Tag Archives: diet

A Conversation on Meat-Eating

30 May

A few months ago, a reader of We*Meat*Again named Heather sent me the first email below — a proposition…

I think being vegan is the ideal diet, and you disagree. Therefore, I have a fun proposal if you are up for it.

I would like to discuss the ethics of eating meat with you over email. We can go back and forth for a little while. Then, I’ll post the debate on a blog that I haven’t created yet. You can do the same at your blog.

I loved the idea of letting our ethics play out in conversation form, as it was a long series of conversations I had several years ago that led me back towards meat-eating. It wasn’t an issue or singular decision, so I thought this would be a great way to represent the myriad perspectives on the ethics of eating meat. Enjoy!

Heather

I’ll start off with animals. After all, protecting animals is the main reason I am vegan.

I think it is very important to protect animals from harm. They are defenseless, and we have the power to do anything to them that we want. But might does not make right.

Animals raised for food are almost all kept in factory farms where they are confined in tiny cages. Egg laying hens can’t even flap their wings and they stay in those cages for up to two years. Breeding pigs are kept in stalls so small they can’t even turn around.

A lot of suffering goes into producing meat, and it’s not neven a necessary food.

Marissa

I have a tangential thought, based on what you mentioned below about animals being defenseless. Of course, I know you mean domesticated livestock animals, but I wonder how this view of our obligation to protect animals might impact your views on hunting? Wild animals are certainly not defenseless, and defend themselves against predators all the time. But back to your initial thoughts…

As you mention, almost all animals raised for food are kept in extremely inhumane conditions. I completely agree, and this was the primary reason I had for becoming a vegetarian myself many years ago. I can’t abide those conditions and do not want to be a part of them. However, there is a small, and growing movement of much more small-scale humane conditions for raising animals. I’ve met and befriended many farmers and ranchers who treat their animals with love and kindness, who raise them in healthy, free-roaming conditions and who ensure their deaths are as pain- and fear-free as possible.

My view is that I can affect more positive change in the current food system by choosing to invest my meat-dollars by supporting those new, emerging models of agriculture than I can by opting out or boycotting the existing system.

There’s a lot to explore in the idea that meat isn’t a necessary food, too, but I’ll stay on topic for now…

Heather

I don’t think many animals that are hunted are able to defend themselves against hunters. Doves come to mind, as do ducks, rabbits, etc. but that’s a different issue.

I think those farms that don’t use factory farm methods are an improvement, but they still kill the animals. There is still suffering. For example, male pigs are still castrated. I think it’s an improvement, and for people who refuse to go vegetarian it’s a good alternative. But for those willing to go all the way, isn’t it preferable to not have any animals killed for the dinner plate?

Why kill if we don’t need to?

Marissa

The question at stake for me here is: what system of eating is without suffering? I think a lot of vegans and vegetarians are mistaken in the assumption that by not eating the body of an animal, they are avoiding participating in death or suffering.

A few examples: Most mainstream meat substitute products, including boxed products like Boca burgers, or tofu, are subsidiary brands produced by major multinational corporations. Boca is owned by Kraft, which also owns Oscar Meyer. Yves and Tofutown are owned by Heinz, which also owns several frozen meal brands, made with chicken contracted through Tyson (one of the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to inhumane and pollutive CAFOs).

Even on the smaller scale (for organic, locavore vegans and vegetarians) the very act of growing food often results in death. Even the most low-till farming methods neccesarily kill worms. Even the most natural pest-avoidance will likely cause the deaths of insects. And these are not non-sentient beings (I’ve always hated when people accuse vegetarians of “killing plants” — that’s just not the same thing). These are living creatures, many of which can experience pain, and have an equal right to life as a human, or a chicken, or a pig.

And so, if death is unavoidable in the process of growing and consuming food, I believe it makes the most ethical sense to be honest about it. To acknowledge the suffering I cause (in my case, in the form of an animal’s death) so that I can most responsibly invest my food dollars with producers who I know seek to actively minimize suffering.

Heather

I don’t agree that worms are equal to intelligent species like pigs, just like I don’t agree that pigs are equal to humans. However, let’s take your argument at face value. Assume that raising 8lbs of soybeans causes X number of worms and other insects to die. We can eat that 8lbs of soybeans directly and the number of insects dead is X. Or, we can feed that soy to a pig and get 1lb of meat. A farmer feeds roughly 8lbs of feed to a pig to get a pound of pork. So if we ate the vegetarian food directly, it stands to reason there would be 8 times less insects killed than in a form of food production where those crops are filtered through a pig first.

I don’t think buying vegetarian foods from a company that also sells meat is anything like buying meat from a company that sells meat. If anything, buying the vegetarian food shows these companies that there is profit to be made in plant based foods. Those companies are not going away. But if they see there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods, that is a good thing.

So, in closing, one kills less insects that would be harmed in crop production if they eat the crops directly. Also, showing multinational corporations there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods is a good thing.

I think those points reinforce the argument for vegetarianism.

Marissa

The flaw in the mathematical equations or soy, or corn, to meat production is that vegetarian food isn’t just soybeans. It, too, requires processing, and a balanced diet requires produce, which takes more land to grow, etc. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suggest that such a correlation between # of worms killed for one pound of vegetarian food is less than # of worms killed for one pound of pig. Especially because that equation still only takes into consideration animals fed a grown diet, as opposed to free-range animals.

But those small logistics aside, the more important thing is to note that we all — whether we eat meat or not — make a distinction between certain kinds of life. You acknowledge a worm > pig > human hierarchy, and the existence of such a hierarchy suggests that even vegans don’t necessarily have a problem with knowing some life died to create their food. That is much the same as my take. The real question is, why do we consider some life forms acceptable deaths and others unacceptable?

My issue with buying vegetarian foods from a company that also raises meat is that I don’t separate all those forms of suffering out. I accept that much destruction (of the earth), death and suffering (of animals, farmworkers, etc.) comes along with the process of any species attempting to feed itself. I try to minimize my participation in that suffering, because I look at the whole picture. I would rather buy a free-range, antibiotic-free, humanely-slaughtered side of beef from a local farmer who treats his workers with respect than a box of industrially-produced, long-distance, GMO-based meat substitute product from a parent corporation responsible for labor rights, clean air/water, and animals rights, violations.

If some people are vegan or vegetarian because they simply cannot stomach the idea of eating the flesh of a dead animal, I can wholeheartedly accept that. I just think it’s a personal choice, not one that, when judged in terms of the food system as a whole, is in and of itself morally superior.

Heather

Ok, I had not thought about produce requiring more to grow. But how could tree fruit affect worms in the ground? I don’t think it can.

Plus, there is no question people have lower rates of heart disease as vegetarians.

Marissa

It’s certainly true that people have lower rates of heart disease (and many other chronic health conditions) as vegetarians. But that’s because the only studies up to this point have compared a diet without meat to a diet of industrially-produced meat (even including processed meat like bologna or spam. ick.).

I’m all in favor of reducing our meat consumption as a nation dramatically. Americans far over-eat protein in general, and are especially fans of red meat, which is especially bad for the heart. But I think a diet that emphasizes fresh, whole foods and produce can include some meat and still be very healthy. In fact, the studies that have been done thus far suggest that many of the health issues associated with meat are a uniquely-industrial problem. So if we are supporting sustainable, chemical-free sources of meat, we can avoid many of those health problems.

Heather

Ok, that’s an interesting rebuttal.

We agree meat consumption should be reduced.

Basically I think there are 3 main reasons to be vegetarian, and they are:

1. There is no question that animals suffer greatly in factory farms. Anytime one buys a chicken sandwich, they are supporting that. Even when people say they eat free range meat, if they go to a restaurant or eat meat at a cookout, they are likely eating factory farmed meat. I don’t believe that people who say they exclusively eat free range meat really exclusively do. If they are telling the truth then they must eat vegetarian meals most of the time.

Even with free range meat, an animal is still killed for something unnecessary. Of course we are talking about animals like pigs, which are as intelligent as dogs. Chickens, turkeys, cows; they all are intelligent enough and aware enough to suffer and to be aware of their misery, pain and fear as they go down the slaughter line. I don’t think we can say that about worms. In fact, you can even cut a worm in half and it becomes two worms. Slice a chicken in half and she is dead.

Lastly, with grass fed cows, if we were to eat as much meat tomorrow as we do today, and all the cows are grass fed, we’d use half the country for grazing.

2. Clearly a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier than eating meat. You did a good job of refuting my heart disease argument, but vegetarians do live longer than meat eaters on average. We have lower rates of stroke, lower obesity and all the problems that come with that, etc.

3. Meat production is an environmental catastrophe. So many more resources go into growing feed to feed to animals, and then raising, transporting and slaughtering the animals than if one just eats crops directly. There is also the issue of manure run off contaminating soil, water and air in rural communities. So much petro fertilizer has to be used to raise feed crops. It’s just a mess.

The three points together make a strong argument for being vegetarian.

Marissa

I have some responses to your three points individually, and then to the underlying assumption.

1. You’re absolutely right that choosing not to eat factory-farmed meat means absconding from meat in many situations (thought not at all restaurants), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “most of the time.” Most of my meals are eaten at home, cooked by me. But to assume they are lying, or misinformed, isn’t necessary. You don’t have to believe they are always eating sustainable meat any more than they need to believe you are always reading ingredients list and never accidentally eating chicken fat or beef byproduct in your soup, crackers, etc.

The idea that the animal is being killed for something “unnecessary” is part of the problem I have. If an animal dies in any process of growing food (and somehow, somewhere along the line, I do believe that happens, whether worms and insects or animals slaughtered by parent companies of vegetarian products), then what kind of death is “unnecessary.” They are all, in some way, going towards a person’s eating. Couldn’t we take the next logical step and say it’s not “necessary” for humans to live any more than animals? Of course, such a position wouldn’t work. If death is inevitable, no death is unnecessary — but there is such a thing as an inhumane death or a death that happens in a way that isn’t necessary.

2. My response to the argument that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters is the same as my response for heart disease — only because the only available data matches vegetarian against modern-day, red-meat-heavy, industrially-produced-meat eater. Vegetarian versus low-consumption, sustainable-produced, chemical-free meat-eater would look different. They may well be equal.

My response to your third point, about the environmental consequences of meat production, is similar to my response to your note about grass-fed cattle. Along with agreeing meat consumption should be reduced, we both agree on all the negatives of the current factory farming system. But if you add reducing meat consumption to attempting to reverse, undo, or change the industrial system, you can create a small-scale, sustainable system that produces less meat on less land using integrative practices that feed and fertilize the land, without the massive pollutive consequences of a factory farm. I’ve chosen to invest in the creation of that system, rather than just boycott the existing one.

At this point in our exchange, Heather threw in the towel, and admitted I had successfully rebutted all of her reasons for strict vegetarianism. I’ll close with my final response to her, which is the most important take-away:

My intention is never to get people to stop being vegetarians — just to start being more conscientious of the fact that the line between ethical/unethical eating doesn’t necessarily fall along vegetarian/meat-eating lines.

Forks Over Knives Review

23 May

I’ve been catching up so far this summer on my Netflix instant queue, including watching some of my backlog of food-oriented documentaries, so expect occasional reviews in the coming months (and feel free to make a request if there’s a movie you’re thinking about seeing but want to know whether it’s worth your time). Up today? documentary about the vegan diet Forks Over Knives.

The basics

The documentary focuses specifically on the relationship between dietary choices and health — by which I mean both daily levels of comfort, but also chronic illness. In examining the connection between the consumptions of meat and dairy products and serious conditions like cancers, heart disease, and of course, obesity, the film explores and ultimately, advocates for the benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet (yes, by which they mean vegan).

What I liked

I particularly enjoyed that, despite the fact that they were refering to a dietary plan with a name — vegan — the doctors and filmmakers refrained from calling it such. This suggests, first, a flexibility on the part of those advocating for this diet. They did mention several times that reducing or minimizing the consumption of animal products was the goal.

And they also were careful to clarify the whole foods part of the dietary plan several times — that is, they were not suggesting a sharp increase in tofu or other meat substitutes, but rather a diet, focused on plants that were cooked but minimally processed, if at all.

What I learned

A lot of the health connections between meat and chronic disease were not a mystery to me (though I know they would be to some audiences) but the research in the film relied on international dietary models to form the basis of comparison, and I hadn’t heard much of that. Since science tends to be (rightly) focused on proving the causal connection between diet and health, American medicine doesn’t often look to other countries to see what might be different elsewhere, both in terms of what we eat and how it supports our body’s functions.

One especially striking statistic was this: the average annual number of prostate cancer — a disease causally linked to overconsumption of red meat — diagnoses in Japan is 18, compared to the American average of 16,000.

I also learned that rat-based studies have found an inverse relationship between diet and cancer tumor growth. That is, rats fed a diet high in red meat protein experienced growth in cancerous tumors. But when those same rats were fed a plant-based diet, they experienced a reduction in tumor size.

All of this is to say that the arguments for fueling our bodies with plant food, rather than animal food, is compelling. Not only in terms of avoiding serious illness, but also in terms of what works best for our bodies. (The film profiled several high-performance vegan athletes including professional triathletes and an MMA fighter!)

What was missing

When the film was over, I went back and checked what year it was released and was surprised to find that it was just 2011. I remembered it being recent, but after viewing the documentary, I wondered if I had been wrong. Because the information — but more than that, the perspective — seems dated.

I kept waiting for the point when the narrator and filmmaker, or the doctors who were at the center of the film, would discuss non-industrially produced animal products, and that moment never came, despite the fact that the ills of animal foods, according to the research, was mostly focused on the presence of hormones and steroids.

The notion of organic dairy and grass-fed meat are addressed on the film’s website, but not in great enough detail for me to be able to discern whether I believe the information is accurate. The registered dietician on that site writes that “Even organically produced dairy contain naturally occurring steroids and hormones, which can promote cancer growth,” but that is the extent of the detail. She goes on to note that there is no significant nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meat (which is true) but doesn’t address the notion that grass-fed meat is absent much of the fat and therefore, cholesterol of grain-fed meat, and is also absent synthetic chemicals, toxins, antibiotics, etc.

If the film addressed these ideas, and had the research to suggest that it would be better to reduce or eliminate meat than to simply eat antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meat, I could accept that. I wouldn’t eat that way, but at least I would know where they stood. But for a film made in 2011 to ignore the alternatives completely seemed strange to me.

The verdict?

Overall, some interesting info, but a pretty snooze-worthy approach to documentary storytelling with not much new for a reasonably-informed food advocate. Watch if you’re interested in learning more about a plant-based diet, and the science therein. But if you want an engaging film about the dangers of the western diet, try Supersize Me instead.

If you’ve seen Forks Over Knives, or have some perspective on the dietary plan, I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

The Kashi Controversy, Or, Know ALL Your Farmers

27 Apr

A weird new trend is springing up on the internet,  a trend I think of as “viral images.” Not videos. Just single photos that twelve or seventeen of my Facebook friends will post in a 24-hour window. Yesterday’s was the image below, of some Rhode Island grocery store’s sign explaining their decision to stop stocking Kashi.

I promise I’m going to work very hard to make sure the rest of this post doesn’t come off as a lecture. I know a lot of people — you, me, us, the average consumer — may genuinely not be aware of the Kashi-GMO connection, or any of the others that I will detail here. But an organic grocery store just now finding out? Ok, nevermind that.

So I take this as a teachable moment, and the teach is this (in case you don’t feel like reading the rest of the post): All processed food should be treated as suspect.

This doesn’t mean all processed food is bad. But it does mean we need to start changing our definition of “processed.” Most people tend to think that if a food is labeled as organic, natural, containing all-natural ingredients, containing no artificial ingredients, containing whole grains, etc etc etc. then that’s good enough.

But I tend to judge food based on the package it comes in. If you can pick up the ingredient by itself (like a vegetable or piece of fruit) you’re golden. If it’s in a box, a bag, or the freezer section, you should start checking ingredients lists. Sometimes you will find just one or two things — still golden! Frozen fruits and veggies, a bag of plain pita chips, etc.

The real lesson to me, of the Kashi controversy though, is not the length of the ingredients list. The presence of GMO ingredients, as of right now, is not a labelling requirement, so you wouldn’t see those by reading the package. The reason I wasn’t surprised by this revelation from Kashi (aside from knowing about it for some time) is that I know Kashi is owned by Kellogg’s.

Click to view image larger

Yes. Kellogg’s, the 12th largest food processing company in the world. Producer of many fine sugary cereals, currently lobbying against the FDA’s voluntary regulatory guidelines for marketing those same cereal to children Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s, who also, by the way, owns MorningStar and Gardenburger brands.

Like I said, I’m not here to lecture, or to wag my finger and say you should’ve known better.

Because I didn’t used to know either.

Here’s how I wrote about my moment of discovery in The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat:

Boca burger, according to their website, was founded in the 1970s by a chef determined to make the vegetarian hamburger taste good. What the website doesn’t mention is that Boca was acquired in 2000 by Kraft Foods, the largest food processing company in North America. Up until 2007, Kraft was owned by Altria Group—the new and improved name of the public-relations challenged Phillip Morris, USA.

When I started picking away at the corporate connections in the food industry, I began to feel like an internet crazy. The more I dug, the more I convinced myself maybe I was just making mountains out of molehills—maybe I was looking too hard for something not really there. Maybe it didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe I could just turn away, go back to my old, easy vegetarian diet.

Until I read that in 2001, a U.S. jury ordered Philip Morris to pay three billion dollars in damages to a smoker suffering terminal cancer, a landmark legal victory for the anti-tobacco movement. Phillip Morris appealed the decision, but the next week they went out and raised nine billion dollars, by selling just 16 percent of Kraft Foods. Suddenly, my purchase of a Boca Burger, supposedly free from the stains of corporate greed, just went to helping an evil tobacco corporation from sinking into bankruptcy.

The point is: if the all natural brand is owned by the same multinational corporation that makes the mainstream product you are avoiding, you have reason to distrust their ingredients list, their treatment of workers and animals, and their environmental record.

When I said something like this on Facebook yesterday,  my friend Lindsey made a good point in asking what this all actually means. How can we tell which brands are “good” and which are “evil”? Or at least, which to actually buy.

My short answer there, was, half-jokingly: Organic/natural foods are not all made on communal love-farms.

But the good, well-developed answer isn’t that you must simply avoid any and all corporate products. I still buy mayonnaise and pasta that have been industrially-produced. But being aware of the corporate connections and therefore, potential health, safety, and environmental issues for even our “natural” food products is important if for no other reason than it reinforces an emphasis on whole foods, and on foods made with our own hands, as much as possible.

What are your thoughts on the Kashi controversy? Did any of the connections on the chart above surprise you? Do you remember your moment of realization? Leave a comment and share your story with us!

Why It Is Ethical To Eat Meat

11 Apr

The New York Times’ Ethicist, an ethics-advice column, recently put out a call for submissions for short essays from carnivores explaining why we believe it is ethical to eat meat.

Of course, I had much to say. I even managed to get my thoughts down to the 600-word limit. Since I have no reason to believe this will ever actually make it into the Times, I thought sharing my thoughts here would be a great way to re-introduce We Meat Again, as a sort of manifesto for this blog.

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Eating meat is ethical because it allows the eater to face the reality of suffering head-on, so that we can choose how and where to invest our food dollars to do the most good. Suffering is an inevitable part of our food system, the unavoidable byproduct of any species trying to feed itself. The ethical dilemma of the eater, then, is not to avoid suffering altogether because that avoidance is impossible.

Attempts to circumvent suffering often lead to dietary choices that are willfully ignorant of the part they play. For example, vegetarians who purchase boxed meat substitute products like soy burgers or chik’n nuggets are simply purchasing subsidiary brands of the same multinational corporations, such as Smithfield or Tyson, that own and operate inhumane and environmentally destructive concentrated animal feeding operations. Recent exposes such as Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland have demonstrated that even produce sold at alternative grocery chains is picked by underpaid workers in near-slave labor conditions. Even the small-scale, organic, family-owned vegetable farm where I worked used fertilizer that was a chicken waste byproduct, a nearly-invisible part of an innovative and sustainable food production chain that would connect the most locavore of vegans to a system responsible for raising livestock animals.

The basic ethical defense of vegetarianism is utilitarian in nature, the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. Vegetarianism is considered ethically superior by some because the pleasure of a non-starving human is not justification enough for the widespread death and suffering of animals. Vegans or vegetarians who cannot abide the death of an animal for their meal certainly do their part in affecting positive change by investing in locally-sourced, chemical-free whole foods. But eating meat offers eaters a unique opportunity to positively impact the entire web of their food system.

While factory farm systems for raising food animals are still the primary source of meat in the United States, new models exist and are thriving across the country to provide consumers with sources of local, biodynamic and humane meat. By investing in these sources of meat production, we can attempt to offset the suffering implicit in any act of eating.

What I’ve seen of living animals on small-scale, locally-owned farms, and what I’ve learned about corporate connections, environmental degradation, and human suffering in the food system suggests that the way an animal is raised and killed for food affects much more than an individual’s eating pleasure. How the animal is raised impacts the ground on which it lives. The quality of that land impacts the farm and the farmer, and their larger community, environmentally and economically. The practices on a farm and the pricing of food affects whether a community has enough jobs, which affects whether or not members of that community will be able to afford to eat. Whether or not someone will buy an animal to eat impacts the labor conditions and pay scale of farm workers.

The question of whether or not to eat meat is not simply an animal-rights issue. It’s an environmental issue, a labor rights issue, a fair trade issue, an issue of our global community’s economic, environmental, and human progress. If our ethical goal is to live in harmony with our world, eating a hamburger doesn’t have to run counter to those ideals. It can be a way to invest in them, to practice them with every bite we take. Only by being honest about our participation in the suffering of animals can we seek to minimize it.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment, tweet at me, or drop me an email to share your thoughts, ask questions, or request future post topics!

How to Make Your Favorite Recipes Healthier

29 Feb

In Monday’s post on how simple it is to make good ol’ tomato mozzarella pizza at home from scratch, I mentioned that I try as much as possible to make my own versions of recipes, in order to keep them healthy. While pizza is a great example of this — delivery from Domino’s being high not only in calories and fat but in processing and preservatives — the truth is, it’s often easy to make even smaller modifications to recipes you already make at home to transform them into healthier alternatives. Here are a few of my favorite ways…

1. Use whole ingredients

I know this seems like a no-brainer here on We*Meat*Again, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to get caught up in the “usual routine” of a recipe and never think to make an easy substitution. Instead of a store-bought jar of tomato sauce (which may contain corn syrup, especially if you’re budget conscious) buy a jar of diced tomatoes or some fresh ones and simmer them into your own.

Really think about the ingredients list on your favorite dishes. Use Velveeta in your homemade baked macaroni and cheese? Canned condensed soups for slow cooker casseroles? You’d be surprised what an easy swap actual cheddar cheese or pureed carrots could be. Play around, think about the texture and consistency of the ingredient you’re substituting, and the treatment it will receive in the recipe (heat, melting point, etc.) and brainstorm a whole ingredient that you can reasonably expect to behave the same way. You might even create an interesting new flavor profile!

2. Find smarter substitutes

When these trade-offs work, it’s not only healthy, it’s exhilerating! You can feel proud to have come up with a clever trick to reform your recipe — and most of these substitutions will not dramatically affect the flavor of the recipe (or will do so in a positive way!) Some of my favorites include applesauce, mashed banana or yogurt for eggs , butter or oil (reduce fat, add nutrition!), crushed walnuts or rolled oats for bread crumbs (an easy high-carbohydrate trap), and vinegars in place of salad dressings.

But smarter substitutions don’t all have to be completely off the wall. Trade-offs as simple as milk for heavy cream, or whole wheat flour for bleached white flour make a difference, too. By subtracting an unhealthy ingredient, you often get the chance to add in some extra nutritional benefit.

3. Reduce the fat content

This is really a subset of the above idea. One of my favorite magazines is Cooking Light, and they are a fantastic recipe resource for healthier versions of things. But the strategy the editors and kitchen testers there follow is to avoid substituting ingredients, and instead find ways to reduce fat or calories.

They usually achieve this by reducing the amount of fat ingredients, such as butter or oil, swapping egg whites for eggs and cutting back the amount of sugar in a recipe. And in doing so, they’ve found that most recipes, including those for baked goods, can be made equally as delicious without any “weird” or vegan ingredients, just by including a little less.

For example, you can reduce the amount of sugar by one-third to one-half in most baking recipes, and instead, add spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg, or flavorings such as vanilla extract or almond flavoring to boost sweetness.

I tend to prioritize finding other ingredients over using less of an unhealthy ingredient. Partly, this is because I also try to avoid processed foods. I’d rather use cheddar cheese than reduced fat 1/3 all “natural” cheeze product simply because it’s “reduced fat.” I embrace a little fat here and there. But a marriage between tips #2 & #3 can go a long way to overall reforming your diet.

4. Cut out the unnecessary

One of the most flawed aspects of following a recipe you find blindly (especially if that recipe comes from any chef featured on the Food Network) is that you can get caught in a cycle of unnecessary unhealthiness simply because the ingredients make the cooking process a bit easier, a bit fattier in flavor or texture (and therefore more mass-market appealing) or a bit more familiar.

Example: I’m working on reforming a Rachel Ray recipe for shepherd’s pie with a mashed potato/parsnip topping to include buffalo meat. (It’s going to be epic. I promise to post it soon.) But the woman has the following included in the mash: potatoes, parsnips, milk, butter, sour cream AND two whole cups of shredded cheddar cheese.

Now, I have made delicious mashed potatoes many many times, and I can guarantee you don’t need four different ways to make them creamy. In fact, a combination of milk and vegetable stock gets a creamier and flavorful mash pretty easily, and with the least amount of fat possible (and trust me, mashed potatoes are my absolute favorite food). But if you are so freaked out by experimenting with new ingredients, you might just follow the recipe to the letter without questioning such a bizarre overuse of fat.

A few simple steps here and there, and a focus on whole, fresh foods, is an easy way to begin the process of transforming your diet into a whole, healthy, sustainable one. While eating well is a lifestyle commitment, you can take baby steps to get there, and this is a great place to start!

What are your tips and tricks, readers, for transforming the recipes you know and love into better versions of themselves? Leave a comment and share your ideas with the rest of us!

How Far Should Food Industry Regulation Go?

7 Feb

For this week’s dialogue post, I’ve found a recent and particularly controversy-inspiring editorial from Raj Patel, writing in this case for The Atlantic. Patel makes the case we’ve heard before paralleling the food industry with the alcohol and tobacco industries to argue for the regulation of junk foods, but he goes one step further and wonders whether there isn’t a case for fully abolishing the food industry as we know it. If you can make the argument for tobacco, Patel says, food is close behind.

First up for conversation of course, is the validity of a parallel between tobacco and big food, which Patel supports with mounting evidence of the neurological addictive properties of sugar. A study released last week in the journal Nature provides the strongest case yet for significant and severe health consequences from sugar. The authors of the study advocate alcohol-like regulations as a result of their findings.

Second comes the matter for debate of whether tobacco and sugar are marketed in parallel ways. That is, do we have more of a choice when it comes to junk food than tobacco? I’ve discussed in a previous post the resemblances between old-school tobacco marketing towards children, and the food industry’s strategies, and Patel elaborates on this in the editorial. Recent evidence has demonstrated the overly-sugary properties of the foods marketed most heavily towards children.

Third, and finally, we have to ask ourselves whether moderate regulations are not sufficient to counter any of those dangers. We’ve explored here before individual municipal initiatives like the San Francisco Happy Meal toy ban, and cities across the country have tried similar sin-tax approaches to restricting the sale of soda, for example.

Of course, small government proponents aren’t fan of that idea, and economic research suggests the tax might best be targeted towards the producer, rather than the consumer, of the problem product.

For Patel, all of this points in one direction:

The breadth of products controlled by the food industry — amply toxic and less so — is itself a symptom of a deeper problem that has public health symptoms, but a political economic cause. The food industry is an oligopoly that has transformed not only what we eat but how we eat it, and what we think of food.

and thus, we could make a case for completely upending the system as we know it.

What do you think? Do we need complete, from-the-ground up reform, or should we try moderate regulation first (or at all)? Which, if any, of these individual claims would you dispute, or provide an alternate answer for? Leave a comment and join in our conversation!

Pan-Grilled Ginger-Honey Pork Chops

24 Jan

A few weeks ago, I tackled a reader question about how to motivate yourself to cook on a busy schedule. I completely understand the difficulty of doing this, especially this semester. (Turns out, professing is a full-time job, writing a book is a full-life job, and trying to do both of those while training for a 5k, teaching a yoga class and writing a blog is, well, insane.)

So I thought I would stop trying to make all my We*Meat*Again recipe posts super-impressive and showcase instead some recipes that will help with the advice I gave in that post: take your busy schedule into account and save the big cookfests for the weekend. Here’s a recipe I’ve made this week in less than 15 minutes, in all its deliciousness: Pan-grilled ginger-honey pork chops.

My latest issue of Cooking Light (a regular and great source for fast, easy, healthy cooking), included this recipe for pork tenderloin that I modified to use on the pork chops I had (though if you do cook a whole tenderloin, you’ll be making yourself some great leftovers).

It’s as simple as:

  • Mix the sauce
  • Grill the chops
  • Prep your sides

That’s it! The sauce only includes four ingredients, most of which are pretty standard in my house: ginger, honey, lemon juice and soy sauce. Since I didn’t use a grill pan, I used a swirl of sesame oil to coat the pan and add to the Asian flavors.

Once the pork chop was browning, I doused it with sauce, and then used the 3-4 minutes per side to whip up some easy sides. I made a big pile of microwaved carrots, since I (rightly) thought they would go well with the extra sauce, but a small salad, a micro-baked potato, fresh green beeans, or some couscous, orzo or barley would all work and not take more than a few minutes.

There you have it: an easy, fast and totally healthy meal. No skimping on the amount of filling food, or on any of the food groups, almost no prep time in terms of chopping, and plenty of healthy deliciousness.

What are your favorite quick week-night meals? How do you make sure to meet your healthy eating needs on a time crunch? Leave a comment and share your secrets with the rest of us!

Becoming Food Advocates: Steve’s Story

23 Jan

A few months back, I asked We*Meat*Again readers to leave me questions they’d like answered about me on the site. Cristina posed this question: I know you don’t like the term, but what made you become a “foodie”? Lots of people like to eat, but what makes you care about the state of food.

Little did she (or I) know at the time what would come of the asking.

You can read my answer here. But I was so inspired by the responses to my original post, that I decided to ask some friends to share their stories with me. I sent out a few rounds of emails to people I’ve known in various stages of my life, asking if they would share their “becoming a foodie” story with me. And of the responses I’ve received so far, all have been powerfully moving accounts of wild variation, centering on the theme of food. So I decided to start showcasing some of them here.

One common theme, however, is a near-universal dislike of the term “foodie,” so I’ve decided to try and pioneer the new term “Food Advocate,” since I hope it allows for multiple meanings (some people feel themselves advocates for artisinal food, others for food justice, others for environmentally sustainable food, etc.) without being too unweildy to say or remember either. I’ll explore this in more detail in a future post.

For now, enjoy our first installment in the new “Becoming Food Advocates” Series, from my good friend from New Hampshire, Steve, who writes the blog Or Until Golden Brown. Read, enjoy, and leave us comments sharing which aspects of Steve’s story resonate for you.

Becoming Food Advocates: Steve’s Story

When I was growing up, I fondly remember my mother asking me every year around my birthday what I wanted for my birthday dinner.  And inevitably, I always chose macaroni and cheese with sliced up bits of hotdog throughout.

Kraft macaroni and cheese.  The kind with the powder that you mix with margarine and skim milk and stir into cooked noodles.  And probably generic brand Shaws hotdogs.  Sliced into discs.

This was my idea of gourmet.

It tasted so good.  And it was salty.  And a fun, bright orange color.  And those hotdog slices were meaty and fatty and just so good.  And it was the one night of the year when I didn’t have to eat microwaved frozen vegetables with my dinner.

But of course, it was the 80′s.  Convenience was all the rage.  Butter was out, margarine was in.  Whipped cream?  Out.  Fat-free cool whip?  Yes please.  And anything that could be thrown together out of a box, anything frozen or pre-packaged or canned was very much in.  With my family, anyway.

The idea of mashed potatoes is one perfect example.  On a regular basis, my mother would prepare mashed potatoes for dinner.  But did this involve peeling, boiling, and mashing an actual potato?  Of course not.  It involved measuring out potato flakes and mixing them with boiling milk and then adding…what else?  Margarine.  Are you sensing a theme here?

Only on Thanksgiving would my mother prepare “real” mashed potatoes.  That was the distinction.  Either “mashed potatoes,” which came out of a box, or “real mashed potatoes,” which came from a potato.  Even at the time, I recognized a disconnect between preparation of food and awareness of what that food actually was.

I’m sure there were people in the 80′s who ate organic.  Who had a clue where there food came from.  Who put time and energy into cooking everything from scratch.  Surely, some people already had a finger on the pulse of what I’ve come to think of as post-millennial food awareness.  But they didn’t live in the Gravelle household.  Or probably in Merrimack, New Hampshire, a small suburb boasting King Kone, the local soft ice cream stand, five Dunkin Donuts, and a frequent Meat Bingo at the VFW Hall.

Which is not to say that it was my mom’s fault.  She grew up eating only seven things.  Seven meals.  My grandmother, child of the depression, made exactly seven meals.  One for each night of the week with no variation.  And that’s all my mom knew.  She had never tasted pizza before she met my father.  Had never had any cheese except American slices.  Had never tasted a fresh strawberry.  She was 21 years old.

And so I can’t blame her for not knowing how to cook many things, and for playing it safe.  Frozen spinach would never go bad and have to be thrown out like fresh might.  Canned wax beans can’t develop mold.  And a box of mashed potato flakes is surely more economical than pounds of fresh potatoes.  And she was raising three children!  Who can fault her for wanting to employ cost-saving and time-saving into her cooking?

I don’t remember exactly when it happened that I started to seriously think about food.  How I went from actually thinking of vegetables as being frozen to being aware that they grew out of the ground and could be bought fresh.  I know that college was a big part of my food awareness.  Before leaving home, I had never tasted Thai food.  I didn’t know what sushi was.  I thought that I didn’t like asparagus because I had only tasted it from a can and it was stringy, salty and mushy all at the same time.  It turns out, I love fresh asparagus.

In college, I feel like my friends and I were starting to move from the quick, easy meals of our childhood and into more awareness of food generally.  Trying international cuisine certainly helped.  Sneaking ziploc bags of vegetables from the dining hall salad bar home to make stir-fry helped a lot.  And when I decided early in my sophomore year that I was tired of the Tater Tot Casserole (ground beef, leftover tater tots and lots of cheddar cheese), I had the idea to experiment with vegetarianism.  To see how hard it would be to leave peperoni pizza behind and to give up Chicken Patty Wednesday and to stop eating meatballs with my spaghetti.  And I found very quickly that I started to question all of those paradigms I had as to what food is, why we eat it, and to how it makes us feel.

I wanted to incorporate more color into my diet.  I tried every color of bell pepper for the first time.  My friend Ben taught me to sprinkle salt on my eggplant before cooking to draw out some of the moisture and prevent it from getting stringy.  I tried fresh arugula for the first time and found myself loving it.  And suddenly, I was only visiting the dining hall to pilfer ingredients and I cooked most of my meals at home.  I fell in love with veggie burgers and meat substitutes.  I started cooking with beans and tofu and considering foods I’d never seen before.  I first heard the idea of buying “Local” produce when our local grocery store started a small rack of entirely local foods.  It was the beginning.

For the next few years, I went back to eating meat, first poultry by way of incorporating animal protein back into my diet to help put on muscle mass.  I was living in New Jersey and working out three to five nights a week, and I realized that tofu and beans weren’t enough to get me through a weightlifting plateau.  So I started eating chicken and developed shoulders like mountains.

But just because I started eating meat, I was still primarily vegetarian.  I kept the idea of putting lots of color on the plate.  I kept experimenting with new vegetables and fruits.  I tried my first pomegranate that year when my Iranian roommate brought one home from the market.  I still remember the juice dripping down my arms.  My Texan roommate taught me to cook black-eyed peas and how to drink bourbon.  My Jersey-born roommate got me a job at an Italian restaurant, where I tried Lobster Ravioli and Chicken Piccata and Clams Fra Diavolo and Fried Calamari for the first time.  Moving away from New Hampshire and developing friendships with people from all over the country and of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds opened my eyes to food in a whole new way.  The possibilities of what ingredients were out there and how one could cook them seemed endless.

Around that time, I moved to Philadelphia to become an apprentice at a well-known local theatre, where I met a friend from Georgia, one from Virginia, people from California and Colorado and Montana and Seattle.  From the South, from Spain, from Michigan and Canada.  And the more I cooked, the more I found myself talking about food.  And obsessing about food.  And all of these friends I made started to realize how much I loved food and we all started talking about it.  All the time.  And people shared their family recipes with me.  And their methods for cooking one thing or another.  And I just kept cooking.  I cooked every week and started cooking for my friends.  And I started watching the Food Network on a regular basis and discovering new ingredients and new cooking styles I’d never even heard of.

And all of this food talk and cooking and watching and learning started to mingle with documentaries like Food, Inc. and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and various shows on NPR about food and food issues.  And the idea of Food Justice started to enter my mind.  And what we eat and how we eat it and things I’d been thinking about for years suddenly combined with the question of where does my food come from?  And I met some friends who advocated passionately for Whole Foods, and I started going to restaurants that promote local food.  And I discovered first hand how much better food tastes when it’s both local and seasonal.  And I just kept cooking.  And started going to farmer’s markets.  And buying local meats and learning about where my cheeses from from.  And tasting.  And eating.  And cooking.  And hosting dinner parties.  And a weekly Brunch Club for my friends.  And then I found myself cooking a huge meal of both vegan and omnivore versions of the same food.  And I cooked all the food for my own wedding’s rehearsal dinner.  I started a food blog to share my food experiments and experiences.  And I just kept cooking.

So where does this leave me?  I feel like a perfect storm has been brewing in America’s social consciousness about food.  Suddenly, it seems like everyone is asking these big questions about food.  Where does it come from?  Why do we eat so much imported produce?  How are the animals we eat being treated?  How does something fresh taste versus something frozen?  How important are questions of ethics to food?  How important is organic?  Who actually produced and food we consumed?  What is in that McDonald’s hamburger, and how different is it from a grass-fed, locally produced burger at a nice restaurant?

And I don’t have all the answers to those questions.  But to me, being a foodie doesn’t mean always making the perfect food choices.  Sometimes, I just want a Cheez-it.  But being a foodie means asking the question.  I’m not going to visit every farm to check out the growing of everything I put into my body.  But I’m going to try to only buy local produce.  And seasonal.  And to support what I see as a better system.  Local farms are like any local business… without the support of local people, they die out.  So even though it may sometimes be more expensive, a potato that came out of the ground today will always tasted better than one that travelled across the country from Idaho in the back of a huge truck.

And I feel fortunate that I am living in a time when food matters.  And when it isn’t enough to open a box, add margarine and milk and call it good.  When we actually care and are starting to demand more knowledge and more participation in our food system and how our daily choices affect the system as a whole.

As for my mom?  She had ovarian cancer in the late 90′s and started eating an entirely organic, vegan diet, blaming preservatives and pre-packaged foods for her cancer.  She went through a number of dietary changes over the years, from developing an allergy to gluten, beef, mushrooms and soy, to finding the Blood Type Diet and following that for a while.  Now she’s eating cultured vegetables and kefir as part of the Body Ecology Diet, and she’s feeling great.

She’s come a long way from the 80′s.  And so have I.  I don’t eat boxed mac n’ cheese anymore, and I only eat hotdogs rarely, but I do make a mean baked mac n’ cheese from scratch, and I make my own sausage with a meat grinder and sausage stuffer.  But now I use local pork and locally sourced natural casings.  And it tastes—and feels—so much better.

Interested in sharing your story of becoming a food advocate? We’re looking for all variety of stories, from people of all walks of life, whether you consider yourself a casual amateur or a gourmet chef, whether you care about the environment, nutrition, your children’s health and safety or your local butcher.  If you’d like to submit your own post, here’s all you need to do:

  1. Write up the short story of your food journey. What inspired you to start thinking about what you ate and why it mattered. What your wake-up call was. What’s changed. What your challenges have been.
  2. Anything goes — nothing is too small or tangental. (But please write something new — don’t just send us a link to an already-published post.)
  3. Email this story to us: marissa@wemeatagain.com. Use the title: BECOMING A FOOD ADVOCATE STORY.
  4. If you have them, also send along 2 (or 3) photos to help illustrate your story.
  5. Include your contact information (name, what you’d like us to call you, blog address — if you have one, etc.)
  6. Be patient. We’ll get back to you ASAP — but publishing on the site may take several weeks.

Of course, if you have any questions — just leave ‘em in the comments section or email us at marissa@wemeatagain.com.

And don’t forget today is your last chance to enter for a chance to win a copy of the new, illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, as We*Meat*Again celebrates our 10,000th site visit!

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week (1/19)

20 Jan

Some news from around the world of food this week…

Many of you may have already heard that Paula Deen has (SHOCKINGLY) revealed she has Type II Diabetes. Now, my little sister has been insulin-dependent with Type I Diabetes since just after her ninth birthday, so I will refrain from unleashing my vitriol at obesity-inflicted Type II Diabetes here. But here are some interesting observations about the Deen situation: how conveniently the announcement coincides with (rather than a change of heart or cooking style) Deen’s contract to shill for a new (and dubious) medication, and the mounting evidence correlating meat-eating habits with diabetes.

On a more creative note, my awesome writer-friend Amy Weldon has a really interesting essay up on her blog exploring the connections between food and Southern femininity.

The “Just Label It!” campaign against unknown genetically modified ingredients in our foods officially launched this week with a new video by Robert Kenner (director of Food, Inc.), and Ecocentric has a good blog post covering the basics of GMOs and the labeling campaign for those who want more information.

This is a bit of a food tangent, but some may have heard that Newt Gingrich is gaining ground in South Carolina with a new ad calling President Obama the “food stamp” president (accusing him of putting more people on food stamps — not because the economy has tanked — but because he just looooves government handouts to poor people, is my read). This reminds me of my recent post taking down Rick Santorum for similarly offensive racial/food political slurs.

The Daily Meal released its annual list of the 50 Most Powerful People in Food. If you click through from the bottom up, you’ll spend the first half cheering at the familiar food advocate faces (Bittman! Bourdain! Allen! Mahler!) and then notice a very distinct shift into the corporate world. Here’s hoping 2012 is the year the balance starts to shift

In good news along that front: Food Corps is open for applications for its next cycle, and is expanding this year after a successful pilot program. They need more people in more states, so if you’re interested in pursuing a career in agriculture, nutrition, education, cooking, gardening or advocacy, this is a great way to — literally — get your hands dirty.

Now before you head off for the weekend, make sure to stop by last week’s post and leave a comment to enter for a chance to win a copy of the new, illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, as We*Meat*Again celebrates our 10,000th site visit!

A Twinkie Eulogy

19 Jan

The big news in food this week is that Hostess has (again) filed for bankruptcy. Hostess, the makers of those little sugar bomb cupcakes, the bizarrely pink Sno-Ball, and of course, the Twinkie.

Now, Hostess and their investors suggest that this may not actually mean an end to the production of these baked goods, as they have made it out of bankruptcy once before. But I thought the time seemed apt to take a moment to mourn the passing of the Twinkie. Because think about it — when was the last time you ate a Twinkie (or Sno-Ball or Hostess cupcake)?

All images courtesy of Dwight Eschilman

Ok, so you read food blogs for fun. You aren’t any longer really the Hostess market share. But who do you know who might be? A young child? A teenager with extra cash? A harried mom looking for a quick snack at the 7-11 on her way to soccer practice?

How many of them eat Twinkies?

My point here is that the food movement is the death knell of the Twinkie, and as people who care about good, whole, healthy sustainable foods become more and more the norm in America, the Twinkie starts to become less indulgent treat and more truly horrifying chemical composition. The photos in this post are from a really cool project called “37 or so ingredients” by the photographer Dwight Eschliman to photograph all the ingredients in a Twinkie. As you can see, none are what we would call “real” ingredients.

But I think there’s something more to do here than cheer and declare victory and assume there will be less disgustingly unhealthy snacks for people to grab at convenience stores from here on out. As guest poster Daniel Meyer observed on Mark Bittman’s blog today, the Twinkie has a storied American history. And I think remembering the times we did eat Twinkies is an important part to moving forward into a sustainable food future where we never allow ourselves to go there again.

The last time I ate Hostess treats with any regularity was in high school. Specifically, in the early morning behemouth of a time-waster known at Merrimack High as “cafe study.” For reasons of overflow and understaffing, seniors in my high school were allowed to take up to two study periods a day, and were permitted to have those study halls in the cafeteria, so as not required to be quiet.

What this meant is that for the entire last year of high school, I spent two and a half unobserved hours sitting around in a cafeteria, talking with my friends and eating junk food. We would make daily pilgrimages to the school store or the snack line (which included, in my high school cafeteria, a Taco Bell), where my regular daily purchase was a bag of cool ranch Doritos, a bottle of YooHoo and a cellophane-wrapped package of Hostess cupcakes (eat the bottom first, save the icing crust for last.)

Delicious. But of course, gross.

I recount all this not just as a cautionary tale, or a eww-remember-when memory, but to remember that we didn’t always know better.

We haven’t all been born with a raised food consciousness. A great many people my age (and in generations older and younger) have discovered and developed our food awareness–some very recently. For me, it’s only really been about three and a half years. In the 80s and 90s, we trusted food companies, and convenience was king. As my friend Steve recently reminded me in his (forthcoming) “How I Became a Foodie” essay, anything that could be thrown together out of a package, out of a box, anything frozen or pre-packaged or canned was very much in.

We loved and ate Twinkies because they tasted, in a completely disgusting way, delicious, of course. Their saccarin sweetness appeals to our basest biological desires for food. But we also ate Twinkies because we genuinely didn’t know any better. Because we had no reason to believe a food company might willfully be feeding us something that could hurt us.

We’ve come a long way. babies. And so I give the Twinkie a little middle-finger salute as it goes, hoping I always remember to look back at it, and promise to try my best to think hard about what’s in  my food and where it comes from, from here on out.

Do you harbor any nostalgia for the Twinkie (or some other undead, processed food) from childhood or adulthood? Leave a comment and share your favorite “I can’t believe I ate that!” food memory here!

And make sure to stop by last week’s post and leave a comment to enter for a chance to win a copy of the new, illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, as We*Meat*Again celebrates our 1000th site visit!

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