Maybe you’ve seen their products in supermarkets. Boca Burgers paving the way for Smart Links, rice bread showing up an aisle away from Soy Dream. And suddenly more and more you’re meeting people who refuse eggs and cheese along with meat. You may have seen one carefully scrutinizing food labels. They are legion, and they have a name: The Vegans. And although you’ve probably only noticed them relatively recently, they’ve been around for over half a century.
Veganism is vegetarianism “turned up to eleven.” It avoids any product obtained through the use–read, exploitation–of animals. That means meat is out, obviously. So are eggs and dairy. But less obvious are things like honey or silk. These are also verboten; after all, those bees made the honey for themselves, not for some clumsy farmer who crushes ten worker bees whenever he checks on the hive. And imagine yourself in a silkworm’s position: all that effort to create a cocoon, and for your trouble you’re boiled in it and tossed aside.
According to the website of Britain’s Vegan Society (the world’s oldest), the movement started in 1944, when a group of concerned “non-dairy” vegetarians (as they were then called) grew tired of seeing fellow herbivores consume animal products. Led by Elsie Shrigley and Donald Watson, they chose a new name for themselves: “Vegans,” from “vegetarian’s” first and last syllables. Though the movement met with initial resistance from vegetarians unwilling to completely forego animal products, it has since grown dramatically. Britain is home to at least 250,000 vegans; in the U.S., up to 1.4% of people refuse to eat or use any animal products. And with the rise of those vegan-friendly products, the convenience-factor is drawing more people in.
Vegans make the choice for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s better for you. Vegan diets are high in fiber and protein and low in saturated fat and cholesterol. In a time when heart attacks are the most likely cause of death in America and obesity is on the rise all over the western world, this is no small benefit. Cancer risk is lessened, as well; a regular consumer of red meat is twice more likely to get colon cancer than a vegan.
Then there are the ethical considerations. In the vegan view, snuffing out the life of an animal–or even making it uncomfortable–for sustenance or comfort is a moral impossibility, even more so than with vegetarians. Many even oppose the use of yeast in cooking, and why shouldn’t they? The process kills millions to of yeast molecules. And if killing a one-celled organism is immoral, then the factory farming of everything from cows to honey bees is downright intolerable.
Veganism has never sat well in the public eye, even with some vegetarians, who view vegans as too extreme, and most meat-eaters, who consider them downright loopy. But recently public opinion shifted from puzzled disapproval to outright animosity, brought on by a controversial study in 2005 and several deaths. Lindsay Allen, a professor working for the US Agricultural Research Service, studied the effects of vegan eating habits on African children versus those of children given small, daily doses of meat. The meat-eaters experienced healthier development and performed better in school, while the “vegan” group–fed daily servings of just corn and beans–fell behind.
Based on the study, Allen concluded animal products contain nutrients not found anywhere else and that forcing children into a vegan diet is unethical and irresponsible. But vegans blasted the study as unscientific and heavily biased; not only were all the children starving, but the beef industry financed Allen’s study.
The deaths of several children by malnutrition did far more damage. Over and over, the same story arose: vegan parents fed their infants nothing but soy, juice, and crushed nuts. The infants took ill and died; the parents were punished heavily for criminal negligence (and in some cases, murder). Again, critics claimed this proved the flaws inherent in the vegan diet, saying children needed animal products to survive. Vegans countered that the parents were simply irresponsible, and that nothing was wrong with a proper Vegan diet.
While it’s true that many vegans load up on daily supplements (because things like omega-3 or vitamin b-12 are hard to find in simple veggies), there are many who don’t, and most of them are living healthy lives. It may seem odd to a carnivore, but to a growing number of people, it makes perfect sense.
If you’re hungry for some vegan-friendly food, you should try the following recipes:
Vegan Chocolate Cake
Bold Vegan Chili
Black Bean Chipotle Burgers
Wolfgang Puck’s Spicy Bruchetta
Broiled Vegetable Quesedillas
Brandia’s Tex Mex Soy Lasagna
Black Bean Asian Tostadas
Zucchini “Crab” Cakes
Wolfgang Puck’s “My Mother’s Garden Vegetable Soup”
Steamed Yuca with Mojo
And there are plenty more in our Vegan/Vegetarian Section!