Thinking Is Believing

The nutrition blog over at Women's Health references a study published by the Journal of Consumer Research back in August.  We wrote about it back then...  Perception Is Reality, but it certainly bears repeating (especially for those of you considering going vegan for the new year).  The study basically states that people believe meat tastes better than vegetarian fare, but that is more a case of expectations rather than actual taste.

I'd love to run this taste test, but I'd never be able to actually replicate it myself as no one would expect me to serve meat!

"Heavy meat eaters claim that they eat meat because it tastes better than other foods, such as meat substitutes. Our results challenge that claim. Participants who ate the vegetarian alternative did not rate the taste and aroma less favorably than those who ate the beef product. Instead, what influenced taste evaluation was what they thought they had eaten and whether that food symbolized values that they personally supported ... strategies that might persuade heavy meat eaters to change their diet include changing the cultural associations of fruits and vegetables to encompass values that meat eaters endorse (e.g., power and strength), or challenging heavy meat eaters' assumptions about what tastes good by using in-store (blind) taste tests or showing them results of studies such as this one."

From:  Michael W. Allen, Richa Gupta, and Arnaud Monnier. "The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation" Journal of Consumer Research: August 2008.

Thanks to Gary of Animal Writings for pointing us to the WH blog posting.

Reason 812,417 To Go Vegan

I don't consider myself a "hippie," nor was I raised by hippies.  My parents were average middle class Americans, far from hippie.  But I do have a fond memory of my childhood that could be characterized as "hippie."  My mom used to collect cans and bottles for recycling, and when we had a bunch we would ride our bicycles to the recycling center.  This was way before recycling was popular, and no one had even had a thought of curbside recycling.  I credit my mom for my environmental bent.

I was having a discussion today with someone about carbon-offset credits.  The person I was chatting with thinks they're a great idea and will be buying them as holiday gifts for all his friends/family members.  For many reasons, I am not a fan (not the least of which is the lack of oversight).  The person was going on and on about how important it was for me to buy these things especially every time I travelled (I fly more than he does).  I finally reached a point where I got impatient with the conversation and asked him if he ate steak (knowing full well he does).  I then told him that since I am vegan my carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of his.  That effectively ended the conversation.

Everyone needs to make their own decisions, and hopefully there will be some thought behind the decision making process.  I strongly believe that veganism has a much more positive impact than most any other "environmental behavior."  That's not to say that I won't do other things that I consider important to the environment.  I collect rainwater.  I compost.  I recycle.  I am not a "consumer."  But the thing that will make the most impact over the course of my lifetime, is that I don't consume animal products.

Then I got me to wondering which is better for the environment, recycling or veganism, both of which are behaviors I believe in.  Well, it looks like recycling is becoming cost prohibitive because of the current recession.

So my environmental slogan is now:  reduce your consumption, reuse what you can, and don't eat animals!

On The Turkey

Okay, I'd like a little clarification here.  First let me say that this is NOT an attack on anyone; I am looking to understand other peoples' thought processes around the issue of the turkey...

Jane and I have read a number of things recently in which people proclaim that they will not sit down at a table on which a turkey will take center stage.  As vegans, the pride of place at our table will be shared by a Tofurky and a Celebration Roast.  However, if we were heading to a non-vegan household, we wouldn't have a problem with a turkey at the table, we'd just make sure to bring something we could eat, and enough to share with anyone curious enough to try an alternative.  (If you haven't tried it already, you might be surprized at how effective this tactic can be.)

Now before you start criticizing me, let me explain my thinking...  If 5% of the U.S. population (and I'm being generous here) is vegetarian, then 95% of the population eats meat. Even if they are "wrong" in eating turkey, it is pretty much the norm.  To expect people to stop practicing "normal" behaviors because you want them to (or even because these practices are wrong) is a bit unrealistic.  I'm not saying advocacy doesn't have it's place.  I'm simply stating that people who are engaging in behavior that is deemed normal are not necessarily going to be aware that their behavior could/should be modified.

But here is where Jane and I become confused.  What's so special about the turkey?  Would you make the same distinction for a pot roast?  Or a rack of lamb?  Or a pork chop?  Or a hamburger?  Or a whole fish?  Okay, you don't "see" the dead animal in a hamburger, but you do in a rack of lamb... or a roasted chicken...or the whole fish (they often come entirely intact... face included).

Yes, 45 million turkeys are killed and sold for Thanksgiving here in the US (according to the USDA).  That accounts for 1/6 of all the turkeys sold in the US.  However, those turkeys represent multiple meals, for multiple people, so it's not as bad as it sounds.  But how many heads of cattle are slaughtered for consumption annually?  How many pigs?  How many chickens?  Is a turkey more important than any other animal?

I guess I don't understand why the Thanksgiving turkey is where the line is often drawn.  Yes, turkeys are intelligent and have personalities.  But pigs exhibit the intelligence equivalent to a 3 year old human.  (Wow!)  And pigs raised for foodstock don't live pleasant lives either; and they certainly don't have humane deaths!

So my questions are these:

  • If you can't sit at a table with a Thanksgiving turkey, can you eat at any non-vegan restaurant?  Because animal product is being prepared there, and consumed in proximity to your seat as well?
  • If you can't stand the sight of the turkey carcass at your table, what about that rack of lamb?  Or any other animal-based meal presented with pride?
  • If you can't stand the sight of the turkey carcass at your table, how do you handle the grocery store with lots of animal parts lined up, some of them readily identifiable as animals?
  • If you can't stand the sight of the turkey carcass, what do you do at the sight of a lobster tank?

(Remember, I'm not attacking anyone...  I'm pointing out what I see as inconsistencies and looking for clarification.)

So if I don't understand this reasoning, and I'm a vegan too... is it not reasonable to expect that your non-vegan loved ones will also miss the point?  And, if that's the case, perhaps a bit of tolerance will go further in helping to promote the cause than a flat out refusal to be even the slightest bit tolerant, which is my point in writing this post...  Tolerance will probably get you more opportunities for dialogue.  And with dialogue can come change.

Regardless of how you are planning on spending your day... We wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!  Or simply, a happy Thursday.  (We'll be back with a post-meal post on Friday.)

Random Thoughts On Dialogue

Everyone has their own way of thinking... their own philosophy on how life should be lived, how you should interact with other beings. Personally, I'm not interested in confrontation. I'd rather things be peaceful. Now that doesn't mean that I won't voice my opinion, but I don't understand why people do that in a manner that is antagonistic. I think you can present your point of view without alienating your audience, even if you are passionate about your subject. (But you probably already know that if you've spent any time reading this blog.)

Tonight I was reading The Calgary Herald, and found this in the "Real Life" section:

My three grown daughters all became vegans in their mid-teens. They're also animal-rights activists -- I think they're fanatics, refusing to celebrate Thanksgiving with us, with a "dead bird" (turkey) in our home, though I've prepared a tofu turkey for them.

My husband and I try to accommodate their diet and are sensitive to their activities, but they're increasingly rude and ugly, condemning everything we eat, and that we kill flies and earwigs in our home.

First, let me state that I understand this is only one side of the story. But for arguments sake, let's just assume this account is actually 100% accurate. I don't understand the behavior of the daughters. What is the point of alienating their parents / other people? The parents are not vegan, but they do accommodate their daughters' way of eating. Personally, I think that's wonderful. The parents are preparing some vegan foods for the daughters to eat. Presumably they will taste those foods and, perhaps incorporate them into their food rotation. In any event, they are learning about a vegan diet. They are willing to try!

But what are the daughters attempting to achieve by being antagonistic to their parents? This type of behavior only gives vegans a bad name, and isn't likely to result in anyone changing their thoughts. Typically, it results in people shutting down. Without a dialogue, there can be no change.

Honey, I’m A Vegan

honeyThanks to Nash Veggie for tweeting me this article on Slate entitled "The Great Vegan Honey Debate." I really enjoyed reading this. There are so many things to quote from this article, I don't know where to begin. Perhaps I should just say, read the article.

One of the things that hooked me right away was this:

Thirteen percent of U.S. adults are "semivegetarian," meaning they eat meat with fewer than half of all their meals. In comparison, true vegetarians—those who never, ever consume animal flesh—compose just 1 percent.

I thought vegans comprised somewhere around 3-4% of the US population these days, but it's pretty hard to get a real statistic. But what about the semi-vegetarian comment? Before we went vegan, Jane and I considered ourselves "semi-vegetarian." But to say we ate meat with less than half our meals would be a gross understatement of how much meat we ate. That holds true for the people we know who categorize their eating the same way, unless the statistics include snacks...

Then there was this comment:

You'll never find a self-respecting vegan downing a glass of milk or munching on a slice of buttered toast. But the modern adherent may be a little more accommodating when it comes to the dairy of the insect world: He may have relaxed his principles enough to enjoy a spoonful of honey.

Now, I'm a self-respecting vegan, and I fully expect to have a slice of pizza next time I'm in New York, deliberately. (BTW, pizza in NYC means a slice of cheese pizza, no other toppings.) Some people say it is this attitude specifically that excludes me from being a vegan, but I disagree. I consider myself to be a law-abiding citizen, but I occasionally exceed the posted speed limit (note: this is hard to do... I live in Los Angeles). One or two slices of pizza out of 1,095 meals (365 * 3) still makes me a vegan, in my book.

But let's get to the heart of the matter, or the article...

There is no more contentious question in the world of veganism than the one posed by honey. A fierce doctrinal debate over its status has raged for decades; it turns up on almost every community FAQ and remains so ubiquitous and unresolved that radio host Rachel Maddow proposed to ask celebrity vegan Dennis Kucinich about it during last year's CNN/YouTube presidential debate. Does honey qualify as a forbidden animal product since it's made by bees? Or is it OK since the bees don't seem too put out by making it?

Well, I've weighed in on this before... I am a vegan who eats honey. Again, a stance that has some of the vegan community pointing fingers and saying "You're not a real vegan." To that I say, you're entitled to your opinions. I consider myself a vegan. Yes, in the animal, vegetable, mineral categorization, bees are animals. However, they are insects. I would not hesitate to have my house tented or sprayed if I had termites; insects are killed collaterally in the harvesting of my produce... If I'm willing to kill insects in these instances, is it not hypocritical to forego eating honey? If my point of view isn't sufficient enough to sway you, here's what Vegan Action, has to say:

Many vegans, however, are not opposed to using insect products, because they do not believe insects are conscious of pain. Moreover, even if insects were conscious of pain, it’s not clear that the production of honey involves any more pain for insects than the production of most vegetables, since the harvesting and transportation of all vegetables involves many ‘collateral’ insect deaths.

(This group has been established for over 10 years; they are a vegan outreach group. They’re calling it an acceptable vegan behavior. This is the party line I choose to follow.)

It's also been pointed out to me that the original definition of vegan, according to the Vegan Society who coined the term back in 1944: ". . . eats a plant-based diet free from all animal products, including milk, eggs and honey." To this I reply, (unfortunately) language is organic. In the 1913 Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of "gay" was:

1. Excited with merriment; manifesting sportiveness or delight; inspiring delight; livery; merry.
2. Brilliant in colors; splendid; fine; richly dressed.
3. Loose; dissipated; lewd. [Colloq.] Syn. -- Merry; gleeful; blithe; airy; lively; sprightly, sportive; light-hearted; frolicsome; jolly; jovial; joyous; joyful; glad; showy; splendid; vivacious.

Today, Merriam-Webster defines "gay" as:

1 a: happily excited : merry b: keenly alive and exuberant : having or inducing high spirits
2 a: bright, lively b: brilliant in color
3: given to social pleasures; also : licentious
4 a: homosexual b: of, relating to, or used by homosexuals

But if you use the word "gay" in conversation today, it will be understood to be definition #4. Language is organic; definitions change.

Some people complain that the fact that some vegans eat honey, while others don't (refined sugar too), causes confusion in the non-vegan sector. Perhaps it does. But "vegan" is confusing for most non-vegans anyway. Do you eat eggs, milk, fish? What do you eat anyway? Before you condemn those of us who eat honey, remember, there are no perfect vegans out there.

Reading the Slate article further, the author, Daniel Engber, points out:

...you can't worry over the ethics of honey production without worrying over the entire beekeeping industry. Honey accounts for only a small percentage of the total honeybee economy in the United States; most comes from the use of rental hives to pollinate fruit and vegetable crops. According to food journalist Rowan Jacobson, whose book Fruitless Fall comes out this September, commercial bees are used in the production of about 100 foods, including almonds, avocados, broccoli, canola, cherries, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pears, plums, sunflowers, and tomatoes. Even the clover and alfalfa crops we feed to dairy cows are sometimes pollinated by bees.

Life for these rental bees may be far worse than it is for the ones producing honey. The industrial pollinators face all the same hardships, plus a few more: They spend much of their lives sealed in the back of 18-wheelers, subsisting on a diet of high-fructose corn syrup as they're shipped back and forth across the country. Husbandry and breeding practices have reduced their genetic diversity and left them particularly susceptible to large-scale die-offs.

So, are you vegan if you exploit insects in this way? Would this treatment of mammals be acceptable?

Mr. Engber ends with this:

According to Matthew Ball, the executive director of Vegan Outreach, the desire for clear dietary rules and restrictions makes little difference in the grand calculus of animal suffering: "What vegans do personally matters little," he says. "If we present veganism as being about the exploitation of honeybees, it makes it easier to ignore the real, noncontroversial suffering" of everything else. Ball doesn't eat honey himself, but he'd sooner recruit five vegans who remain ambivalent about insect rights than one zealot who follows every last Vegan Society rule.

That may be the most important lesson to come out of this debate: You'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Which brings me to my final point. I've said it before, and I'll say it again... There is a small, but vocal, minority of vegans out there who think that if you eschew animal products for any reason other than animal welfare, then you are not a vegan. Or that if you’re not being vegan to the extreme (by this I mean scrutinizing the ingredients and processing of every food item you’re going to ingest) then you may as well eat meat. We emphatically disagree. Every little bit helps, and if that means embracing the omnivores who choose to “eat vegan” one or two days a week, I say welcome to the fold! Yes, you can be vegan one day per week. If you choose to eat honey, I believe you are not "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." And I have to ask the less flexible members of the vegan community, what exactly is the goal here? Because it seems to me, if you are coming at veganism from an animal rights or environmental perspective, every little bit helps.

Food Shortages and Vegan Eating

There have been a number of things written recently about the impending global food shortage. According to Time Magazine:

The world economy has run into a brick wall. Despite countless warnings in recent years about the need to address a looming hunger crisis in poor countries and a looming energy crisis worldwide, world leaders failed to think ahead. The result is a global food crisis. Wheat, corn and rice prices have more than doubled in the past two years, and oil prices have more than tripled since the start of 2004. These food-price increases combined with soaring energy costs will slow if not stop economic growth in many parts of the world and will even undermine political stability, as evidenced by the protest riots that have erupted in places like Haiti, Bangladesh and Burkina Faso.

NaturalNews.com reports that the head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jacques Diouf, has warned that the world's supply of food is shrinking, creating "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food."

Demand is driven not only by an increasing population, but by an increasing shift by more people to a meat-heavy diet. It takes substantially more land to produce each calorie of meat than a corresponding calorie of vegetable food, because large quantities of vegetable foods, including grains, must go to feed animals instead of feeding humans directly.

As developing nations are becoming more affluent, the rise in demand for meat is increasing.

Often hungry during a poor childhood, he can now afford meat every day. It is a trend repeated across the most populous nation (China) that is affecting global prices of grain and dairy products, and raising the risk of hunger among the world's poor as grain is diverted to fatten up animals.

On average Americans eat 129% more meat than the Chinese; Europeans consume 83% more. But in China's case the fear is not of individual consumption, but of the multiples of scale and speed of 1.3 billion people growing richer at a rate of more than 10% a year.

Source: The Guardian

One of the easiest things we can do to help end hunger is to eat vegan, at least some of the time. Yes, there are other issues that are impacting the food availability to the rest of the globe, including inflation, distribution, pollution, and water shortages... I'm not naive enough to believe that my household dietary changes can actually help anyone as a standalone action. But rising food and fuel prices are making things a little less comfortable here. Perhaps this combination will help to convince others to consider eating vegan at least a few times a week, since vegan options are often cheaper than meat based options. And as less meat is consumed, more land can be made available for farming and more grain available for human consumption.

Arguing for Vegetarianism

Over the weekend I read an interesting post by Eric Marcus at Vegan.com. He writes that it is very important for the vegan community to be accurate when talking to meat eaters about why they should go veggie. He is specifically talking about the environmental impacts of eating meat. We've certainly been on that bandwagon... we've written about eating vegan for the environment on a few occasions already. Marcus wrote his post after reading an article by John Harris in The Guardian which discusses how people are converting to vegetarianism as a way to end human hunger. The current food crisis is underlining how inefficient it is to use grain to feed animals, which in turn produces a smaller amount of meat for human consumption, instead of using that grain to feed humans directly. (Not to mention the issues of water usage, environmental pollution, land usage, etc. also directly related to feeding humans.)

However, what I learned in reading Marcus' post is that information (regarding the inefficiencies of producing meat versus producing vegetables), which we have also shared with people, is not entirely correct. Apparently raising chickens has the same impact to the environment as raising vegetables:

...I’d be surprised if producing a calorie of chicken requires greater land use than that required for a calorie of vegetables. I worry that if people buy into the argument laid out by Harris without understanding that chicken(s) are ridiculously efficient compared to other farmed animals, there will be a backlash against vegetarianism down the road when people realize that this is the case. We can’t afford to trick people into going veggie, and that means not only giving people pro-veggie info, but also the information we wish wasn’t true.

I do agree with Marcus. People should be given all the facts, and be allowed to make their own decisions. However, when you throw in the argument as to how horrifically chickens are raised, and this includes the "free range" chickens as well, there is no excuse to eat poultry or eggs, efficient or not. Of course, in this time and place, that is your choice. It is not a crime for chickens to be treated the way they are (even if it should be), nor is a crime to eat poultry or eggs.

But what I found most interesting in all this is the idea John Harris presented, that we vegans could use "human benefit" as an argument to eat vegan. It's happened to most of us at one time or another -- when discussing veganism with an omnivore, we've been challenged. Why do we care so much about animal rights when horrific things are being done to humans? There is a clearcut answer to that argument. 850 million people are starving. People are starving so that other people can eat meat. If we all ate vegan, far fewer people would starve.

What The World Eats

We've been pretty focused on our "new" diet for a while now. After 40+ years of eating omnivorously, the switch to vegan eating hasn't been automatic. So we've looked for help along the way. We've read a number of books, visited a slew of websites and blogs, and generally immersed ourselves in what people eat and what they avoid.

Today, I stumbled across a photo series I'd seen before. It's an excerpt from the book: Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, in which the author shows, pictorially, what a typical family eats during the course of a week around the world, and the equivalent cost of that food in US$ . The differences in eating across cultures is astounding!

Time magazine has a 10-picture excerpt of What the World Eats, and if you haven't seen it before, I highly recommend taking a look. The families in Todos Santos, Baja, Mexico (slide 2) and Ujjain, central India (slide 4) appear to eat the most healthfully. What I find most amazing is that the less developed nations seem to be eating better than the more developed nations. The exception being the family from Kouakourou, Ivory Coast, Africa (the 6th slide). I cannot believe that so many people can exist on such a small amount of food. They all look happy and healthy, but what can you truly tell from a photograph? That particular photograph makes me very grateful that I live in a place where food is abundant enough that I can choose what I would like to eat.

Vegan And Other Food Labels – Revisited

On Friday, I wrote about food labels, specifically the definition of vegan. As I was writing responses to the comments we received, one of them, a response to Elaine Vignault, grew so long it became a post of it's own. I had planned on writing about the Veggie Pride Parade, but this took precedence. Coincidentally, Elaine wrote about that tonight so you can read about it over at her blog. Click here if you'd like to see the comment that inspired this post, scroll down a bit, it's #11.

Hi Elaine,
Thank you very much for your thoughtful commentary. You presented the issue of strict labeling very well. However, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree. While I respect your conviction, it feels to me like you're trying to make "vegan" exclusive.

For my purposes, vegan is about food -- whether it's an ethical decision or otherwise, it is about what you don't consume. Therefore, the ethical part of it doesn't have to come in to play in the definition.

If there has to be a strata of definitions, then I would think "vegan" would be the general category (not eating animal products) and there would be modifiers around that: "strict" to mean avoids all products derived from animals/insects; "ethical" to mean animal rights oriented; "dietary" to mean health oriented; etc. But they're all still vegan. The modifiers could clarifiy the degree to which you practice your veganism. Kind of like Reformed, Orthodox, or Conservative Judaism.

I eat honey. I don't eat animal products. I am a vegan. I do my best to avoid by-products, but I drive a car, I feed my cats "regular" cat food, I use crayons with my nieces and nephews, the walls that surround me are made of sheetrock. I am a vegan. (All of these contain animal by-products.)

I do agree that it might be unfair to the "strict" vegans if it becomes commonplace to include honey as a vegan ingredient. However, there are many of us vegans (people who were vegan long before I was) who think honey is an acceptable ingredient. If I understand you correctly, we're "strict vegetarians" and therefore should be looking for "vegetarian" products. But often those contain dairy and eggs. I don't eat those, I'm a vegan. I'm noticing that more often, food manufacturer's are including a list of potentially objectionable items (wheat, soy, nuts) after their main ingredient list, and those key ingredients are often in bold text. Perhaps honey can be included in this list. Since there are vegans who consume honey, this makes more sense to me than saying the foods we're eating are vegetarian when we don't consume non-vegan food items (dairy, eggs).

I hope this didn't come across as being antagonistic. I like to think I'm tolerant and accepting of others' viewpoints. I have a bit of an issue with labels, though. I think they're more divisive than helpful. I understand the need to categorize foods in some way, however, I feel that all of these sub-labels are confusing, and simply set us up to be "wrong" in the way we choose to practice being vegan.

Vegan And Other Food Labels

food-labelLast night I wrote a post explaining why we (the collective we) should cut down on our meat consumption. Now as vegans, Jane and I have done that to the extreme. However, we have omnivorous friends and family members who have chosen not to go down the vegan path with us, some of them may even be you (our readers). As I've written before, I believe diet is a very personal choice and you are entitled to make whatever decision you feel benefits you the most. The only thing I ask, is that you truly consider all the facts surrounding what you choose to put in your mouth.

We've received a few emails suggesting that we should take a more militant stance. Someone actually went so far as to say that we are not true vegan advocates as we aren't demanding that people become vegan. Instead, we've "gently" asked people to consider cutting down their consumption of meat. Well, here's something to consider: If every omnivore would simply eat meatless one day every week that would result in an immediate 14.3% decrease in the consumption of meat. That's a pretty significantly impact.

There is a small, but vocal, minority of vegans out there who think that if you eschew animal products for any reason other than animal welfare, then you are not a vegan. Or that if you're not being vegan to the extreme (this includes scrutinizing the ingredients and processing of every food item you're going to ingest) then you may as well eat meat. We emphatically disagree. Every little bit helps, and if that means embracing the omnivores who choose to "eat vegan" one or two days a week, I say welcome to the fold! Yes, you can be vegan one day per week. And I have to ask our less flexible members of the vegan community, what exactly is the goal here? Because it seems to me, if you are coming at veganism from an animal rights or environmental perspective, an immediate 14.3% reduction is something to happily embrace.