@WSJ Healthier food by any other name might be “vegan”

October 24, 2011

Recently President Bill Clinton appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, looking more aerodynamic and slender than ever before. He spoke about his new meatless, milkless, eggless diet as part of his recovery from heart disease, attributing Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., as an influence on his new “plant based diet.”
When you see the thought-provoking (life changing) documentary “Forks Over Knives” http://forksoverknives.com/ Dr. Esselstyn was a subject of the film and health resource (see http://wp.me/pOKJq-u). The interview with Clinton is just one example of a bigger trend in food communications where the word “vegan” is rarely mentioned.
The relationship we have with food is a product of marketing – what we believe about nutrition comes out of what we are told about food.
Conflicting information is common – “milk does a body good” yet lactose creates health problems for so many people. Marketing can also be a self-serving force, as with heavily marketed, less than healthy fast food testing to our impulse control and our passive slavery to convenience. The words used to discuss food, to label it, are at basic level a sales pitch.
“Organic” food in the store has an implied pedigree – although the standards of what “organic” means are changing constantly. “Organic equals better for my health” says my rat brain as wired by my childhood spent in Co-op Food Markets in the East Bay Area. Would you pay more for an organic food/product than one that doesn’t have that label? Do you understand why chemicals might be beneficial to growing cycles and market costs and organic sometimes isn’t?
Other labels that denote a pedigree include the pareve logo on packaged food – an affirmation of your faith by respecting food laws – unlike the capricious “organic” name, kosher means kosher. [great article by Rabbi Arthur Waskow: Eco-Kashrut: Environmental Standards for What and How We Eat – My Jewish Learning: http://bit.ly/vwW1u3] In sharp contrast, another health-related label, “vegan” has no sought after pedigree…currently.
Like kosher/pareve, with vegan the implications are pretty straightforward. Does it also mean a sacrifice of taste lacking butter or levening lacking eggs? Does vegan food carry the additional stigma of being less yummy or fun, a sacrifice to being healthy?
In a recent Wall Street Journal “a-hed” article on vegan cupcakes, this labeling dilemma was raised. The “a-head column” lives on page one near the bottom – because “life isn’t all business.” Kudos to WSJ for featuring diverse and fascinating stories that are not headline news.)
With vegan cupcakes, while there are bakers who have found moving away from the vegan label to be more profitable, others are very vocal about the implied responsibility of vegan bakers to educate. “If you’re not making people aware of food choices, you’re not going to change the world around you,” according to Danielle Konya of Vegan Treats in PA.
Food pioneer and Chez Panisse founding chef, Alice Waters once said, “I hope that students will have a stronger grasp of the concept that what we eat has consequences for our health, culture and the environment.” The food education must start and continue in marketing communications and the rise of media literacy in education.
“To begin with, it is true that people have a craving for oil, dairy, and animal fat, and that includes the medical scientists who study the problem. We are immersed in an environment of toxic food that is attractive, tasteful, reasonably priced, and heavily advertised. And there are powerful commercial interests that want no change in the American diet.” – Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D.
Teach students how to decode the messages they receive, understand the agendas underlying what is communicated, and make choices appreciating the longer term rewards/consequences. Someday terms like “vegan” and “plant-based” will be as interchangeable in common usage as they are in fact. Learning to respect the earth, to respect nature, to respect our bodies are as much as discipline as following an eco-kosher or vegan lifestyle. This is one food trend that is anything but trendy.

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