Friday, July 25, 2008

Thinking about the ethics of eating

The other day I was reading a message board I frequent and came across a link for this blog entry about the palm oil that is used in Earth Balance buttery spread. For vegan cooking and baking, Earth Balance is the quintessential replacement for butter. It produces a soft, chewy cookie and, a flaky pie crust and a fluffy, creamy icing for cakes and fillings. It is completely vegan (plant-based) so it has no cholesterol yet it tastes and behaves surprisingly similar to real butter. In terms of taste and texture, it is superior to all other buttery spreads currently on the market. And, in light of recent news that suggests that trans-fatty acids produced during the hydrogenation of liquid fats are actually deleterious to our health, it's comforting to know that Earth Balance is not hydrogenated. What keeps it solid at room temperature, though, is palm oil, also marketed as "vegan shortening".

I remember growing up and watching my mother cook with palm oil, which was a deep red oil that separated into a thick solid mass at the bottom and a thin oil at the top. She used it to cook most every traditional Igbo meal most notably egusi soup. Egusi is melon seed. My mom would shell the seeds and then grind them. She would then fry them in palm oil and that would be the base for the soup to which she would add a maggi cube, onions, stock fish, chicken and a green leafy vegetable and serve alongside pounded yam (fufu). Goodness, my mouth waters just thinking about it. I was surprised to see the popularity of palm oil skyrocket when hydrogenated oils fell out our good graces. First off, palm oil had such a pungent scent, such a deep color, and such a strong taste that I didn't know how they could be using it so liberally without it creating some weird smelling, off colored, awful tasting products. Through reading, I found that heating it through will eliminate the smell, color and taste. Wonderful stuff for the world of food manufacturing.

Anyway, the gist of the article is that in Malaysia and Indonesia, the farming of palm oil is destroying the delicate rain forest and driving many species of animals to extinction. Now, I didn't become vegan for any ethical reasons (I was what you call a strict vegetarian as the truest meaning of vegan is one who completely eschews all animal products and by-products for ethical reasons). I wasn't motivated by my desire to save the earth or a feeling of camaraderie with chimpanzees and cows. What I was interested in when I made that drastic change almost 6 years ago was healing myself of debilitating allergies, poor eyesight, problematic skin and excruciating menstrual cramps. Interestingly enough, becoming vegan did not heal any of these issues but rather saddled me with a new set of problems. I digress. Now that I'm not vegan anymore (it seems though that for me, a little animal protein seems to do my body good and so I struggle with trying to find sources of ethically produced eggs which is almost impossible if you live in an "inner city area," i.e. "the hood" and sources of the purest forms of cod liver oil that do minimal harm to the habitats of the cod), it's interesting that I'm actually more interested in the environmental impact of our diet. As a matter of fact, in my opinion and experience, the environmental benefits of veganism trump the health benefits.

When I first became vegan, I tried so many different buttery spreads and Earth Balance won in every aspect. I've been using it faithfully for years now. I can't say I'm willing to stop either. And I can't help but feel a little guilty. I'm really trying these days to at least be conscious of how my actions affect the Earth and it seems like something as minute as eliminating Earth Balance from our list of acceptable foods is relatively easy in the scope of things. But my "cold turkey" conversion to vegetarianism six years ago and the fact that I did not achieve what I set out to achieve by converting has given me a real psychological resistance to any other changes despite the fact that sluggish digestion and serious intestinal issues suggest that it is indeed necessary to completely revamp my diet (and I'm not quite sure in which direction this revamping will go although I will say that meat doesn't even appeal to me anymore and I'm trying to kind of make peace with eating a little fish--poor fish). But I've been trying very hard to let go of things. I've given up on products with hidden MSG and things like agave nectar that I'm not entirely sure of. I'm just not ready to give up the Earth Balance. I keep thinking of broccoli florets without Earth Balance and toast without Earth Balance. Well, what about freshly baked muffins and breads without Earth Balance!?! It is really part and parcel of our daily eating (and enjoyment).

Of course, I talked about this with the hubby and he said, "Please don't get on another runaway train." He's talking, of course, about my habit of finding out information and running with it and eliminating all these things that he actually likes. I was telling him about the rain forest and palm oil and Earth Balance and he interrupts me to say, "Wait, the rain forest isn't gone yet? They've been talking about its destruction since I was 4 years old!" Of course, he was being facetious but he is a firm believer that the Earth won't let us destroy it before it destroys us. In my heart of hearts, I agree.

Right now, it's chic to be "green" and hip to be "eco-friendly". It's also expensive and oftentimes more difficult to be these things. As a woman of color, it's ironic that all these crusades to save the Earth are usually championed by wealthy, White folks who can afford to do the "green thing". I've started to get the vibe that those who can't afford to be "eco-friendly" are the ones harming the Earth but those who can afford to buy $5 reusable bags from Whole Paycheck (but drive ginormous SUVs) are the ones who really care. I try not to generalize and I try not to be biased on these things but . . . really and truly, it's White people (not all White folks, of course, and maybe not even the majority) who've gone all over the world, raped and pillaged, destroyed whole eco-systems harvesting raw materials, devastating traditional economies and setting the people on a straight-course to grinding, inescapable poverty. It's actually offensive to see some of these same folks advocating and motivating the "green movement". Especially when you peel back a few layers to discover that it's just another way to make money; another way to get people to buy more stuff, albeit "eco-friendly" stuff.

Still, I wonder if there is truly any way to eat sustainably and ethically, though. It seems that the only true option to achieve this lofty goal is to grow your own food and (if you do use animal products) raise your own animals on a very small scale where everything is composted, recycled, and reused and very little waste is produced and disposed of responsibly.

I find products like Earth Balance to be a friendly introduction into the world of more conscious eating, though, and it's just so darn sad to learn that something called "Earth Balance" may actually be doing the opposite.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like what you said, like you my quest to eat healthy is more driven by the fact that my digestive tract responds better.

That said I do hate how the eco-friendly, eat healthy(local and or organic) movements are only open to certain segments of society. I remember living on the southside of Chicago and having almost 0 access to quality food.

However even leaving in a rural state like Maine, its costs to eat well, a argument that folks get mad at whem I make it. Truth is CSA's at almost $500 are cost prohibitive for working class folks and even a working share is not practical.

I have been blessed in that I can access these things yet so many can't, and frankly its folks who really could benefit from it can't.

Ultimately I do feel like the green movement is just another way to get people to spend money.

Sorry for the ramble, my little one has me distracted. LOL

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