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KAREN MARTIN: The ethics of a vegan diet

by Karen Martin | August 9, 2020 at 8:34 a.m.
Karen Martin

In a safety-first attempt to resume something resembling a social life, we've had a few friends over for casual dinner dates lately. Nothing fancy: appetizers of veggies and dip (served on separate plates at opposite ends of an eight-foot-long dining table), pizza (pre-cut before heading into the oven, then self-served) and salad (also self-served), along with individual servings of adult beverages (cans of beer from Flyway and Lost 40 really come in handy here).

Organizing a mini-event like this is useful and provides motivation to clean the house thoroughly and to run the dishwasher. It entertains the dogs, while giving us a chance to play new music and catch up with someone outside our household bubble. Most importantly, it gives me something to plan, to shop for, to anticipate.

Our first few dinners went fine. Then I ran into trouble when learning that one of the guests on the next planned get-together is vegan. Not a vegetarian who doesn't eat any animals but is probably OK with dairy and a smattering of animal products that show up in packaged and processed foods.

A real vegan.

An uncompromising vegan not only doesn't eat meat but doesn't consume dairy milk, dairy cheese, eggs, or anything else derived from an animal (leather, wool, fur, feathers, and silk) or such enterprises that exploit animals (circuses, zoos, rodeos).

This sounds simple, right? I could stir-fry a mess of vegetables and serve them over rice with a generous dose of Sriracha (which makes everything better). But it turns out that lots of seemingly animal-free foods contain animal products. Sriracha is safe (most of it, anyway, although it's made with vinegar, some of which comes from wine that has been processed with animal ingredients like isinglass).

Tomato sauce, which would be useful in flavoring the rice, often contains sugar, which can be processed through bone char (charcoal made from burning the ones of slaughtered animals). Yogurt can contain gelatin (made from animal bones). Honey comes from bees. Some chocolate is vegan, but much of it contains dairy milk.

And I'd have to invest in olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, or canola oil for the stir-fry. I don't think Pam cooking spray will do.

Even beers and wines can be processed using animal products such as egg whites or gelatin. Fortunately, almost all hard liquors--bourbon, whiskey, vodka, gin and rum--are vegan.

Here's what works: fruits and vegetables, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), nuts and seeds, most breads (watch out for that sneaky sugar), rice, pasta, dairy alternatives like soymilk, oak milk, coconut milk, and almond milk, and vegetable oils. Coffee is OK, but not cappuccino or latte made with whole or skim milk.

Coke and Coke products are fine, as are regular Pepsi and Pepsi Max, but not diet Pepsi, although PepsiCo. won't say what's in it that makes it non-vegan. Which is kinda scary.

And although vegan diets focus on fruits and vegetables, there are a lot of unusual ingredients, not always easy to find (and certainly not bargain-priced) that show up in vegan recipes.

Among them are chia seeds (whole or ground form), aquafaba (a protein that can replace eggs), hemp, nutritional yeast (capable of adding a savory taste) sea moss (an alternative to gelatin), quinoa (an ancient gluten-free grain), jackfruit (a meat substitute) seitan (another meat substitute), miso (a fermented paste for soup bases, dressings and dips), and tempeh (bean cakes from fermented soybeans).

Then there's xanthan gum (a thickening agent), daiya (an artisan vegan cheese), stevia (a natural sweetener), and a mix of cashews, nutritional yeast, sea salt and garlic powder that results in a Parmesan cheese substitute.

You can go to a natural-foods store (please wear a mask) and find many of these ingredients, often in user-friendly packages, such as Beyond Meat (which, judging from the brand's breakfast sausage I tried at Starbucks the other morning, is difficult to distinguish from meat-based sausage). They are seldom on sale.

Since all this rabbit-hole diving was wearing me out, I grabbed a banana and sat down to consider: Why do people become vegan?

The main reason, according to many vegan-promoting websites, is that it's an effective way to take a stand against animal cruelty and exploitation. It's also considered to be a healthy diet linked to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. And it makes room in a diet for nutrients like whole grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and vegetables, which deliver lots of fiber, vitamins and minerals, according to The Vegan Society.

Plus the production of meat and dairy products takes a toll on the environment, from crops and water needed to feed animals to processing costs and transportation. The Internet reports that a plant-based diet requires one-third of the land needed to support a meat and dairy diet, which makes it a more sustainable way of feeding humanity.

Feeding humanity is getting to be a problem, as covid-19 is affecting the global food supply.

Despite my concern for animal welfare (I was OK with the vast array of human drama on display while watching a bunch of Pixar shorts on Disney+ the other night, but when I saw "Kitbull," in which a kitten comes to the aid of an abused pit bull, I burst into tears) and interest in being a good host, I can't guarantee that whatever sort of supper I might assemble for my friend would measure up to her dietary desires. So I'm going to procrastinate.

It'll take me a while to learn enough to tackle a vegan menu with authority. I'm having enough trouble trying to restart a social life without undermining someone committed to an ethical lifestyle.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.


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