), and other bready products.
Look at the label on your food, if it says E920, it’s L-cysteine. However, if it’s baked bread from the EU, the L-c is from synthetic sources. Bad luck if the food has been made in Asia though because L-c most often comes from human hair, as it’s incredibly cheap.
(Although given how light and airy Thai bakery goods are, I’d have plumped for feathers being the source!)
In actual fact, I’d say that human L-cysteine is more vegan-friendly because the humans in question have freely chosen to get rid of their hair. Of course, when they sell it, or go to get a haircut, they probably don’t know that a few months down the line they could actually be consuming their lovely locks… but in essence, it’s not something which has been taken forcibly from them, unlike, say, feathers from a chicken.
OTOH, it could be that poverty has forced them to sell their hair… in which case, while still vegan-friendly, it’s not ethically sound.
Kosher bread products, by the way, are fine, apparently. Oy vey.
L-cysteine is also used as a meat flavouring – I’ll leave it up to you to work out the irony of that one.
A digestive enzyme found in pigs’ stomachs – why do you think Pepsi is so named? It probably doesn’t contain piggy-tum any more, although I’m by no means certain, so don’t quote me on it.
Cochineal and carmine
Squished beetles – 70,000 of them for 500g of pigment – used to make red colouring. It’s a beautiful colour but not something those avoiding animal products want to venture near. Fortunately, there are synthetic alternatives but if it’s remotely red or pink, or orange, and says ‘natural colouring‘, you know it’s best to avoid it.
Ash from burned animal bones is used in the sugar refinement industry – for both brown and white sugar. Not all brands use this method, so if you’re concerned, it’s worth checking. Or just use palm sugar or jaggery.
As well as in cosmetics such as hair dye and hand cream, lanolin is also found in chewing gum. In case you don’t know, lanolin is an oily secretion which is found in wool. Essentially, it’s sheepy-sweat.
A preservative found in lots of wines, soft drinks, fruit juice which comes from concentrate, mouthwash, and some foods, as well as some cosmetics and toiletries. It’s also the pheromone which female dogs produce in their ladygardens when they’re on heat.
Okay, okay, methylparaben also comes from wintergreen and blueberries, and something called birthwort… which kind of comes back to the whole ladygarden thing, not least because the flowers of which bear more than a passing resemblance to you-know-what.
(You know where this is going, don’t you?)
For all the non-vegans reading this… do you know that the chances are your store-bought ice cream contains castoreum (as well as propylene glycol, which is anti-freeze)? In small amounts, it doesn’t by law, have to be listed as an ingredient, although when it is, it’s listed as ‘natural flavouring‘.
Want to know what it is?
Castoreum is excreted from beavers’ bums. Mmm mmm!
Technically it comes from the castor sacs, which when combined with the animal’s urine, is used to scent-mark territory. It’s used as part of vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry flavourings, and in beverages too.
Of course. Because obviously, the thing that you really need to enhance the flavour of fruit is a substance taken from an animal’s nether regions. A vegan animal at that. (Beavers basically live on twigs and leaves.)
And they say that irony is dead.
Castoreum is also used to contribute to the taste and smell of cigarettes. Yuck!
If you’re interested, here’s a link to the FEMA safety ass-essment (sorrynotsorry) of extract of beaver-bot.
But wait, there’s more…
It’s not just food and drinks which contain these things;
- bone china, as the name would suggest, contains ground up bones
- plastic bags are treated with a ‘slip agent’ to stop them sticking together, that contains a polymer derived from animal fat
- some tyres contain stearic acid from animal sources (it helps to keep the shape of the rubber when it heats up)
- wooden musical instruments and some furniture use glue made from boiling up skins, bones, and connective tissue
- Downy fabric softener contains tallow (rendered animal fat)
- … as do some colouring crayons (that’s where the distinctive aroma comes from, and presumably why my dogs used to love to eat mine if I was too lazy to put them away when I was a child)
- a lot of paint contains casein, a milk protein – it acts as a binding agent
- many condom brands contain casein too (vegan ones are available, though)
- buttons, jewellery, computer casings – among other plastic things – contain casein as well
- desktop and laptops also contain stearic acid; as with tyres, it’s to prevent the rubber components malforming when they get warm
The good news for vegans is that Macs and other Apple products do not contain stearic acid, thanks, so I am told, to a directive from Steve Jobs that all products should strive to be as vegan-friendly as possible. Even the ink used is veggie-based.
But you may wish to check that this is still the case, as policies can – and do – change. Especially when a CEO karks it.
By the way, it’s actually very easy to make casein plastic at home, using cows’ milk and vinegar, plus utensils and equipment that we all have in our kitchens. Essentially, when you eat those cheap ‘cheese’ products (be it block, slice, filling, sauce, topping etc.) you’re eating plastic + flavourings. And as an added bonus, pre-grated/shredded cheese often contains ‘fibrous plant material’ , which is basically… sawdust.
Of course, this is just a very small list – there are quite literally hundreds of thousands of everyday products and items we use which contain animal-derived components and ingredients.
While I admit that it all sounds gross and icksome, at least every part of the animal is put to use. It’s not as though they are slaughtered just for one or two things, and then discarded. I’m not saying it’s right, just that that’s the way it is.
Something I am concerned about is the extra pollution that might be caused by manufacturing and replacing all animal ingredients and components. And the effects this might have on not just human health but also the health of the planet and everything on it.
There’s no black and white, easy answer. What or who do we choose to take care of? The planet as a whole, including all life upon it, or limit ourselves to being concerned about one group of its inhabitants (even though it would be of some benefit to us all – man, planet, and beast – if people stopped intensive meat farming and over-fishing)?
I honestly don’t think there’ll ever be a true solution; we’re damned if we don’t, damned if we do, so I guess we all have to go where our conscience leads us, and try to not be judgemental when others see things differently to us.
Anyway, enough of all that…
So, the above notwithstanding, I suppose it does take a bit more thought and preparation if you’re not used to making vegan meals, but for me, it’s second-nature.
Making vegan food is not in any way difficult, and according to several friends and family members, amato mio and I have far more variety in our diets than they! I wish I had a fiver for every time an omnivorous friend has said to me;
Oh, your food is amazing – we always just have meat, potatoes, and peas or something. I would never think to cook like you do.
Here’s a curry I made a little while ago; 100% vegan, 100% healthy, and 100% yumsome!
Longevity for vegans
Regarding the longevity thing which that guy at the beginning of this post mentioned, I can’t argue with that. Well, actually, I could because I’ve not found any peer-reviewed studies or evidence-based articles which support his assertion… although, I have found reports which suggest that vegan and vegetarian diets may afford protection against certain cancers, for example.
Vegetarian diets seem to confer protection against cancer. Impact: Vegan diet seems to confer lower risk for overall and female-specific cancer than other dietary patterns. The lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets seem to confer protection from cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.
The 20-year study, the China-Cornell-Oxford Project (conducted by Oxford University, Cornell University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine) – described by The New York Times as “the Grand Prix of epidemiology” – concludes that people who eat a vegan diet, and reduce their intake of processed foods and refined carbs will,
…escape, reduce or reverse the development of numerous diseases.
[Update] I am still waiting for that guy to provide me with evidence of his claim that a vegan diet is unhealthy. To date, despite repeated requests, he has chosen to very pointedly ignore me.
I’d have thought it only logical that eating plenty of fresh fruit and veg, plus grains, pulses, and legumes has got to be healthier than loading up on mainly just one or two types of food (e.g. meat and potatoes).
That said, I firmly believe that whatever your dietary preference is, as long as it’s properly balanced, you’re going to be far healthier – and possibly longer-lived – than someone who doesn’t pay attention to what they eat.
I don’t actually subscribe to the notion that one type of healthy diet is going to make you live longer than another. But I do object to people automatically decrying and belittling something because it’s not what they would choose to do.
(Or because they have some kind of inferiority complex, which causes them to behave in the most appalling manner toward those who are confident in what they are doing.)
I’ve known sickly vegans and super-healthy omnivores, and vice-versa, so in general, I think it’s erroneous to blame/credit a diet because of course, lifestyle and attitude play their parts too. Even the healthiest diet in the world isn’t going to help you if you’re destroying your body with drugs (illicit and legal), alcohol, and tobacco products, for example.
To return to that guy’s allusion that a vegan diet isn’t terribly healthy… well, that’s beyond laughable. There are scores of vegan sportspeople, including bodybuilders – are they unhealthy? I really don’t think so. Just take a look at these super-healthy people over at Great Vegan Athletes.
And of course, there’s Matt Frazier, over at one of my favourite fitness blogs, No Meat Athlete.
(Gorillas and elephants are vegans too. They’re pretty big and strong.)
Aside from any of that, the point of my Facebook post was that as I said, I am not vegan but I do believe that vegans have as much right to have their dietary choices respected as does anyone else – be it because of ethics, Faith, health, or even simple personal preference.
I don’t consider omnivorous choices to be any less valid or worthy than veggie choices, and I would never ever tell a meat-eater how unethical or unhealthy their food of choice is, and that they should change. People have to make their own choices, or they are not choices – they are at best, coercion. And bullying at worst.
I do believe however, that it’s up to each and every one of us to follow our own path, and that it should not be unreasonable to expect others to respect our choices – as long as we respect theirs.
Vegans can hardly go around telling people they are animal abusers and murderers, and then complain that they get called freaks for being passionate about something they believe in. By the same token, if certain omnivorous folk (yes, Bacon Brigade, I am looking at you), insist on abusing vegans, they can hardly be expected to be free of rampant criticism themselves.
I completely understand that perhaps some folk are concerned when they flag up possible consequences of certain lifestyles but sadly, in my experience, all too often, people simply want to jeer and be nasty just for the sake of it. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps they are insecure, and it makes them feel good, although I admit I don’t understand how being cruel to someone else can make anyone feel good.
Or maybe it’s a backlash against all the snotty, morally-superior vegans and vegetarians out there, who honestly, piss me off. People can be bloody odd at times.
When all is said and done, I’m with Henry James:
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.
If that kindness means not eating animals (and using as few animal products as possible), good for you. If that kindness means accepting that another person’s lifestyle choice is different to yours, and not using it as a stick to beat them with, then good for you. If that kindness means that you recognise and accept that other people’s choices are as valid as your own, and that they have a right to the same consideration as you do, then absolutely good for you.
*Allantoin comes from cow wee. The uric acid is also used in cosmetics.
**Oxalic acid is also found in rhubarb leaves, which we all know to be poisonous. It’s present in smaller amounts in sorrel too, which is what gives it that characteristic bitter, lemony taste, and why you shouldn’t have too much of it in your salad. Unless you want a very bad tummy.