Gone Vegan

Lindsay Hutton discovers the politics and pragmatics behind a meat and dairy-free diet.

I’m closing in on week two of veganism and it’s settling in rather nicely. The mystifying hunger has faded in the past couple of days and the gastrointestinal fracas has simmered down. 

As a vegan, I’ve had to be much more careful about what I purchase at the grocery store. I’ve never been one to eat a lot of packaged foods, but I was dismayed to find how many contain animal products that weren’t specifically meat or dairy oriented. Paul Newman’s vinaigrette salad dressing? Anchovies. Soy cheeses? Casein. Wheat Thins? Milk products. A bottle of cranberry juice? Carmine (derived from scale insects). Even the café I frequent serves nonvegan soymilk (casein again).  I feel cheated.

Why are most of these products used? Certainly not for nutritive value. The reasons are mostly cosmetic or for preservation purposes: to emulsify, thicken, moisten, glaze, colour and stave off rot. Similar in function to what an undertaker (sorry, funeral director) performs on a corpse. Who’s hungry?

As I am now one of those annoying creatures clogging up the aisles in food stores, closely reading the ingredients listings on the packaging, I thought I would invite you to join in on the fun. You too can be glared upon by frazzled-looking young mums and elderly ladies who “accidentally” run over the back of your ankles with their carts in protest.  But at least you won’t be ingesting a food or beverage dyed with mashed-up bugs. 

Here is a list of commonly used animal derivatives and where they are usually found in food products: 

Albumin: A protein derived from eggs and used as a thickening agent. Usually found in sauces. 

Capric acid: An animal fat found chewing gum, ice cream and baked goods. 

Casein, caseinate, sodium caseinate: A milk protein often found in many soy “dairy” items.

Carmine, Carminic acid: A red pigment procured from female cochineal beetles. One source reports nearly 60,000 beetles are used to make one pound of the stuff. Found in coloured pasta, beverages and candy (and pictured above).

Gelatin: Used as a thickener and derived from the boiling down of animal bones, fats and other throw away parts of cows and pigs. Found in many candies, desserts, coated cereals and yogurts.

Lactic acid: A milk-based bacteria used in pickled items as well as candies, jams and frozen desserts.

Lecithin: Soy lecithin is becoming more common, but unless otherwise stated, it’s likely the sort derived from egg yolks. Found in many foods, including margarine, mass-produced baked goods, chocolate and vegetable cooking sprays.

Oleic acid, oleinic acid: An animal tallow used as flavouring for baked goods, cheese and beverages. 

Pepsin – Derived from pig stomachs. Found in many cheeses.

Stearic acid: Derived from animal fats, this is used in many food flavourings. 

Rennet: A substance scraped from the stomachs of calves, this helps preserve and harden cheese. 

Whey: The liquid that separates from the curds in cheese making. Often used in breads, crackers, cakes and many other processed foods of the starchy variety. 

For new vegans, this can be frustrating. Our culture’s dependence on processed foods makes many of these items difficult to live without. For example, last week I spent about five minutes in the cookie aisle scanning the ingredient listings for a treat that didn’t contain animal products. I was, quite literally, left with one or two choices.  

Simply out of necessity, most vegans tend to abide by what is often termed a whole foods or macrobiotic diet to maintain the integrity of their veganism.  Moreover, vegans aren’t the only ones making the decision to scrap, or at least reduce, processed foods from their diet. If we want cookies, maybe we should prepare them ourselves, vegan or not.

In the past few weeks, I have noticed that veganism requires, at least initially, a little more thought when it comes to food accessibility. I can’t grab the first bag of snacks I see and eat it. Many restaurants simply will not offer food choices that will adhere to my lifestyle. Pesky food cravings aside, I had to ask myself, were these foods all that wonderful for me in the first place? Not particularly. Should I get off my duff and make something for myself that is just as appetizing and not tarted up with fats boiled off of dead animals? Probably. 

Next on Gone Vegan: Lindsay talks iron and vitamin B12. And promises to make it far more interesting than it sounds.