The Omnivore Life Examined

  • 01/30/2017
  • Ari LeVaux

By Ari LeVaux, Guest Columnist

As we rang in the new year, the one issue that’s poised to dominate discussions of food and agriculture is the place of meat in the modern human diet.

This debate strikes at the core of our omnivorous nature. It tugs at our heart strings, tempts our palates, challenges our intellects and presents myriad health impacts.

The more I learn about the harmful effects of the world’s livestock practices on world hunger, climate change and other facets of our environment, the more foolhardy and selfish eating animal products appears to be — unless, perhaps, you’re raising or hunting your own or purchasing from a livestock operation that’s sensitive to its environmental footprint.

By contrast, consumer interest in the quality of life experienced by the animals that provide us their meat, organs and secretions has spiked. The likes of Walmart and McDonalds are happy to oblige in at least one way, having pledged to phase out their use of chicken eggs that were laid in a cage. Whether the chickens are truly any better off is an open question.

Not coincidentally, in 2016 the veggie burger came into its own, largely on the back of the Impossible Burger. This plant-based burger features umami-rich “blood” that sizzles and browns in the pan, and sheds it with each bite you take. Even the least apologetic of meat eaters surveyed have admitted to respecting the Impossible Burger, fortified with wheat and potato protein and lubricated with coconut oil.

The quasi animal product space has also exploded with the likes of “cheese” made from cultured nuts, pink-hued faux shrimp and crab meat, nut- and grain-based “milk” products like almond milk and hemp milk, egg-free “mayo,” and virtually every kind of vegan substitute for egg, chicken, flesh or fluid you can imagine.

It’s not just vegans that are are into this stuff. Locavores, climatarians, ovo-lacto-paleo-bacon-vores and good old-fashioned omnivores are finding their way to vegan alternatives for entirely different reasons.

As for me, I eat meat, mostly wild game for which I feel zero guilt, assuming the hunt goes well.

While I don’t avoid animal products as a rule, I do limit my intake of mammalian dairy products for phlegm-related reasons. I know it isn’t cool to admit it, but I like soy milk. I like milk, too, and heavy cream, and cheese. However,  I long-ago settled on mayonnaise as my go-to cheese alternative. In recent years, I’ve determined that Vegenaise, specifically the grapeseed oil formulation, is the best mayo on the market — and for reasons that are completely unrelated to the fact that it doesn’t contain eggs. I scoop Vegenaise greedily upon my deer, my scrambled eggs, my beef or veggie burger, and I’m good. Bloodthirsty omnivore that I am, I’m part of the animal-alternative products market.

Animal product industries have not been pleased with these developments in this growing market and pushed back big time in 2016. Unilever, owner of Hellman’s and Best Foods brands of mayo, took vegan food processor Hampton Creek to court for using the word “mayo” on the label of its egg-free mayonnaise substitute, Just Mayo. The National Dairy Council attempted, and failed, to make it illegal to use the word “milk” to describe nut and grain-based milk substitutes like almond milk. Makers of cultured nut products have similarly lost their ability to label their products as “cheese.” It seems a matter of when, not if, the beef industry goes after Impossible Burger over its use of the word “burger.”

While many vegetarian diets often attempt to recreate animal products from plant-based ingredients, resulting in the likes of bleeding burgers and Tofurky, this re-creation is not to be confused with vegetable-based cuisine.

Vegetable cookery doesn’t carry the implicit inferiority complex that comes with constantly serving kinda-sorta-meat. Rather, it celebrates the inherent qualities of the vegetable or plant part in question. So, my final prediction for 2017 doubles as a recommendation: don’t sleep on plain vegetables.

Even as you nerd-out on a Silicon Valley burger patty formulation that’s precisely calculated to satisfy your body’s nutritional needs while simultaneously saving the earth and tickling your taste buds, don’t forget whole, normal vegetables.

With each passing study and with each passing year, vegetables continue to accumulate almost zero baggage. The debate over the pros and cons of vegetables is nonexistent, because it has been settled. Vegetables are good and not bad.

And luckily, one of 2016 biggest food trends, one that will likely grow stronger in 2017, is the push to sell imperfect produce, or so-called “ugly” fruits and vegetables, at a discounted rate. Like cage free eggs, imperfect produce is available at Walmart.

But with all due respect to vegetables, beautiful and ugly alike, animals are not necessarily always all bad either. In fact, there is an increasingly solid argument to be made in favor eating them, some of them at least.

In 2016, public understanding and perceptions of fat continued to be turned inside out, especially saturated fat, which has long been assumed to be the culprit behind obesity and weight-related ailments, like heart disease. Once practically unassailable, this position is now openly questioned, as expert opinion  shifts to the camp that regards sugar as the primary dietary culprit behind obesity.

Saturated fat is a fancy way of saying “animal fat” but with a few exceptions, such as coconut and palm oil, which are derived from closely related tree species. Saturated fats are increasingly understood to benefit brain health, as well as other crucial body functions. Meanwhile, the relative merits of unsaturated fats (especially those found in plant-based oils like canola, safflower, sunflower and soy) seem to decrease the more we learn about omega-6 fatty acids, in which these oils are high. Avocado, olive and other fruit and nut oils are in a vastly better category of plant oil, as they contain more omega-3 fatty acids.

And it isn’t clear that all meat is bad for the environment, either. A vocal minority of ranchers are making the ecology-based case that certain landscapes can benefit from properly managed herds of certain ungulates. In the absence of buffalo and other native grazers, many ecosystems could spin out of control without tasty livestock like cows to fill that vital niche.

If done correctly, rotational grazing can result in healthier ecosystems and carbon sequestration, proponents claim. It’s a compelling vision, but even if it’s true, the cattle-carrying capacity of the landscape is much less under rotational grazing than under feedlot rules. If the world were to make a dramatic switch to rotational grazing, it would mean a lot less meat to go around.  But here’s another sobering truth: the global cattle industry will not be switching from feedlots to rotational grazing systems in 2017.

To recap my forecast, this will be the year of the fight over the legal definition of the word “burger.” It will also be a year of glory and evolution for imperfect produce, and a celebration of the innate beauty of plant parts. But amidst the angst, reverence and exploration of a plant-based diet, don’t be surprised if meat makes a little comeback too. The relative placement of meat and plants within the context of our modern diet will continue to be a fluid, evolving situation in 2017.

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