Episode 2: Exploiting Veganism


Food for Thought: Episode 2 Transcript

You are listening to episode 2 of Food for Thought.

Hi everybody, this is Ymonne and we are back at it again, live from the cookedraw closet in Los Angeles, California here with episode 2 of Food For Thought. First of all I just wanted to say thank you so much to all of you who have been so supportive of this new endeavor. Last month was quite a hectic one, but we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so we just wanted to give you a shoutout and big, big thank you! 

As a quick recap, and for those of you who are new to the podcast and to cookedraw, last month we released three new blogposts, a handful of restaurant reviews, our first four recipes, and a couple top ten lists. I decided to write the first blog about the differences between organic and conventional foods, because I believe it’s really important for all of us to be aware of how we are exposed to pesticides everyday in the foods we eat. I also provided a follow up with my top ten on foods I buy organic with the help of the Environmental Working Groups Annual pesticides in produce dirty dozen and clean fifteen guides; so check out that blog if you haven’t read it already and take notes so you’re prepared next time you head out to the grocery store!     

In the second blogpost I shared that I recently learned about China, Canada and Ireland encouraging their citizens to eat more plant-based diets and how I wish that would happen here in the U.S.! These countries are relying on the available science rather than the available lobbyists to help shape national dietary recommendations. And in our latest blogpost I broke down what I like to call the ‘protein myth’. In the post I gave an overview of protein, amino acids, where we can get them from, and how - at the end of the day and despite popular belief, study after study shows plant-based foods to be the better source of protein in comparison to animal-based foods. 

Aside from the blog posts, oddly enough, people have been pretty drawn to the avocado toast recipe. Quite frankly I didn’t think it was going to be that popular because it’s such a simple recipe, but as the saying goes - the best solution is the simplest oneI If you’re listening and you tried our Avocado Toast Recipe, we’d love to hear about it! On that note, we released three other recipes: white bean hummus, chive onion dip, and our current favorite, chunky tomato sauce. 

And last but certainly not least, we released Food for Thought episode 1 to introduce you to cookedraw and to tell you all why I feel so strongly about plant-based eating with respect to the health of our bodies and the health of our planet. In case you you haven’t listened to or read any of that content, you can find it all on our website at cookedraw.org, or on whichever platform you’re currently using to listen to this episode. But enough of the recap and on with the show!

For today’s episode, I want to start off with a thought experiment. Think about a time when you were watching the news or reading a news article online from a mainstream media outlet, and the story involved agriculture, vegans, or animal rights activism. What do you remember? How did you feel about vegans after reading or watching the story? More often than not, unfortunately, veganism is portrayed rather poorly in the media. It’s almost formulaic. First, vegans are made out to be these radical individuals that espouse an ideology unfit with the status quo. Then, some quick soundbites, photos, or videos of vegans participating in some form of protest are played. And finally, the commentators or authors provide their own input - not unlike a certain British TV Show Host - in an effort to mock the subjects of their own news story. Admittedly, things have gotten somewhat better, but it’s not uncommon to find spin pieces from major news outlets here in the US that illustrate vegan millennials - in particular - as this nightmarish industry-crushing, tradition-hating, un-American population of overly sensitive young adults that are easily triggered by bacon and don’t know how to take a joke.

Speaking of inaccurate media representations of vegans, on the other end of the spectrum, social media can also be quite problematic, especially when the majority of the vegans you see on Instagram or other major social media platforms are made out to be these young, beautiful, athletic, thin, somewhat racially ambiguous women that spend a lot of time in Bali doing yoga, drinking smoothies, and eating tropical fruit. Yes, I understand that isn’t everyone; In fact I want to acknowledge that vegans come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, skin colors, identities, orientations, what have you. However, I would argue that the sort of representation, or better yet, misrepresentation of vegans that most of us are exposed to online can be just as harmful as the exposure we are provided from the broader news media. Honestly, it can be incredibly intimidating and discouraging to even try to pursue veganism - especially for people who are curious about it - when you are constantly being bombarded with these meticulously curated highlight reels of people who seem to have it all and get full off of what looks like kale and bird food. 

What makes it worse is the fact that some of these influencers with major social media followings, have actually been caught promoting their own unhealthy versions of  veganism, while profiting off of their unsuspecting followers, and eventually being publicly outed for not even being vegan anymore. And just to clarify, the problem isn’t that they aren’t vegan - the problem is that they were not healthy with their own diet, which they were promoting to their followers, and once they developed severe health issues, they chose to quietly consume animal products and continue to profit off of their followers who were also being subjected to these terrible diets. And to really put the nail in the coffin here, the influencers who have come out as ‘ex-vegan’ have not been holding themselves accountable with respect to why they developed their own health issues in the first place. It’s just a big mess really. So, how did we get here? How is it that people are able to swindle their followers, sell bullshit health products, and without any accountability?

Well, aside from the fact that the Internet can be a giant misinformation factory more often than not, the answer is in the numbers. Think about this for a second: according to a survey conducted by data analytics and media company Global Data, the number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan grew from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017, translating to a 600% increase in just three years. Even though that’s still not a large demographic when compared to the U.S. population as a whole, other data reveal growing interest in plant-based foods by consumers who don’t even consider themselves vegetarian or vegan. Data from a study commissioned by the Good Food Institute and conducted by global consumer marketing research firm the Nielsen Corporation indicates that sales of plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods including meat, cheese, [milk], and eggs grew 17% from 2017-2018, while overall U.S. food sales rose only 2%; the study also concluded that the market for these products totaled more than $3.7 billion. And that’s just in the U.S. Veganism has become increasingly popular in historically meat-centric countries around that world. 

And as much as I appreciate that the data clearly shows veganism entering the proverbial shallow end of the pool of mainstream food culture, I want to stress the fact that it too has been and will continue to be exploited by opportunists interested in their own personal gain. And no, this isn’t just limited to deceitful social media influencers looking to cut some checks. It’s much, much bigger than that. How big? Well, have you heard of the new Carl’s Jr. Beyond Famous Star Burger? What about Burger King’s Impossible Whopper? Or how Danone opened up the largest vegan yogurt factory in the U.S.? If you haven’t - now you have. And if you can’t guess where I’m going with this: let’s get this straight: corporations and fast-food chains are noticing a new consumer market and are doing business as usual. Some of the largest stakeholders of Big Agriculture are now magically going green. But, not entirely, don’t be silly now. They just want to make sure that the growing market demographic migrates towards them and not to their competitors, because at the end of the day, a growing plant-based market means a decaying animal-based one, so they are doing their utmost to retain and recapture their sources of revenue. 

Don’t get me wrong - while I think it’s great to have options, especially more affordable ones at that, I can’t help but see red flags…everywhere. For instance, Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the U.S. and the second largest meat producer in the world announced earlier this year that they will be launching their own plant-based meat alternatives. 

During an appearance on Fox Business in 2017, the former CEO of Tyson Foods, Tom Hayes admitted that protein consumption was growing around the world and that plant-based protein was growing faster than animal-based protein. So what does he do? Well, he creates a $150 million venture capital fund to invest in plant-based food startups like Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats. So, no more factory farming for Tyson Foods right? No. Wishful thinking at best. You see, Tyson Foods has also been expanding their factory farming of chickens. Two independent undercover investigations have revealed the grotesque conditions of the Tyson chicken farms. Chickens raised for Tyson Foods are artificially bred to grow so unnaturally fast that they often suffer debilitating leg pain and organ failure. As a comparison to wrap your head around what that might be like: according to University of Arkansas researchers, “If humans grew at a similar rate, a 6.6 pound newborn baby would weigh 660 pounds after two months.” 

Moreover, workers in the factory farms were caught on camera routinely punching, beating, throwing, and tormenting the animals for personal entertainment. They also violently shackle the chickens upside down, causing the live birds to suffer broken bones and other injuries as  they awaited slaughter. And improperly shackled birds who miss the “kill blade” have their heads ripped off while still alive.” And that’s just the chickens. As if just is even an appropriate word to use when talking about this. Let’s not forget that Tyson is notorious for not only horrendously inhumane treatment of animals, but also terrible treatment of their employees. In 2017 news was made public that Tyson denied their employees breaks, so employees were forced to wear diapers while working the meat packing assembly line. And most of these workers were poor immigrants and refugees just trying to make ends meet. No pun intended. In all seriousness, with the track record that Tyson has - I would never trust any of their plant-based products. Especially if they continue to produce meat without any form of accountability and if they continue to deny their employees safer and more equitable working conditions. But I’m not going to hold my breath for that one. 

Another food giant that’s looking to make it big in the vegan market is Nestle. Nestle recently announced that they would be releasing a vegan no-meat burger and purple walnut milk. This might sound great at first, but for those of you who don’t know, Nestle is one of the largest food corporations in the world. And they have built their business on the backs of literal slave laborers, falsely advertising the benefits of baby formula over breast milk to poor mothers in economically underdeveloped countries, and holding a monopoly over global water supply while denying it to local populations in need. And here they are. Coming out with plant-based alternatives. Please. The list of reasons to not support anything that Nestle does grows on a daily basis and there is not enough time in this episode to talk about them all! And how could I forget our super-sized favorite, McDonald’s? McDonald’s has slowly introduced vegan items across their European and Australian markets. Including a McVegan in Finland, a Vegan Wrap in the U.K., and Vegan McNuggets in Australia. They still haven’t added anything in the U.S., but I am highly skeptical of anything good coming from McDonald’s given their track record for serving unhealthy, highly processed food while aggressively targeting minority communities especially in the U.S.. If one thing is crystal clear, these companies are not making these products because they care about you, their employees, animals, or the environment; all they care about is - surprise surprise - their profits. 

So with all of this in mind, from the social media influencers, to the would-be plant-based food providers and fast-food chains, how are we supposed to avoid being taken advantage of by people or companies that do not have our best interest at heart? Well, in order to do that we first need to understand that veganism, or plant-based diets are not a new thing. In reality a great portion of the developing world lives off of a majority plant-based diet. And the oldest records of vegetarianism as a practice are from ancient India and ancient Greece. Followers of Jainism, for example, believe in the principle of non-violence towards animals, which led to the adoption of vegetarianism or veganism as far back as the 6th century BCE. Which was thousands of years ago! It’s just that over here in the U.S., some people are discovering it for the first time with no prior knowledge and thus it has been mistakenly tagged by others as simply a millennial trend. 

So yes, there is a lot of data and resources out there - especially from societies that have been living for generations on primarily plant-based foods. In fact, we don’t have to time travel or cross an ocean to experience plant-based food cultures around the world; here in the U.S. we are so diverse, that your neighbor, your friend, or coworker can already be following a plant-based diet based on their cultural background. 

There’s so much information readily available for a healthy plant-based lifestyle that it’s not even necessary to follow a popular social media influencer, especially someone that you don’t know that well. Just because you see pictures or videos of this seemingly ‘perfect person’ doesn’t mean that what they are advertising is good for you. So, just do your homework — talk to people that are in your proximity that are on a plant-based diet. And do research outside of social media. I guess I’m kind of shooting myself in the foot here, but what I’m trying to get across is that you have to build trust with your sources. In other words, you have to fact check everything you see, unless you know that the source is reliable and trustworthy. 

The same thing applies to vegan food products, with all of these new plant-based alternatives growing out of factories. Ask yourself: was this food produced by a large food corporation? Is it highly processed? Does it have a ton of preservatives? For me personally, I try my best to cook with a focus on whole food plant-based products like grains, beans, and vegetables to avoid packaged products. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t avoid processed food altogether. When I’m really short with time to prepare my food or if I’m craving something in particular, I will ask myself those questions as it applies to me as well. But veganism, at its core is really all about eating more plants! And if you don’t want to go vegan but you want to try and eat a healthier diet, then I suggest adding actual plants to your diet rather than any of the new plant-based alternatives from any of the food giants I mentioned earlier. And that brings me to my final point: I take veganism not just as a diet, but as a philosophy, and as a way of living. 

I believe that if we want to achieve all of the benefits that veganism has to offer, we should strive for a world that is equitable for every living creature on this planet. You don’t have to agree with my interpretation of a plant-based lifestyle. I mean, if you’re in it ust for the health benefits, or ethical treatment of animals, or whatever the case may be - it is a huge step in the right direction and that’s great! And yes, I still want to commend those of you who may not be vegan or even vegetarian but who are becoming more conscientious about what you are putting in your body, and are actively trying to reduce the amount of meat and other crap you might eat. And that goes to the one helping me record this right now. Keep in mind, just like Newton’s third law - every action has a reaction. So everything we eat, buy, and support as consumers will somehow impact everyone's future even if it’s outside of our perceived sphere of influence. 

So please don’t let these big a** corporations profit from selling you overly processed food that isn’t even distinguishable from the original plants that it comes from. I understand that food is not cheap and that there are so many structural barriers in place that keep marginalized people from accessing better foods, so those of us that have privilege should do our part by not supporting the large corporations as much as possible, while trying to hold them accountable at the same time. And maybe, just maybe we can try and make a lasting change for the better - not just for ourselves, the consumers, but for the animals who are routinely slaughtered in the most inhumane ways, and just as importantly, for the laborers who’s exploitation cannot go unnoticed during this rapid period of growth. 

I know that was a lot to take in, but I want to leave it at that. There’s a lot to say on all of the topics I brought up, and I want to expand more in future episodes, so if you made it this far, thanks for sticking around and I hope you enjoyed the episode. If you have any feedback or are interested in discussing a topic further please comment or send an email to info@cookedraw.org . We’ll be back in a couple weeks with our next episode, but until then, go check out our latest content on cookedraw.org .Thank you, and until next time.

Food for Thought is a production of cookedraw. This show has been edited and produced by yours truly and Matias. Content and transcription from this episode is available on our website at cookedraw.org/podcast. You can also find Food for Thought on iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn Radio and Spotify - so make sure to subscribe to Food for Thought on the podcast listening platform of your choice - and if you liked the show, feel free to spread the word to vegan and non-vegan friends alike, and please leave us a review! Share us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whichever. Thanks so much for joining me today - I’m Ymonne - and this has been Food for Thought.


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Ymonne Tajzoy