Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When ''Debunking'' Misconceptions Merely Reinforces Them

It has been a while since I've cracked my knuckles and leaned over my keyboard to write. I have over a half-dozen pieces I've started over the last few months, but have been distracted by summer and my city's bike trails, my new feline family members Minou and Eli, as well as by a bit of recent travel to the city of Montreal where I got to eat wonderful food and to meet some fellow Canadian vegans. I've also had a food blog project simmering on a back-burner and have been doing some research for it. It's easy to get bogged down when you have too many different things on the go, so I was grateful this morning for an opportunity to put them aside to write a bit about a recent Readers Digest article called "11 Convincing Reasons that Going Vegan Isn't Crazy". The article is more of a slide-show, actually. My friend Dale forwarded the link, suggesting that I'd probably have a few things to say about it. He certainly wasn't wrong.

Slide 1: So what's going vegan?

Perri O. Blumberg starts the whole thing off by describing veganism as a "philosophy that can extend beyond the plate" to include not wearing animal products and to avoiding other animal or animal testing. Right off the bat, the idea presented is that although some may take it further, there are somehow forms of veganism restricted to diet.

Repeat after me: Veganism isn't a diet.

Slide 2: Even eating vegan part-time can benefit your health.

Yes, there are health benefits to veganism, but veganism is about the rejection of animal exploitation. Vegans don't restrict their rejection of animal exploitation to a particular time of day or a particular day of the week. The phrase ''eating vegan part-time'' perpetuates this whole ''veganism as flexitarianism'' thing that folks such as Mark Bittman have been promoting. If a person is against capital punishment, would it make any sense to suggest that they could limit their ethical beliefs to only being against administering the death penalty before 6 pm? Thankfully, the author does write ''[v]egans and those who avoid animal products (even part of the day, or part of the week)'' which seems to suggest Blumberg's distinguishing between vegans and ''those who avoid animal products'' sometimes.  However, given the first slide, the author may very well be distinguishing vegans from those who avoid non-food animal products. The writing is confusing.

Slide 3: You'll get enough protein from plants.

This slide was quite informative, pointing out the possible of consuming excess amounts of protein (particularly animal protein) can be unhealthy and linking to the website for T. Colin Campbell's The China Study, as well as to a list of plant-based sources of protein from the Vegetarian Resource Group.

Slide 4: Vegan recipes are cheap, plentiful and tasty.

I had no issues with what was presented here. The author mentioned the book Eat Vegan on $4 a Day by Ellen Jaffe Jones. I'm not familiar with it, although a quick glance at a review pointed out that it focuses on using whole grains and legumes and seasonal fresh produce. I frequently tell people that eating a strict vegetarian diet can be ridiculously inexpensive if you're not afraid to cook and you don't rely on costly processed foods.

Slide 5: Plenty of grocery store staples are vegan.

There is useful information here, including the issues inherent in the production of alcoholic beverages and how they're sometimes clarified using animal products. A link to the Barnivore website is provided for readers to identify vegan-friendly alcohol by brand or label.

I won't dwell on this, but the author also brings up PETA's ''accidentally vegan'' list which includes Oreo cookies. A few years ago, I contacted Oreo's manufacturers and was told at the time that they cannot guarantee whether or not the sugar used in any given package of their Oreos was processed with bone char. I can't help but wonder if other items on PETA's list also contain bone char processed sugar or are otherwise problematic, but I haven't spent any time looking into it. (That being said, plenty of ordinary grocery store staples are indeed vegan and, as the author points out, sometimes certain products you would not expect to contain animal ingredients end up doing so. It just requires a little bit of research.)

Slide 6: Change your plate, change the world.

The focus here is on the environmental devastation caused by meat consumption. I won't argue with the facts presented but was disappointed that the vegan-shaming misnamed group Vegan Outreach was cited as a source. I also found myself starting to wonder how it was that halfway into a slide-show purportedly about veganism, no mention whatsoever had yet been made about the horrors of animal exploitation and that veganism involves the rejection of animal use for the sake of the animals themselves.

Slide 7: Vegans make a winning grilled cheese.

The point made in the blurb for this slide is that we don't need milk or eggs to make everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to muffins, cakes and other sweet desserts. Blumberg points out that vegan versions of these have even won mainstream awards in cooking competitions. (A friend who was a pastry chef insisted to me recently that he is convinced that it is impossible to use plant-based ingredients to replicate the science involved in baking with things like eggs. I should send him links to some of the absolutely decadent vegan dessert recipes that vegan food bloggers and cookbook authors have been churning out for years.)

Slide 8: You can ease into it (and out of it)

Blumberg links to info on 30-day vegan challenges here, but the slide's title suggests that rather than being introductions to permanent change, these challenges can just as well be temporary dabblings. Going vegan isn't just about going on a month-long diet, but she presents it as such.

Slide 9: Veganism is not a fad diet.

OK, I'll admit that I actually laughed out loud at this, given the previous slide's title. The author's intent, though, was to show that people around the world have been vegan throughout history and that it's not just a phenomenon that's ''gained momentum recently as a backbone of certain environmental and health movements''.

(Nine slides in, I found myself wondering once again why although mention was made of health or environmental interests that no mention was being made of animal rights reasons for not eating or otherwise using animal products.)

Slide 10: Vegans who eat well don't need to buy additional supplements.

I have concerns whenever someone with no discernible background in nutrition makes such an off-the-cuff generalization when it comes to matters of health and safety. The author mentions that vegans require Vitamin B12, but suggests obtaining it through fortified products such as nutritional yeast. The main problem with this is that vitamin levels in fortified products (especially especially the B12 in most nutritional yeast other than Red Star's Vegetarian Support Formula) are often all over the place and aren't reliable. If you obtain your nutritional yeast from a bulk bin in a health food store, you're not even certain of what you're getting unless you ask for its nutritional breakdown. I would certainly anyone using them as her sole source of Vitamin B12 to overcompensate and to periodically get her levels checked. Honestly, I would suggest just regularly popping the occasional B12 supplement to stay safe. Why take risks?

That said, I'm no expert either, so I recommend having a look at this article (written by someone who does indeed have a background in diet/nutrition) before ruling out either B12 or other vitamin supplements.

Slide 11: Guess who's gone vegan?

For this slide, Blumberg lists as ''vegan'' celebrities like Mike Tyson (who eats a strict vegetarian diet but participates in a television program about his breeding and racing pigeons) and Bill Clinton (who doesn't even follow a strict vegetarian diet, but has admitted to regularly eating both eggs and fish). As if the focus on celebrities who hop on and off bandwagons isn't problematic enough, Blumberg also manages to perpetuate mainstream media's mangling of the word ''vegan'' by identifying celebrities who have never even really been vegan at all as exemplars of the word.

Slide 12: You can make friends.

Yes, as the author points out, there are all kinds of meet-up opportunities to find community with other vegans if you're not finding it within your own immediate circle of family and friends. Having that sense of community is important for new and seasoned vegans alike. For many of us, opportunities to sit across a table from someone who can truly relate to why we make the decisions we do concerning other animals are scarce. It's sometimes a relief to be able to be able to be open and ordinary about our rejection of animal exploitation without eliciting eye-rolls or snide comments. Even more so, it's heartening to be able to discuss our veganism without eliciting the too-often blank looks (particularly from loved ones) that can leave us feeling a little isolated or alienated.


Perri O. Blumberg's piece is purportedly about going vegan and is presented as intending to clarify ''myths and misconceptions'' about veganism. Although her piece is peppered with some really good information and links, the bottom line is that she fails horribly at clarifying some of the worst present-day misconceptions about veganism. In her piece, she informs her readers that veganism can be limited to diet, that it can be a part-time gig and that it can be temporary. It's none of those things. Blumberg illustrates that she doesn't really comprehend what veganism really is.

Perhaps if she had at any point looked into the ethical and animal rights based motivators which actually do provide the foundation for adopting a vegan lifestyle, she may have realized how describing it as involving degrees of continued animal use truly makes no sense and that. It only ends up confusing the public further and given that the piece was published on the website of such a widely-read publication like Reader's Digest? That's a true shame.