Sunday, March 9, 2008

food: where to draw the line?

I got a little turned around in circles when I read this post (and subsequent comment thread) over at The Good Human, one of the enviro-blogs I like to read (I have a feeling we'll have to start categorizing our blogroll soon, but later for that).

I was a vegetarian (no meat, including fish) for five years, which is kind of a long time considering that's about a fifth of my total time on this planet. The reasons I would give for my decision changed over time: at first, it was because I felt uneasy about eating animals in general, and later, it more because I felt guilty eating an animal I knew I could not bring myself to personally kill if given the chance. During this time, I ate my fair share of meat substitutes, from Boca Burgers to seitan to veggie sausage and bacon to Quorn. I felt much better knowing that no animals died in the process of making this food.

In retrospect, though, I realized that what made me feel strange about being a meat-eater was not necessarily the meat itself, but my significant removal from its production. The mystery of the meat industry was enough to make me think that I was better off just not eating it at all. But after I had thought about it, the contents of those veggie alternatives were just as mysterious. Sure, no dead animals. But what is all that stuff?

Let's take one of my favorites, Morningstar Farms Veggie Sausage Patties. I loved these things. They contain no fewer than 36 ingredients:

TEXTURED VEGETABLE PROTEIN (WHEAT GLUTEN, SOY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, WATER FOR HYDRATION), EGG WHITES, CORN OIL, SODIUM CASEINATE, MODIFIED TAPIOCA STARCH, CONTAINS TWO PERCENT OR LESS OF LACTOSE, SOYBEAN OIL, HYDROLYZED VEGETABLE PROTEIN (WHEAT GLUTEN, CORN GLUTEN, SOY PROTEIN), AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT, SPICES, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, SODIUM PHOSPHATES (TRIPOLYPHOSPHATE, TETRAPYROPHOSPHATE, HEXAMETAPHOSPHATE, MONOPHOSPHATE), SALT, DISODIUM INOSINATE, CARAMEL COLOR, CELLULOSE GUM, WHEY POWDER, MODIFIED CORN STARCH, MALTODEXTRIN, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, DEXTROSE, ONION POWDER, DISODIUM GUANYLATE, VITAMINS AND MINERALS (NIACINAMIDE, IRON [FERROUS SULFATE], THIAMIN MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE [VITAMIN B6], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2], VITAMIN B12), SUCCINIC ACID, ASCORBIC ACID, LACTIC ACID, BREWERS YEAST, TORULA YEAST, SOY LECITHIN.

Does anyone know what most of these things are? I don't. But I'll bet you most of it is made from a) corn or b) soy. Two crops that have taken over America's midwestern landscape on an unbelievable scale. We rode from Charleston, WV to Portland, OR on the train this past summer and those two crops are pretty much all we saw from our window anytime we'd go through a farming area. And when you come right down to it, the oil-based monoculture that keeps the corn industry booming isn't so eco- (or animal-) friendly, either.

Another problem with my time as a vegetarian was that I spent more of my money and my diet on these fake meats than was really necessary. One can technically be a vegetarian and still get by eating very few actual vegetables. Even apart from the processed soy products (which tend to be on the pricey side), as a college student, I could eat pasta or ramen noodles, and even though I wasn't eating meat, I wasn't exactly being healthy. I was consuming artificially cheap, government-subsidized "food" one way or the other. And I sure as hell wasn't supporting small business (guess who owns wacky ol' "alternative" veggie brand Morningstar Farms? Oh, just a little billion-dollar operation by the name of Kellogg).

I guess my point here is that meat is a red herring (as it were). Sure, the meat industry is pretty scary, and not eating meat ensures that you won't be taking part. But avoiding meat doesn't mean you're avoiding the disadvantages of industrialized food. As we all saw in 2006, you can just as easily get E. coli from organic spinach as from ground beef.

Jacob's parents have a subsistence farm in rural West Virginia. Besides a large vegetable garden, berry bushes and fruit trees, they raise chickens for meat and eggs, and my father- and brother-in-law hunt deer in the fall. The chickens live happy lives, eating a combination of feed grain and ground vegetation, and the deer...well, the deer are wild, and that's about as free-range as you can get. With virtually no natural predators, they are prone to overpopulation. As an indirect result, about 15,000 deer are hit by cars every year in West Virginia. Given that, which is better--a rotting deer carcass on the side of the road (that may have also just totaled someone's car), or a source of lean and nutritious meat, wild-roaming from the day it was born, free of antibiotics, pesticides and contaminants?

This doesn't mean I'm enthusiastic about hanging around at their place when butchering is going on. I'm still pretty squeamish about these things. But it does mean I have an appreciation for what goes into that chicken and deer meat, and I have the same appreciation for the small-scale farmers who sell the meat at the farmers' market. It is more expensive, but I am willing to pay them fairly for their work when I can. We consider it a treat in our house. Most days we are just as happy to eat a real vegetarian diet--whole beans, eggs, some tofu, lots of vegetables and whole grains. We're not purists, but we'd like to be at the point where heavily processed food of any kind (meat or veggie) is the exception, not the rule.

6 comments:

David said...

I appreciate your post on this Maria. Most people cannot or will not grow their own meat to eat...and that is truly the only safe, sustainable and healthy way to eat it, aside from any concerns about the meat itself (cholesterol, etc). Even chickens from "happy" farms are still raised by the thousands and slaughtered in not-perfect conditions, packaged with plastic and Styrofoam, frozen, shipped on a truck, stored in freezers, etc.. So while meat substitutes are not health food at all, unless one is raising and killing their own meat, "real" meat cannot be considered safe or natural either.

That being said, I love me some real chicken and beef. But I also enjoy the soy patties for those times when I want something substantial that isn't meat!

Great article, great points you made. :-)

maria said...

thanks, david!

you're right; it doesn't do any good to make assumptions about meat that's labeled "grass-fed" or "free-range," especially the Big Organic products at the chain stores...the farm that sells meat at our farmers' market seems like a pretty small operation, and they even put pictures up outside their stall of what the conditions look like.

even so, we don't know for sure unless we visit the place and see for ourselves, and hopefully we'll be doing that sometime this spring. we'd like to do the same with the dairy where our milk comes from and a couple of the vegetable farms in the area. we hope it will strengthen our connection to the sources of our food. luckily they aren't that far away!

Mama Monster said...

I actually had a similar reaction a while ago while thinking of my favorite Morning Star Farms Veggie sausage patties. I realized how highly processed they are and went on a quest to make my own veggie sausage. I never did perfect the recipe, though what I came up with was passably palettable. This is also what lead me to end my honeymoon with soy milk.

maria said...

ahh, soy milk. for a while K (who as you know is about the least picky kid ever) would only drink soy milk and not regular milk. of course kids like soy milk; unless it's the unsweetened kind, it's got sugar in it! that's another question of "which is really better?"--the industrial original or the industrial substitute? needless to say, we're kind of happy to have found local milk, and that K has also ended her love affair with vanilla silk.

Allie said...

Wow. Great post -- it's an interesting take on the meat vs. no meat debate. I've always thought it was interesting how much junk is in a lot of meat substitutes.

Howling Hill said...

Two crops that have taken over America's midwestern landscape on an unbelievable scale.

And the most GMed food out there. One must be very careful when buying corn or soy.

Like yourself, I was vegetarian for about a decade but stopped being one last year. I realized as I was eating red peppers in February that it wasn't particularly healthy to do so. After all, red peppers barely grow in New Hampshire in July, certainly they don't grow here in February. That's when I started eating more locally. Not that I'm 100%, but more and more every year.

PS Got to you via Allie's Answers.