Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Conscious eating - what's the beef?

As the environmental movement shakes off its seventies-Good Life-hippy image and enters the mainstream, it gains more opportunities to convince the wider population of the benefits - financial, ethical and environmental - of living more sustainably.

Nowhere has this been seen more clearly than in the food that we eat. High profile campaigners, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver have done much to increase sales of free-range meat and poultry over the last few years; Hugh even has a meat manifesto, which emphasises the importance of consciously choosing to eat better quality meat but less of it. The sale of free-range eggs outstripped those from battery hens for the first time in 2009 and many supermarkets no longer stock non-free-range eggs in their stores. The not-for-profit group, Compassion in World Farming (CWF), commissioned a study that found free-range chicken sales jumped 35% between December 2007 and December 2008, although sales have since fallen again. Even HRH has been getting back in on the act, speaking out at the 2009 BBC Radio Four Food and Farming Awards against the increasing industrialisation of British farming - presumably his remarks engendered the usual censure by the relevant vested interests for 'interfering in politics'.

I think that we can all accept that the true cost of meat - to the planet and frequently to people in developing countries - should be foremost in our minds when contemplating the weekly food shop. Almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock production, so reducing the amount of meat and dairy we eat can cut more emissions than if car use was halved. At least, this is the thinking behind the, again celebrity-backed, Meat Free Mondays campaign, which encourages us all to have at least one day a week where we don't eat meat. Interestingly, the pitch here is less about tapping in to our feelings of guilt about the environment, or the adverse impact of Western lifestyles on the rest of the world, and more about making a positive difference.

Taking the messages of this and similar campaigns to their logical conclusions would see us all eating a vegan diet. Now I'm afraid that, on consideration, I'm with Hugh on this one. I can see the health, environmental and ethical benefits of not eating any animal-based products, but I quite firmly believe that all food has its place - yes, I like nothing better than a hearty vegetable soup for lunch, but I also recognise the benefits of getting my omega 3s direct from oily fish, or my calcium from a glass of milk. Not to mention the sheer joy of a bacon sandwich! So I was very interested to read recently an article about the New York Times food writer, Mark Bittman. Bittman's new book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, explains his (slightly erroneously-titled) strategy of being 'vegan before 6pm'. In a nutshell, this involves eating only fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes during the day, but with dinner being 'anything goes'. Having said this, Bittman doesn't advocate veganism in its strictest sense, even for during the day. For example, milk in tea/coffee or on cereal is allowed. Similarly, as a vegan, I could if I chose eat a fair amount of junk food and ready meals, as long as they didn't include meat or dairy - but Bittman outlaws these kinds of foods.

Being the adventurous thrill-seeker I am, I thought I'd give it a go for a week. To make things a little bit more difficult, I thought that, unlike Bittman, I would try and stick to completely outlawing meat and dairy products before 6pm and I must confess that this ultimately proved to be my downfall. Not only could I not have milk on my cereal, or drink my usual 5-6 cups of tea during the working day, but I also couldn't have spread on toast or bread. I do quite regularly have soup for lunch, so making up a big batch for the week wasn't really too difficult. However my usual weekend lunch fare normally includes some sort of cheese or an egg, leaving me somewhat stumped. In the end, I had noodles one day and beans on dry toast the next - not completely extraordinary but it did feel like more of a sacrifice because I was thinking about it! By my third day at work I was absolutely gasping for the comfort of a nice warm cuppa by mid-afternoon, but I persevered (getting all my caffeine hits in after 6pm instead - not sure how healthy that was!) A combination of circumstances meant that I had no tea at all on Thursday or Friday (despite being accidentally made a cup by a colleague - I manfully poured it away!) but I was constantly aware of the fact that I couldn't drink it. However, by Friday evening I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, until I realised that the cereal bars I'd been snacking on all week - carrying a picture of fruit, seeds and honey on the wrapper - actually contained milk powder. When you actually start to look at the labels on even the most innocuous-looking pre-packaged foods, it can be quite surprising to discover what is included in them and the range of foods which have milk powder or some other form of lactose added to them. I've since discovered that lactose can have a number of uses as a food additive - from enhancing the appearance of baked goods to replacing costlier ingredients to increase the producer's profits.

What else have I learnt from the experience? I discovered that apple juice is a perfectly acceptable alternative to milk on my muesli and that it is possible to eat toast without butter or margarine, as long as you substitute peanut butter! It did, however, confirm the concerns I had about a vegan diet taking the fun out of food - my soup was certainly very healthy, but I would not normally have had it for five days in a row, instead interspersing it with a sandwich here and there. But with the majority of fillings off the menu I found myself lacking the imagination to come up with any alternatives. I also discovered that I didn't dare buy anything ready-made for fear of not being able to eat it - or of eating it and then feeling guilty that it wasn't vegan! My sympathy for those with genuine allergies or health issues that means that they have to eliminate dairy, or some other food from their diet, has increased immensely. At least if I slipped up I was only opening myself up to guilt and nothing more serious! Would I do it again? I might consider it - but I'd want to put more thought into possible menu options, including snacks to prepare from scratch, to be sure I wasn't eating something I shouldn't. And I might cheat by having milk in my tea....

If even cutting out the meat and dairy before dinner is too much for you, why not think about supporting the Meat Free Monday campaign? Their website has some helpful recipes and tips for reducing your meat and dairy consumption.

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