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Pink Slime and human nature

Once again, this story is going around. And once again, all I see is meat eaters freaking out about eating meat.

For those of you unfamiliar: When all the meat possible is removed by hand from an animal post-slaughter, the bones, along with other parts that edible meat is sticking to, go through a process of mechanical separation, separating the very small leftover meat from the non-edibles. This mechanically separated meat is then used as a filler in other meat products. 

Sounds kinda disgusting, but no worse than the rest of the slaughtering process. And generally, I feel that anything that produces less waste is a good thing (and so do the meat processors, I imagine). But seeing the above photo, masses of internet citizens (vegetarians and meat eaters both, though I've seen more from the meat eaters) have collectively freaked out about it.

I really don't see it as being much different from most other ground meat preparations, honestly. The beef version typically has ammonium hydroxide (an USDA-approved antimicrobial) added to kill e. coli, while the pork and chicken versions don't. This is also freaking people out, generally those who don't know about the hundreds of chemicals already fed to and used in the slaughter of animals. Hint: You don't want to know.

There are, of course, other processes out there for dealing with leftover bits of meat. After you kill an animal and remove all the meat you can, many processors boil the bones to extract tiny bits of meat. This also serves to de-marrow the bones, break down the skin and connective tissue, etc. This process converts natural collagen into a type of gelatin, thickening the mixture as well. Sounds disgusting too, yes? Well, I've just described the horrible process that your grandmother used to make chicken or beef stock in her own kitchen. That monster!

We have a weird tendency in our society to freak out about meat if it doesn't look like what we think meat should look like (a steak, a cooked chicken breast, etc). Once it's dead animal flesh, we should use all we can. The truly horrible parts of the process exist mainly in the treatment and slaughter of the animals, but that part doesn't seem to phase people. As long as the muscle tissue looks like what we expect the muscle tissue to look like on our plate, it's delicious. But when we get a glimpse into the process, we're forced to think about it. 

Maybe that's for the best.

What is "processed"?

It all started with a simple question: Could I go without processed foods for 30 days?

Sure, I thought. I'd done a similar 30-day challenge before (buying no prepared foods like bread, sauces, etc. for a month), and while it was difficult, I learned a lot. So, I said to myself, what exactly does "processed" mean?

Then the fun began. 

I like definitions, and bounderies. You can't break a rule (on purpose) until you know what it is, and it's better if you know where it came from and why it's there. I've heard my entire life that "processed" foods are bad, we should all eat fewer of them, and that obesity/poor health/malnutrion/low resale value of your car are all the fault of these damn processed foods. 

Like many things nutrition, "processed" is most often defined by the "I know it when I see it" test. Cheese puffs? Processed. Apples? Nope. Hot dogs? Oh yeah. Cookies? Well, that depends on what kind. How about cheese? Those yellow squares have to be, but what about a block of cheddar? Does it matter if it's made by hand and sold at twice the price at Whole Foods?

But what, exactly, makes those foods processed? Is it the ingrediants? Many of the definitions I've found specify one of two tests (if not both) - you have to be able to recognize and pronounce all the ingredients, and it has to be something you could make in your kitchen. But if I can't pronounce or don't recognize something, does that make it processed, or just mean I'm uninformed? And I certainly can't make most breakfast cereals at home (Make a corn flake. I dare you), or cheeses for that matter. But neither is commenly placed in the "processed" pile.

Maybe it's what happens to the food - tearing it down, recombining, adding some fillers - that makes it bad. But that would lump hot dogs in with everything with flour in it - that can't be right. Almost all food preperation requires similar steps unless you're eating raw, so I'm not liking this defintion either. 

Perhaps a food's "closeness to nature" is the best way to judge. Fruit off the tree? Awesome. Same fruit in a can - "processed"? Maybe. Meat off the bone of any animal you killed? Assuming cooking isn't "processing", you're in good shape. How about milk? Sure, if it comes straight from the cow to your glass. But almost all milk is pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep it from separating, both done through some funky processes. And that's how I like it, thank you very much. 

In the end, there isn't a good definition, because "processed" or not isn't the right way to look at our food. We need to see how food is prepared, what's lost or retained via processing, and eat everything in moderation and as part of an overall healthy diet.

Calories, "Healthy", and Restaurant Menus

I love information. Absolutely love it. The more I've reflected on this fact, the more I realize that my job, my hobbies, and my interests all tend to revolve around acquiring interesting data. So when California instituted its menu labeling law (California Health and Safety Code Section 114094) two years ago, I was very pleased, not only as a data-lover, but as someone who'd rather eat 600 calories over 1,100, given the choice on a menu.

One problem I've faced, however, is that not all restaurants are required to give nutrional information for their food - if a company has fewer than 20 locations, they're exempt. This is apparently because a "small" restaurant or chain can't afford the costs associated with food testing to determine nutritional info. I think that's a load of manure, personally (a chain with 15 restuarants is by no means small and poor), but it's the law. 

What really surprises me, though, is that restaurants that sell themselves as "healthy" refuse to go above and beyond the legal requirements and provide nutrional info. The worst offender I've found so far, and also a restaurant I love, is the Veggie Grill. But their opinion on the matter is pretty well spelled out in the following I received from them after complaining loudly on their Facebook page:

We apologize that we do not have full nutritional details on our menu items. The yet to be released FDA menu nutritional labeling guidelines requiring restaurants to have full nutritional details will apply only to restaurants with 20 or more locations as the government acknowledges that the effort to compile and maintain this information is too burdensome for smaller restaurant companies. 

We have been advised that we would need a large food analysis lab to do the analysis since we need to have a company with liability insurance to stand behind their work (we live in a very litigious society). This of course makes it an expensive proposition (approximately $30,000), particularly for a new, small company such as ours.

That being said, we are very proud of the fact that our menu is 100% plant-based with absolutely no cholesterol, animal fat, trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup. 

Numerous studies have shown that eating 100% plant-based foods is the best way to reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and to maintain a healthy weight. We recommend "The China Study" by Dr. T. Colin Campbell (http://goo.gl/WAbzZ) for anybody who would like to learn more about these studies.

As I believe you may be aware, additional information regarding our nutritional philosophy can be found at http://www.veggiegrill.com/primer.html. 

Our mission to build an enduring brand that helps people and the planet can only succeed if we listen carefully to guests such as yourself. Opening 7 restaurants and hiring 220 people over the past 4 tough years has been very difficult and expensive, but we are trying hard to make a go of it.

Are calories everything? No. And I agree that eating a plant based diet is almost by default healthier than one with meat, especially if that meat is factory-farmed. But calories, as well as other pieces of nutrional information, are vital for many people on many kinds of diets (weight loss, and otherwise). I've touched on this topic before, with swear words.

If you've never eaten at Veggie Grill, you're missing out on two things: very delicious passable-as-real-chicken-sandwich vegan food, and grease. Their food tastes good, in part, because it's high in fat, and likely high in salt as well. This is all well and good if you know what you're getting into, but when all the marketing material for a restaurant touts its health benefits while refusing any mention of meal calories, there's a strong likelihood of confusion. 

Above all else, it makes me wonder if the company is just too poor to do a nutrional analysis (not likely, given they only open in boutique locations with high rents, and charge full-service prices for their counter-service food), or if they're hiding something. All I know is that if I'm looking for low-calorie, I look elsewhere.

(This entry has been cross-posted to my new/old blog, Insignifica)

Observations and Diets

We're almost 3 weeks into my Very Vegan February. Some observations:

- I don't miss egg and dairy themselves nearly as much as I miss the variety of foods available to me.

- I'd much rather avoid something all together rather than have a sub-standard vegan version. But some vegan stuff is perfectly fine if you don't try to compare it to a meat/cheese equivalent. And some vegan stuff is actually very, very good as a replacement.

- I wish I could have chickens at my home so I could source my eggs easily.

- I may be losing weight.

The last point is important here - veganism as a weight-loss diet is seemingly pretty effective for me. There are a few factors to this:

- I can't just "snack" on whatever's available.

- Most of my meals are a little more "planned", i.e., I'm not doing much in the way of "picking up drive-thru on the way home".

- I'm going out to eat much less, thereby avoiding the delicious by fattening cooking preps restaurants use.

- Cheese and dairy make up a non-insignificant portion of my regular diet's calories, and they're avoided while going vegan.

All that said, I don't think using veganism as a diet should be your goal, mostly because it's not sustainable if you don't care for it to be. But as a side-effect of going vegan anyway, it's nice. 

Feelin' Fine.

I'm a week into my Very Vegan February, and things are goin' good. It's not at all hard - it's certainly much easier than it would be for someone who eats meat - but it's a bit annoying at times. I'm having to read all my labels again, even for stuff at home. I have to stop myself from mindless snacking, because The Girlfriend and The Kid both still eat dairy. And twice I've had to suggest different restaurants, because there are plenty of super vegetarian-friendly places in my restaurant rotation that don't have much to offer to vegans at all.

One interesting thing I'm discovering is that vegans are just as prone as anyone else to spread misinformation (of all sorts). When a product or menu item is identified as "vegan" online (by any source, it seems), that info spreads like wildfire - whether it's true or not. I'm finding myself not trusting most sources online, with the exception of a few bloggers and industry folks, and the manufacturers/restaurants themselves.

There's also still a huge problem in a lot of vegan chatter about "true vegans", which usually involves name calling, love/hatred of PETA, discussion of honey, and value judgments about health. Mention Oreos and Ritz crackers as being vegan some time to a group of 'em, and you'll see what I mean.

All that said, I'm still diggin' it. I've made very successful vegan blueberry muffins, very unsuccessful brownies, and our homemade seitan is surprisingly tasty.Still looking forward to the next few weeks, too.

Very Vegan February

Hello World!

As expected, I came back for a couple posts, then disappeared entirely again, as is usually the case with such returns. But I've had a nice break, and Tofufighting.com is the best place I can imagine to discuss my current project: Very Vegan February.

As it stands, I'm a "strict vegetarian" - no meat, and I'm careful about hidden ingredients (broths, rennet, gelatin, flavorings, etc). I also only buy products with dairy/eggs if they come from organic sources (for animal treatment issues). I'm lax about this aspect when I eat out, but not my vegetarianism (I don't "not worry" about broths, etc. when I go out to eat - just about organics).

For February, I'm sticking to a pretty much standard vegan diet. No dairy or eggs, on top my standard strict vegetarianism. I don't worry about honey, a) because I almost never eat it, and b) because I think it doesn't belong in the same vegan category. Otherwise, though, it's gonna be a very vegan February.

I'll post here when I have something interesting to add, thoughts about the process, or tips/tricks I want to share/remember. Looking forward to it, and bringing readers along for the trip!

Dear Food Trucks,

I know the trucks aren't THAT big, but when you're going to an event with a half-dozen other trucks, which you know will get people visiting from all over the area, how about trying NOT to run out of food? Every non-dessert truck was out of lunch stuff, and turning people away, at the truck gathering at the Irvine Chamber of Commerce.

Also: There's gotta be something you can do about the routine 20 minute wait. That's absurd for those of us who already have to drive 10-15 minutes to get to you.

Rant mode off. One other thing: The Lime Truck's tofu taco was awesome.

Fuck you, Kogi.

kogi_logo_blk.pngI have very little experience with the Kogi food trucks. I know they're popular, I know the food is apparently pretty good, and I know they've got some vegan options. They're the darling of the new truck-based gourmet movement, and Food Network can't stop talking about them. Doing some research, it seems they bill themselves as natural food, made with love by the children of immigrants.

That's cool. I like good "natural" food. I also like to know what's in my food, both in terms of ingredients and calories.

For this, the Kogi folks think I'm a Nazi (no, really, they use the word "Nazi").

This post caught my eye today. For the "tl;dr" among you, it basically says that our food is so good, so awesome, and is made with so much love that we're not going to tell you how many calories it has. In fact, just the fact that you ask us nicely about the calories fills us with rage. How dare you - you wouldn't ask your grandma about it, because she's awesome too. Just the fact that you ask means you're comparing us to lowly fast food, and that's insulting, and you're a horrible person. So stop caring about calories, all you need to know is we're awesome.

(Interpretation mine. I find the original post even more insulting than what I wrote, however.)

Yeah, Kogi - fuck you.

People eat for different reasons, and lots of people, on lots of different kinds of diets (both weight-loss and health related) NEED to know the calories, sodium, or other chemistry-related aspects of their food. Otherwise, they have to skip it. Yes, they want "natural" food. Yes, they want their food to come from good sources. But they need to know this information so they know which of your items they can enjoy, or which they have to portion out and share with friends.

This goes beyond calories. Folks on restricted sodium diets have to know what they're eating. Others need to know how much fat is in their food. Contrary to your idealistic and insulting blog post, these people aren't bound by a "Nazi straight jacket" of nutritional information listings, they just want to know what's in their food - otherwise, they can't eat it at all.

You're growing, Kogi. You've got four trucks and your Culver City kitchen. You're getting national exposure, and people line up for hours to get a taco. That means, eventually, that you'll have to grow up too, and stop insulting people who want to eat your food.

Social Media Day/food truck event

Wednesday, June 30 is Social Media Day - and while that sounds amazingly niche and pretentious, I'm totally going and totally looking forward to it. Luckily for me, my employer is hosting a Social Media Day/food truck event from 3pm-6pm - there'll be guest speakers, little workshops, and a bunch of local food trucks, including Seabirds (vegan/organic) and Piaggio On Wheels (which comes highly recommended).

If you're in or around Santa Ana, stop on by and say hello!

Recent Comments

  • Vegan Vagrant: Taco Loco is indeed amazing. Not sure how "traditional" a read more
  • Michael Doss: Taco Loco is very, very good (and has great atmosphere), read more
  • quarrygirl: i've never been there, but i've heard from several vegans read more
  • Michael Doss: I hear ya about it being a food truck, but read more
  • Marek: Eh, while I can see how people can get upset read more
  • Heina: I am a Kogi fan, but this post disappoints me. read more
  • Emily: I agree that this post was pretty offensive. And they read more
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