It’s the latest nutritional trend and it sounds incredibly healthy. But it’s not easy to sort the wheat from the chaff.
So what does plant-based mean? A lot more than just eating your vegies.
It’s synonymous with a vegan diet, and there’s a world-wide movement affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist church promoting it.
While some vegan elements in our midst are linked with this, many others have simply leapt on a bandwagon that’s currently making a lot of money.
Vegans argue that plant foods are better for our health, better for the planet and better for animals: win, win, win.
If only it was so black and white. Let’s look a little more closely at those three areas.
It’s claimed that we can be perfectly healthy on a diet of plants. I’ve even seen an article headed: ‘Vegan pet food as healthy for cats and dogs as meat, says veterinary professor’.
Read on and we discover that Fluffy and Fido will need ‘carefully formulated additional synthetic nutrients’. So will we.
Humans need complete protein, essential fatty acids and vitamins and minerals to function healthily.
Only animal foods provide complete protein, i.e. all of the essential amino acids. Plant foods can be combined to do that (e.g. beans plus rice), but it takes diligence. I spent my 20s being vegan/vegetarian and rarely did it well.
Animal foods (such as oily fish) provide essential fatty acids in the form that the body can use easily. Plants don’t.
As for vitamins and minerals, women who skimp on animal foods often become low in, for example, B12, calcium, iron and zinc.
And while vegans are likely to be health-conscious people, a paper published a year ago from UK research on almost 55,000 men and women showed that over a period of 17.6 years vegans had a 2.3 times higher risk of hip fractures compared to meat-eaters.
This kind of study can’t prove that plant-based diets cause more fragile bones; it can only show a relationship, but that’s a mighty strong relationship.
It’s hard not to conclude that we’re designed to have animal foods in our diet. Growing old healthily as a vegan might not be impossible, but it would certainly be challenging and need targeted supplementation.
A few months ago I read an interview with actress Michelle Pfeiffer who’s now 63. She’s beautiful and always has been. But according to the interview she credits her glowing skin to a vegan diet which helps her avoid the toxins that age us.
This can be seductive, especially on those days when we look in the mirror and feel 108. But I promise you a vegan diet won’t help us age better and it’s not the key to looking like Michelle Pfeiffer.
Another issue is that vegan processed food is a huge growth area. For starters, check out the plant-based ‘meats’ showing up in supermarkets.
Instead of chicken we can choose an ‘extra tender and juicy guilt-free’ plant version made from soy protein concentrate, sunflower oil, salt and spices. Other meat alternatives are rich in goodies such as canola oil, thickeners and gelling agents.
So don’t be fooled into thinking that eating this could somehow be a good thing.
Having said all that, the plant-based movement raises important questions about the way animal foods are produced in Australia and many other countries.
Someone who’s thought long and hard about this is Matthew Evans, the former chef and food critic turned farmer. You might know him the Gourmet Farmer TV program on SBS.
Matthew and his wife have 70 acres south of Hobart where they run pigs, chickens, beef and dairy cattle, and grow apples, olives and a market garden.
He spent five years researching and writing a book called On Eating Meat, and while animal food is obviously broader than meat, meat is a central part of it.
As he says, regardless of whether we’re talking about farming crops or animals, the big problem is how we do it. Most of our food comes from intensive farming. Feedlots. Factory farms.
When we pick up a plastic-covered pack of lamb chops or chicken thighs from the supermarket we’re removed from its origins and the conditions under which the animal or bird was raised.
Factory farms work hard to keep those conditions under wraps. It’s not in their interests for us to observe chickens that don’t see the sun, cattle fed all sorts of waste but not grass, or pigs that don’t get to move around.
Matthew starts his book by recounting a visit to a feedlot where he almost gagged on the smell of ammonia. The feedlot owner assured him that was the smell of money.
While some farmers see themselves as stewards of the land, others are in it for nothing more than the money. Hardly a grand revelation, but when that approach prevails it won’t matter whether we’re talking about farming plants or animals.
There’s a lot to be said for pulling back on the amount of animal food we eat. Aside from the conditions in which the animals are raised, we simply eat too much of it. For example, Australians eat around five times more red meat than the global average.
And we eat more chicken than red meat. The poor old chook is the most intensively farmed creature on Earth.
Matthew Evans regards meat eating as a privilege and recommends that we eat less of it but choose better quality. And expect to pay for it.
‘Slow’ food, quality food, and even food where animals are treated decently isn’t some snotty middle-class aspiration.
Of course, not everyone can do this, but a lot of us can. Interestingly, the average Australian apparently spends a smaller proportion of income on food today than 30 years ago.
It’s also a furphy that we have to do food production the way we currently do to feed the number of people we need to feed. There’s no question we can do better.
Eating less and choosing better also supports a healthier environment. It’s often hard to know how we can meaningfully contribute to that outcome but being more thoughtful about our food choices is one way.
Reducing food waste is another. According to the Climate Council, if global food waste were a country, it’d be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind the US and China.
The Council says that in Australia we throw out up to 20% of the food we buy. Add in the fruit and veg that gets rejected by vendors because it doesn’t look perfect, plus waste from supermarkets, restaurants and cafes, and apparently a third of all food produced in this country goes to waste.
Rotting food produces methane. But the production, harvesting, transport and packaging of that wasted food generates emissions too.
It’s often argued that farming plants is better for the planet than farming animals. While feedlots are a major environmental problem, so is farming vast areas with single crops such as soy, corn and wheat.
The yield from those is fed to animals in lieu of grass. A lot of it is also used to make processed food. A big picture view suggests that thoughtful mixed farming is more likely to support healthy ecosystems and feed the world’s people.
And what about the animal cruelty argument for veganism? It’s understandable, though as Matthew Evans points out, farmers kill a LOT of animals and birds to protect their crops. Those farms wouldn’t be financially viable otherwise. So are we saving animal lives by eating plants? Er, no. Maybe different lives. (And you don’t want to know what he says goes into the crusher with the grapes that make wine.)
So where does all this leave us? While I’ve barely scratched the surface of the conversation, hopefully you won’t fall for the simplistic idea that plant-foods are always better. It’s complex, and there are issues on both sides.
For those of us interested in making better choices, here are a few thoughts on what we can do.
- Matthew Evans’ point about quality is an excellent place to start: we can eat less meat but better. And find a few healthy vegetarian or vegan recipes instead of relying solely on meat, fish or poultry as the focus of main meals.
- Aligned with that, we can be willing to pay for better food. Most of us are against animal cruelty but where it counts is when we’re shopping and buy the organic or pasture-raised chicken over the cheapest one on offer.
- We can support local farmers and producers making an effort to do things well.
- We can acknowledge cafes and restaurants who promote their use of local ingredients. And where they don’t tell us where their food comes from, we can ask.
- We can ask the same questions of supermarkets. They’ll raise the bar when they know we’re interested. Standards of chicken farming improved after the RSPCA began working with supermarkets in response to public demand.
- We can support organisations such as Ozharvest, who work to reduce food waste and feed people in need.
- We can also reduce our own food waste by doing simple things like checking the fridge and making a list before we head out to shop. The foods wasted most often are fruit and veg, bread and leftovers.
- And we can read ingredients on food labels so we know what we’re buying and eating.
It’s not about right or wrong, or feeling righteous or guilty. Just making better choices where we can. And it’s good to know that choices which benefit our health can also improve food production standards and the environment.
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