Processed food: What are you talking about?

August 14, 2012

Can we start really thinking about what we’re saying when we use the term “processed food”, and when we reject or moralize about foods based on that phrase? This phenomenon has become central to anti-vegan discourse.

Just because it’s a vegetarian “meat-substitute” (although it might behoove us to just see it as good plant-based protein that exists in its own right, apart from the existence of meat) doesn’t mean it’s processed, folks– at least, not processed in the evil way neocarnist discourse always refers to. You know the conversation: processed = bad, not processed = good. I can’t really offer a definition of “processed” beyond that, as it’s currently used, because there doesn’t seem to be one.

Let’s break down some examples of foods that are currently trendy to preach against based on their “processed-ness”:

-Tofu. Let’s clear this up, folks: Tofu is made with a blender and cheesecloth from three to four ingredients including water, an emulsifier (a big word, but something that is used in countless simple foods, both vegan and non), and a bean. You can buy that bean GMO-free very easily; many, if not most, explicitly vegetarian products like tofu which involve soy are GMO-free now. What’s non-GMO as far as soy goes are a) those soy fillers in all kinds of other food products, including many animals products, and b) the unbelievable amount of soy that’s fed to farmed animals.

You can even get soy from sustainable farms like Vermont Soy and Eden Soy. Those farms might even be local (gasp!!!) depending on where you live.

Actually, you can make this kind of tofu product with many different beans, as I learned while living with Burmese folks, who often make and eat tofu from lentils.

Right in your own kitchen. Right next to those vegetables you process by… cutting and cooking them.

-Similarly fallacious is all the moralizing about the “process” that goes into making wheat gluten or tempeh. These are products that actually have very few simple, healthy ingredients and can be made easily. You don’t need a Bunsen burner or a mask.

-And to make an alternative “milk” such as soy or almond, the idea is similar. Two or three ingredients plus a blender. Same with any “cheese” alternative that’s made with these things. All of these products are less processed than even the most organic and “happy” cheese.

I’m not sure why so many neocarnists take a moral stance against these plant foods, but most likely it has something to do with things like unblinking Michael Pollan-ism and the Weston A. Price Foundation’s government lobbying, reactive anti-science, and fear-mongering (particularly in regards to soy). Some well-meaning folks, I think, often lump in foods made from Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) with simpler foods made from tofu, nuts, or wheat gluten. TVP is made from soy flour and a significant number of steps are involved in its creation. Some TVP makers use hexane, which is controversial. But whatever one’s ideas about TVP, the current dialogue about it being an evil “processed” food cannot be removed from the influence of Michael Pollan’s hyperbolic, pseudo-scientific diatribe against TVP in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Additionally, hexane is used in multitudes of animal foods. As always, do your own research and use your critical thinking skills.

From the minute you rip a vegetable out of the ground, to the minute you collect rice grains from a stalk, to the minute you bring them home and clean, peel, cook, cut, ferment, freeze, marinate, combine, and flavor them, you are processing foods. You process them in your mouth, too, as saliva breaks them down, and then in your gut, where they are dissolved into their component parts. Life is a process and so is the food that enables it.

If you want to talk about foods with ingredients that are made in labs, talk about that. If you want to talk about GMOs, environmentally unfriendly packaging, huge industries, awful companies, and how complicated that all is across huge realms of both plant and animal foods, please do. But don’t conveniently muddle those concepts with the mere existence of vegetarian foods for the sake of a political agenda or a romantic, lazy paleofantasty about what’s “natural” and what’s not. In short, it is incoherent to consider these veg foods processed yet not consider foods processed that require creating, artificially inseminating, squeezing, prodding, torturing, then slaughtering an entire animal. If you want to talk about excessive food processing–by which I mean the actual time, physical and psychological energy, and other resources that go into the creation of a food–and how it might have moral implications, talk about this: We literally destroy huge pieces of the planet to actually raise entire huge, individual, sentient, ambulatory beasts!!! We artificially inseminate them by putting sperm into their vaginas with poles or our gloved arms, cut off their inconvenient body parts such as penises, testicles, tails, and beaks while they’re still alive, kill them with complicated weapons and machines, drain their blood and cut off all their skin, cut off and throw away their heads, cut out and throw away their organs, pull their reproductive secretions out of them (often after starving and blinding them into laying), squeeze and prod them with hands or machines til the insides of their bodies finally give you inevitably puss-and-blood laced milk which is then turned into convoluted dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Yet, incredibly, it’s a  loaf made of beans and water–no cutting off and throwing away a head involved–that’s called Frankenfood! While plant foods and agriculture are indeed complicated, there is absolutely no plant-food processing comparable–ethically, practically, environmentally, physically, psychologically–to the necessary extremities that must be visited while “processing” individual sentient animals for food. If they’re not the most processed food of all, I don’t know what is.


Introducing the Carnism Awareness and Action Network

December 4, 2010

We are excited that CAAN: Carnism Awareness and Action Network has kickstarted. This is a great resource for vegan advocates and meat eaters alike, dedicated to naming the invisible paradigm that allows well-meaning people–people who have other choices–to choose to eat some animals and not others.

CAAN’s mission statement:

CAAN’s mission is to expose and transform carnism, the invisible belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals. CAAN empowers vegetarian and vegan advocates and concerned citizens through education and activism.

Accordingly, CAAN espouses the following beliefs and principles:

  • The production and consumption of animal products is the leading cause of animal exploitation and environmental degradation and a major contributor to human disease, human rights violations, and unjust taxation via animal agriculture subsidies. We therefore believe that carnism poses a direct threat to both animal and public welfare and must be addressed with urgency.
  • We believe that most people care about animals and do not want to cause them unnecessary harm; therefore, when people choose to eat animals they act against their own interests, as they must violate their core values.
  • Because it is impossible to objectively discuss the issue of eating animals as long as we are operating from within the system – unaware of the structure and effects of carnism – we believe that it is necessary to expose carnism in order to have a valid public dialogue about the legitimacy of animal agriculture.
  • Because carnism is organized around violence and deception, we believe that transforming the system is essential for creating a just, sustainable, and democratic society.
  • Carnism is a system of victimization that exploits carnists and pits carnists and vegetarians against one another. We believe that carnists and vegetarians must unite in order to transform the system.
  • We recognize that many people, such as those who are economically disadvantaged or geographically dependent on eating animals, do not have the luxury of reflecting on their food choices.
  • We acknowledge that carnism is one of many systems of interlocking oppressions and that social transformation requires a broad social analysis.
  • We are committed to total nonviolence, in action and attitude. CAAN does not endorse physical violence or degrading language.
  • We believe that the time is ripe to challenge carnism and that with enough public support we can, and will, transform the system.

A note about carnism from Chris and Carolyn

July 15, 2010

CARNISM

Hi. We use the words “carnism” and “carnist” in this blog, which some people may not be familiar with, so we should explain them. First we should note our bias regarding carnism. Carnism in a concept named by social psychologist and professor Melanie Joy, who is one of our dear friends. She is the leading researcher on the psychology of meat-eating, and has done highly original and extensive academic– and inevitably controversial– research on the issue. Both of us have worked with her in various capacities as research assistants and manuscript readers.

Carnism can be described as “the belief system, or ideology, that allows us to selectively choose which animals become our meat, and it is sustained by complex psychological and social mechanisms.” This is essentially a naming of something– meat-eating– that is passed off, like many other ideologies, as “natural, normal, and necessary”, when in actuality it is a complicated system of constucted beliefs, biases, assumptions, and practices. It can be considered a sub-set of speciesism, and in some ways it’s the ideological “opposite” of veganism. Many vegans, and a lot of carnists, have intuited this idea on some level for a long time.

One of the mechanisms of carnism is that people tend to split animals into various constructed mental categories. In the USA, some animals are in a category that involves some version of unconditional love and friendship, like cats, dogs, other “pets”, and sometimes, well-regarded animals like horses. Some animals are in the mental category of “wild” and/or “exotic” animals, like lions, tigers, giraffes, and bears– many of the woodland creatures in North America and many of the the animals of the African deserts and South American rainforests. Other animals, like rodents, insects, and snakes, often end up in the “dirty” or “untouchable” animal category. Another category is “intelligent” animals like primates, dolphins, and many sea mammals.

But even though most animals are edible, there are very few animals who end up in the “food” category. For most carnists in the US, this category is basically narrowed down to six or seven animals– cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, fish, and more marginal “food” animals like lambs, young cattle (veal), goats, and ducks. In industrial societies, the “food” category animals differ somewhat from culture to culture, but out of the millions and millions of animal species, this category almost never ends up including more than ten or so animals. To say the least, we are very, very selective about those who end up in this category. Because most humans have a self-identity of non-violence, coupled in many minds with a love of animals or at least an understanding of their right to existence, Dr. Joy argues that the “food” category is carefully contained and maintained by a complicated and deeply embedded structure of psychological numbing, defenses, and cognitive dissonance. This carefully researched analysis is in part informed by highly-regarded theories of psychologists like Robert Lifton (author of the groundbreaking book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide) and others who have studied the mechanisms of violence, bias, and oppression.

We invite you to explore the questions: Why do such a miniscule amount of species, out of millions and millions, end up in the “food” cateogory? What kind of psychology does this involve? What kind of ideology? How have these animals ended up in this category? What are the similarities between the mechanisms of carnism and ecocide, inter-human oppression, and all other instrumentalist ideologies? What are the defenses that come up when we compare these mechanisms? Can we have a healthy earth if our food system, and our minds, are permeated with ideas about “meat”, which most of us understand in some way as the ultimate objectification (for instance, feminists don’t want to be treated like it. At least subconsciously, feminists understand the implications of “meat” when applied to themselves.)

Furthermore, would Lierre Keith or her followers eat cats or dogs? Many carnists dismiss this as an unreasonable question, but it’s not– they’re edible, breedable, and abundant. They’re probably more, if not just as, accessible for food-related purposes as the “food” animals. What about horses? Lions? Parrots? Cardinals? Chimpanzees? Beetles? Racoons? Any of the animals not placed, presumably against their will and for human ends, in the “food” category? Our opinion is that generally they would not, especially if not in an acute survival situation (like truly having no other options, or being stranded on an island.) We would believe it only if we saw it. Even then, we don’t believe it would happen without an intensity of disgust, conscious mental conflict, and/or emotional reaction that is incomparable to the minute, or total lack, of reaction that most people have when they eat “food” animals.  This discrepancy is not based in biology, or anything objective–it is based in very carefully constructed human perceptions. We believe this is a critical part of the conversation, because it involves violence, bias, cognitive dissonance, and an enormity of emotional, logical, practical, and spiritual inconsistency. We believe there’s a lot of important information there, in those inconsistencies.