Is Veganism Good Enough For Everyone to Critique?

By now you have probably seen the Nina Planck NYT article questioning the safety of veganism for kids. And you are probably, rightfully, outraged. The author, who supposedly once followed a vegan diet, is now an outspoken critique who regularly (too often, if you ask me!) is given a platform to express her so-called concern. It’s too extreme! It’s not natural! Your baby might die! As a Registered Dietitian and as a vegan of 16 years I was so frustrated I could barely finish reading it. But now that I’ve had more time to think about this, her irrational statements may not be an entirely bad thing. Before you excommunicate me from the vegan world, here’s what I think:

Veganism is insanely popular right now
The premise of Planck’s article is that veganism is extreme and a fringe idea. I hate to say this, but when I first went vegan in the 90’s this was somewhat true. But today we have talk show hosts, mixed martial arts fighters, professional athletes and a host of scientists, doctors and dietitians (see list below) that are vegan. The number of strict vegans may still a small percentage of the population, but is growing unbelievably fast. And the number of people who sometimes eat vegan meals is skyrocketing. Veganism has reached a mainstream audience: we have to expect backlash.

The response was immediate, thorough and successful
My colleague Ginny Messina, aka The Vegan RD, easily tore apart Planck’s scare tactics and pseudo-science as did the Vegetarian Resource Group. The LA Times even did a response article that quotes Messina extensively. The Sistah Vegan Project and the Intellectualyst also responded, just to name a few. I was so thoroughly impressed by the response from the vegan community that I had to change what I was originally going to write about here.

Relying on psuedo-science and out-dated studies to critique veganism is becoming harder to do
Articles like this used to appear regularly! Today they are quite rare, which is why I am shocked that the NY Times actually ran it. Vegans have decades of experience justifying their eating habits and have become rather skilled at using research to make their arguments. Every time I see Jack Norris’ site linked it reminds that vegans are a smart bunch who will use real science to fight psuedo-science. With vegan Registered Dietitians like Jack Norris, Ginny Messina, Reed Mangels, Julianna Heaver, Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina covering the science behind veganism we have the tools to show not only the adequacy of vegan diets, but the benefits of eating plant-based.

Remember this: veganism is a radical idea to many and a threat to more than a few social and economical systems. But compassion and science are on our side. So next time someone brings up one of Nina Planck’s ridiculous articles or statements, take a deep breath and politely ask where the scientific studies backing her ideas are. Meanwhile you can read the Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition’s Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets that says nothing about having to rely on ‘many synthetic supplements.’

Sorry Natalie, Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

The New York Times recently ran a piece by Natalie Angier called “Sorry Vegans, Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too“. It was categorized under the “Science” section, with the further distinction of “basics“. In other words, the author wants to let us know that making an ethical argument to curtail the science-fiction and horror-movie-like indignities and atrocities that animals endure in exchange for a plant-based diet is flawed because plants want to live – and duh, that’s just basic science.

“…plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.”

That may be true, if it’s aspirations we’re talking about. And following this line of logic, we may as well throw in that lightning does not aspire to illuminate a bulb, a mountain does not aspire to be a car-frame, an island does not aspire to be a tourist destination, and a child does not aspire to get heart disease.

Can you imagine if Angier said “plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a woman aspires to be raped”? It is consistent with this line of logic where no one is safe, and one wrong justifies another. When I was four, I learned that two wrongs don’t make a right. Eating plants doesn’t make eating animals okay (if eating plants were even an equal “wrong” as Angier suggests). The optimal inner-dialogue she wants us to have upon reading her article goes something like this: “well, if plants are that hell-bent on surviving, what’s the point of trying to spare animals when clearly they are just as deserving of consideration – and we have to eat something, so we may as well just eat what we want because it’s such a big gray area“.

“It’s a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive. Plants are the ethical autotrophs here, the ones that wrest their meals from the sun. Don’t expect them to boast: they’re too busy fighting to survive.” let’s humor Angier, even though plants are lacking a brain, and even though we know that while someone who is brain-dead (a vegetable), though bio-chemical reactions still persist, does not respond to bodily injury that would typically cause the type of pain most animal advocates seek to alleviate. Let’s say that plants can suffer in a similar way as do people and animals. Let’s just say that ripping a carrot out of the dirt is along the lines of forcibly impregnating (raping?) dairy cows, then tearing the baby away (which is met by hours and days of a howling, distraught mother), sentencing the calf to a veal crate (where he can not even turn around or lie down) and stealing the milk for ourselves. Does the former justify the latter? I don’t want to live in Angier’s world where potentially causing pain justifies certainly causing pain. Mustn’t that also justify inflicting pain upon people? This is a messy, messy road to go down.

I wonder if Natalie Angier is aware of what farmed animals eat? I also wonder if she knows what the ratio of plant-based animal feed converted to meat and dairy is. Or how much land is used to meet the demands of producing animal products? If she did know these things, and she were a vehement “plants’ rights activist” she would still be making the most ethical choice by going vegan because the most plants would be spared, instead of being converted into animal protein and graze-land at a losing ratio.

How about some clarity? Most animal advocates are talking about actively avoiding incredible amounts of suffering, ecological devastation, and health and social problems in relation to using animals for food, clothing, research, and entertainment. This can result in legislation, direct action, grassroots activism, lifestyle changes, and other advocacy with the aim of alleviating preventable suffering, decreasing environmental impact, and improving health and human welfare. Natalie needs a lesson in “basics”, herself. Far from the recent, trendy food discourse she invokes exists the response to her confusion, as laid out by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1789. “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

To frame the moral dilemma in “Killing animals for human food and finery” as being about aspirations is to fail in understanding the agenda of many animal activists. The intention of many vegans I know is not moral purity – yet this consistent misconceptionplantbrain isn’t responded to as clearly by animal advocates as it should. It is more often a social justice issue involving individual animals who actively dissent by vocalizing and struggling to escape sources of pain and suffering, defending their young, mourning the death of and separation from family and friends, maintaining a preference for complex and communicative social structures, and seeking out comfort when faced with pain.

Like many critics who consider animal advocates self-righteous cow-huggers, and whose first response to finding out that someone is vegan is typically “well, what’s your belt made out of?“, the author of this article exemplifies this misconception about the purpose of veganism. Is it political? Yes. Is it about moral puritanism? Not usually. Nor is it about preventing death. Of course plants strive to live, but everything living eventually dies. It is about preventing preventable suffering. It is about not choosing the duck or the lamb because they have brains and bodies that register suffering in a way with which we can empathize.

Angier blabs, as if her audience were the confessional:

“I still eat fish and poultry, however and pour eggnog in my coffee. My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I’m willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don’t have a good answer.”

If the title itself didn’t make it obvious enough that the purpose of the article was to rationalize her whimsical diet and piss off vegetarians who live in the “moral penthouse”, as Angier refers to it, then the content itself does the job. Angier neither offers insight into her inability to exert self-control in face of cheese and duck, nor does her artless and callow argument to consider the will-to-live of vegetation on same playing field as the suffering endured by animals with consciousness, brains, and nervous systems have any defensible logic. It is riddled with the anthropomorphizing of plants (something of which animal advocates are commonly accused), and it is creepily reminiscent of the joke website VRMM.

Senseless torture

“Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl.”

Is it valid to point out that plants fight, cooperate, and evolve to optimize survival, like any other living organism? Sure. Plants, fungi, bacteria, and all living organisms are amazing, complex, and have spent billions of years evolving into performing delicate and not-so-delicate dances with everything around them. Whether homeostasis is the Earth’s aspiration (as proposed by James Lovelock‘s Gaia Hypothesis) or the destruction of everything is the Earth’s Aspiration (as proposed by Peter Ward‘s Medea Hypothesis), or if the Earth or universe even has aspirations are not the issues at hand when we talk about veganism or animal advocacy.

Angier claims “This is not meant as a trite argument“, yet her purpose in writing the article seems as trite as rationalizing her own, flimsy food choices.

Every Meal is Illuminated

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Over the weekend, the New York Times “Food Issue” featured the ingenious Jonathan Safran Foer’s (“Everything Is Illuminated”) article “Against Meat“. This article is adapted from his coming book, “Eating Animals,” which will be published in November. You can read an interview with him about the project here. Thanks to our friends at Dawnwatch for pointing this out!

Eating Animals

Jonathan Safran Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood-facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child’s behalf-his casual questioning took on an urgency  His quest for answers ultimately required him to visit factory farms in the middle of the night, dissect the emotional ingredients of meals from his childhood, and probe some of his most primal instincts about right and wrong. Brilliantly synthesizing philosophy, literature, science, memoir and his own detective work, Eating Animals explores the many fictions we use to justify our eating habits-from folklore to pop culture to family traditions and national myth-and how such tales can lull us into a brutal forgetting. Marked by Foer’s profound moral ferocity and unvarying generosity, as well as the vibrant style and creativity that made his previous books, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, widely loved, Eating Animals is a celebration and a reckoning, a story about the stories we’ve told-and the stories we now need to tell. –

Killer Bacon Bugs, Bid on Stars & Recycling Myths

1. An Op-Ed published by the New York Times last week has linked killer MRSA, also known as the  antibiotic-resistant “Flesh Eating Bacteria” to more than 18,000 deaths per year in the US. That’s more than AIDS. And what is the source of this superbug? You guessed it: cheap pig products. “Probably from the routine use — make that the insane overuse — of antibiotics in livestock feed. This is a system that may help breed virulent “superbugs” that pose a public health threat to us all.

A small Dutch study found pig farmers there were 760 times more likely than the general population to carry MRSA (without necessarily showing symptoms), and Scientific American reports that this strain of MRSA has turned up in 12 percent of Dutch retail pork samples.

Now this same strain of MRSA has also been found in the United States. A new study by Tara Smith, a University of Iowa epidemiologist, found that 45 percent of pig farmers she sampled carried MRSA, as did 49 percent of the hogs tested.

Death on a Factory Farm

And now with the NYT review of the Documentary “Death on Factory Farm” which is taking HBO viewers by

storm, I can only wonder how these animals that are smarter than dogs (yet some dogs chew delightfully on their dried ears & limbs) will fare int he coming months? And au contraire Mike Hale and the Wiles’s community, we can all eat veggies and thrive.

2. Bid on me! Help Farm Sanctuary raise some funds, and get a private brunch for two prepared by yours truly! Also bid on items from Bill Mahr, Amy Smart, Joan Jett, Chloe Jo, Daniela Sea, Heather Mills, Matt & Nat, Wendy Kidd, Dan Piraro, Gloria Steinem, Joelle Katcher, Rachael Sage, 30 Seconds to Mars, Maureen Burke, Gabrielle Brick, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Nigel Barker, and more!

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3. Is recycling really all that it claims to be? Have you ever been confronted by someone who is a total recycling skeptic and didn’t know what to say?

Read: “Recycling Is Too Difficult and 9 Other Obnoxious Myths

Read the Economist article: “The Truth About Recycling

Read: The Economics of Recycling

Watch: William McDonough on ‘Cradle to Cradle’

Recycling is a tricky issue because it’s really a problem of over-production and over-consumption. But one thing is certain. We do not have infinite resources on this planet, and people who are in the industries that use up these resources, and are in positions to do something about it have a responsibility to figure out how to not leave devastated ecosystems for future generations. Just because the recycling systems aren’t perfect does not justify throwing caution to the wind and continuing ‘business as usual’.

The real issue is that recycling is not enough. Reuse is better, and ‘green’ products with toxic by-products need to be more thoroughly sourced, because there are products that come from closed loop systems, also known as EIN Eco Industrial Networking or EIP- Environmental Industrial Parks. But again, the root problem is still there.

Bottler of an idea ... Crushed drink bottles at a recycling plant in Chullora

One major problem is that recycling systems are often based on dollars as opposed to ecological and personal well-being. Dollars are abstract and when you work towards achieving such an abstraction (as opposed to working towards sustainability, good health, community, friendship, etc) the consequences to the physical world become secondary, when in fact ecosystems are primary and without functioning, healthy ones, we’d all be gone. The reason recycling appears to be useless to some people is not because re-rendering products into new products is impossible – it’s because they are seeing the effects of basing a recycling system upon a system that in itself is not sustainable.

Does that mean we shouldn’t recycle? Of course not! It means we should do that, and much much more! It also means the problems haven’t been solved and we need to get some serious critical thinking done.

Candle 79 Redux

I wrote this response to the New York Times review of Candle 79 today:

Candle 79 is truly an amazing experience! Mr.Bruni approached his review of Candle 79 as if he were a Broadway critic reviewing a school play. Better yet, as if he were an insecure straight man reviewing a gay bar. Manliness and meat-eating are inseparable in our culture, after all.

Was it a good review? Maybe. He seemed more intent on reminding everyone he likes meat the entire time while giving 79 a somewhat patronizing pat-on-the-back.

Frank Bruni, like most other ‘food experts’ base their entire system like so: animal products are primary, and vegetation is complimentary or secondary – as he admits. This stereotype of vegan food as being a bland pile of grass clippings has been nearly overturned in the last decade. Places like Candle 79 are largely responsible. And unlike Mr. Bruni, I think the Seitan Chimichuris are delicious!

So why is there such a huge surge in vegan cuisine? Certainly there isn’t some mass of martyrdom. An uprising of grassroots and DIY restaurants, cookbooks, bakeries, and other food products has proven that vegan cuisine can be so delicious, successful and lucrative in the last 10 years that the old-school has finally recognized it. Just yesterday Oprah did a special on factory farming and Proposition 2 in California that would ban cruel confinement conditions on animal farms. Ellen Degeneres and Portia are both newly vegan. New York Times best selling book “Skinny Bitch” is still selling like mad. There is a huge demand for conscientious hedonism! The Farm Sanctuary Gala and Genesis Awards are as star-studded as any Hollywood party.

The lamb, the calf, the aged udder secretions (cheese) and chickens’ menstruations (eggs) and diseased goose & duck livers (foie gras) of animals confined and put through hell for their entire lives are, of course, not things we want to consider while eating them… much less something that would carry weight in a food critique. Infantile self-gratification at any cost, including convenient illusions of Utopian farm life for these animals is crucial to mainstream food reviewing. It’s much easier to call it a burger or cheese or veal or Foie gras, and not let the reality remove pleasure from the illusions. You eat ‘pork’. You don’t eat ‘a pig’.

That being said, I consider myself a vegan, a foodie and a conscientious hedonist. Silence your gasps! It is possible to lose pleasure when certain truths are uncovered, and it is possible to gain pleasure knowing you can have your cake and eat it too – and in this case, it’s an amazing vegan cake with cinnamon ice cream (made from coconut cream, of course).

For people wanting to experience some of the BEST vegan food out there, go eat at Candle 79, or go to Whole Foods and try Field Roast’s Apple Sage ‘Grain Sausage’ (, Dr Cow’s Tree Nut Cheese (, Purely Decadent Coconut Cream Ice Creams (, or just come over to Brooklyn and I’ll make you a batch of cinnamon, chocolate  pistachio, vegan rugelach that even my very picky, non-vegan, Jewish mother told me ‘put all other rugelachs to shame’ including her own. (I’ll be posting the recipe tomorrow!)

Mainstream food criticism insists it owns certain terminology – but ‘meat’ is not defined as animal flesh, and ‘milk’ does not mean ‘cows milk’. These terms have been taken by the dominant culture, but meat can be the meat of an apple, and milk can be coconut milk. The idea of veganism being only a one way street; taking OUT certain ingredients, is only half true. We also put IN delicious ingredients most non-vegans wouldn’t typically use like coconut oil, cashew cream, flax, sea vegetables, and nutritional yeast. Most chefs wouldn’t know what to do with these ingredients, like how to turn flax into a whipped egg-substitute in baking, or combining cashew cream with nutritional yeast and black truffle oil for a creamy, cheesy sauce – which is why Vegan cuisine has been so DIY!

The only place Candle 79 falls short is in having to accommodate people like Frank Bruni by referencing animal products in their menus for fear of being overlooked in a meat-obsessed culture. Critics who have trouble experiencing food made without animal products fear a loss of identity. But they are no less into food than those who are vegan. Psychologically, there are many more things going on with defiant ties to a zealous affiliation with animal products (but that’s a whole other article).

Veganism can taste amazing! Go enjoy the hundreds of veg restaurant NYC has to offer.

Joshua Katcher
Fashion, Food & Etiquette for the Ethically Handsome Man