How “Vegan” Is Vegan?

I am sometimes asked if I ever cheat on my vegan diet. Of course I do; it is nearly impossible to be 100% vegan 100% of the time. There are animal products in the vast majority of things humans eat and wear. My goal is to be as close to 100% vegan as I reasonably can, but even that is challenging at times.

For example, when I visit a restaurant, I make a reasonable effort to ensure my meal is vegan (“Do you know if the refried beans are made with lard? Do you happen to know if the rice was made with chicken stock? Can I have that with no mayo, no cheese, and no sour cream please?”). Often, the servers, and even the cooks, do not know how their food is made (“I’m not sure; it’s pre-cooked and shipped to us; we just heat it up. I think the beans are vegetarian. That bun was toasted with butter before we put the veggie patty on; were you trying to avoid all dairy?”).

Unless I grow the ingredients in my garden and make the meal from scratch myself, I do not assume any meal is 100% vegan.

The important thing is, to as close as possible, live up to my values and reasons for being vegan. For new vegans, I tell them, “If you cut meat and dairy from your diet and stop wearing leather, then you are 99% vegan. Everything else is just arguing over the last inch.”

That last inch can be debatable. Some vegans choose not to eat honey because it is made by bees. Insects are animals, too, and store-bought honey is mass-produced, causing the bees to work beyond exhaustion and suffer terribly. A few vegans refuse to eat broccoli because they believe it has a central nervous system. If it has nerves and a way to transmit the information collected by those nerves, then broccoli can theoretically feel pain. The ability to suffer or feel pain is one way many vegans determine what they will not eat. Ironically, there is no evidence I am aware of to support the claim of broccoli having a nervous system, so apparently, we vegans have our old wives’ tales, too.

On the other hand, oysters definitely do not have a central nervous system (since they are mollusks) and theoretically can not feel pain, yet I have never met a vegan who thinks oysters are not animals.

Another example of the fine line between vegans and omnivores is one of my favorite comfort foods. I love french fries. I avoid places that are known to use beef fat or other cheap, animal-sourced oil to fry their food, like McDonald’s.

Still, I know pretty much anywhere I order fries, they will be fried in the same oil as meaty foods like chicken nuggets, fish, or cheese sticks. It is highly unlikely any fast food or homestyle cooking restaurant can (or will) offer completely vegan french fries. Some places even batter their fries or other foods (like beer-battered mushrooms and onion rings) in animal products before dipping them in oil.

Some restaurants offer veggie burgers but fail to mention the patty is held together with egg or cheese, or that the bun has whey (a milk derivative).

I try to avoid the obvious pitfalls but I am not too hard on myself for ordering french fries when I am out with work friends and there are no better options available, or if I go to a restaurant and stupidly forget to ask the server if the guacamole is made with sour cream. Of course, I am much more strict when I am doing the cooking.

If you are a new vegan, vegan-curious, or a seasoned veteran who struggles with identifying what is or is not vegan and whether you should order a meal or send one back angrily (a HUGE pet peeve of mine, by the way–if you choose to be vegan, then you give up your right to be mad when others do not understand exactly what that means or follow your explicit instructions–the solution is to make your own food or keep your mouth shut when you go to a restaurant–literally), keep in mind it is okay to give yourself a little slack.

That does not mean treat yourself to a steak now and then (of course that is an option but I would say it disqualifies you from the vegan club…). I mean it is okay to recognize the world is not built to meet our specifications.

Easy guidelines (even if you are not committed to a vegan lifestyle):

Be the best vegan you can be.
Cause as little suffering (both to yourself and others) as possible.
Live to your potential a little more each day.

If you do that, then you will be fine. You don’t have to give up your life to be vegan; you just have to give up taking others’.

 

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How Can We Fight For Real Food?

How can we stand against a genetically modified industrial and political food complex?

I posted a snarky comment on FaceBook that sparked discussion about how to fight for real food. My friend Sharon was kind enough to ask what I think we can do about the situation. Here is what I think:

There are lots of ways we can take action. The best thing I think we can do is support local Farmers Markets and vegan, organic, and farm-to-table restaurants.

Here is something else: for the past few years, I have curtailed my support of multiple charities in favor of one or two I care deeply about. Shopping local helps me avoid some of the “forced charity” I already rail against (Big Box stores and brands should not dictate how much charity I give to which organizations). Rather than giving a dollar to the Salvation Army cup and a few cents in the cash register change cups for children with cancer or spare change for breast cancer, a quarter for people with MS, etc… I combine all my giving for maximum impact on one or two charities or projects I care deeply about and gave BIG donations to them. Last year, for example, it was to help make one of my favorite stores, Tree Huggers (a local vegan bulk grocery store that promotes zero waste), and Cult Pizza (a local vegan pizza restaurant being pioneered by Ryan Cappelletti who also started Bartertown, another vegan local produce restaurant).

Kickstarter is a great way to find or create local projects to support. You can contribute as little or as much as you want. In my opinion, I have more impact by making one or two large donations to one or two causes I am passionate about rather than donating to many small causes distributed across many venues.

Finally, I focus on living a minimal lifestyle with less consumer goods so more of my money can be used to enjoy organic and locally produced food. I don’t need a huge stereo system, multiple gaming consoles, and jewelry. Those are not things that truly enrich my life or my health. Food and experiences shared with friends and family are far more beneficial. I can’t tell you about the video games I played in 2005, and none of them were really important, but I will never forget the trip to Lebanon I took with my father or the meal we ate high up in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees. That was a much better return on my investment in both time and money than my X-box was.

So that’s a start, but it is also important to recognize we have a misconception about food. As Michael Pollan has pointed out eloquently in his books, many people wonder why eating organic or buying from Farmers Markets is SO expensive. That is the wrong question. We should be wondering instead, how on earth a burger from McDonald’s can be so cheap. A fast food burger is assembled from meat imported from many countries. A typical McDonald’s burger has more than 40 ingredients in it (follow the link–I counted them), including the bun, pickles, ketchup, mustard, meat, plus assembly, transportation to the restaurant, storage, and the overhead of the restaurant itself–lights, rent, utilities, wages, benefits, etc… How is it possible McDonald’s can afford to charge a DOLLAR for that, and still make a profit? What, exactly, are you eating when you are not eating local, organic, and real food? Yikes.

Maybe Monsanto and similar companies have a place in the world, though it is debatable. They may seem evil from where we are looking but they have an opportunity to create “food” through bio-technology that can end hunger in the world. If we can show Monsanto, Cargill, and others through conversation and action that they do not have a market or profit margin in the U.S. big enough to warrant their mono-culture take-over, then we might be able to persuade them to find other ways to generate revenue with absurdly cheap “sort-of” nutrition in places where it might be considered a boon. Perhaps then we can all win. Technology and Politics are not inherently evil; it is what we do with them that matters.

But, you know… it takes action and conversations with and through our senators and local artisans and farmers to make significant transformation happen. As with any major change–personal, political, local, or global, it can be done. We just have to be willing to do the work.

 

 

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