The Gochiso Gourmet: Animal sobriety

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALSeveral weeks ago, a good friend received a medical diagnosis along with a recommendation from his physician to switch his usual diet to a vegetarian one. Since the Mrs. and I usually indulge in near-vegetarian cuisine for lunch and dinner during the workweek, I decided to make little tweaks in these dishes to make them vegan. We’ve since delivered part of those culinary creations once a week to our buddy.

Vegetarian or Vegan?
Run-of-the-mill vegetarian cuisine usually refers to a dish that’s devoid of any animal flesh or ingredients that are derived from animal flesh. For instance, a minestrone soup that uses chicken stock isn’t vegetarian, even if the solids are all vegetables because chicken parts created that chicken stock. If vegetable stock is used in place of the chicken stock, and if only vegetables go into the soup, then it’s vegetarian.

Vegan Moroccan Stew. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Vegan moroccan stew. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Some vegetarians still consume animal products such as dairy from bovine and goats or unfertilized eggs, however, and sometimes are referred to as lacto-ovo vegetarians (milk and egg vegetarians). Veganism takes that diet one step further, where no animal products are consumed, including dairy and eggs. So that pure vegetable minestrone made with vegetable stock would also qualify as vegan if no cheese were sprinkled on the finished dish.

Why Only Vegetables?
People have different reasons for adhering to a diet that’s purely plant-based. For some, it’s simply ethical concerns that are sometimes raised after viewing videotapes of large poultry farms where chickens are packed into coops living on their own waste. Others are motivated by the bio-ecological concern that bovine husbandry wastes more resources than the final end point provides. Still others may have health reasons, as vegetables contain zero cholesterol and most sources are low in saturated fats. Or one’s motivation could be a combination of all of the above reasons.

Personally, seeing videotapes of large poultry farms where hormones are employed to get chicken to market size as fast as possible — so fast that many birds’ legs can’t even support their breast tissue so they simply sit on their waste for their short lives — along with the knowledge that at major processing plants, their demise is far from humane, is a little troubling. It also is troubling that as a pharmacist, we see antibiotic resistance on a regular basis and most of this resistance stems from the regular use of antibiotics in animal husbandry.

Since living conditions can be cramped with the major labels, all you need is one sick animal to infect the rest of the flock or herd, hence the use of antibiotics. But when we consume these animals, we also consume low levels of these antibiotics. These aren’t high enough amounts to kill our own natural bacteria, but are enough so that these microbial residents can create ways to disable these antibiotics. This is a very bad thing when you need that lifesaving antibiotic for a serious infection.

And everyone knows that one of the major by-products of fuel combustion is carbon dioxide, which as a greenhouse gas contributes to a rise in global temperatures. Well, methane is also a greenhouse gas that has about 70 times the atmospheric warming potential over a 20-year period as carbon dioxide. And what is a significant source of methane? Cows! That multiple-chambered stomach is a large fermentation vessel that creates a load of methane (the “air” that is released from your backside that is simply swallowed air with some carbon dioxide) via the methane-producing bacteria that assist cows with digesting the copious amounts of greenery they consume.

Vegan Ribollita. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Vegan ribollita. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Again, sometimes a vegetable-based diet is simply consumed for health reasons. This diet can add a lot of dietary fiber to our diets, contain zero cholesterol (only animal products contain cholesterol) and are usually very low in saturated fats — the type of fats that raise serum cholesterol. And because animal hormones aren’t employed by even the large commercial farmers, you don’t have to worry about unintentionally consuming hormones that might foster the growth of unwanted tissues, whether benign or malignant.

Is There Life After Bacon?
I know Kenji will disagree with me, but yes, the sun will rise again tomorrow and life will go on as usual without bacon. Though I enjoy a 14-hour smoked beef brisket or 12-hour smoked pork shoulder, animal proteins aren’t the only foods that can be smoked. For starters, you can season your vegan cuisine with smoked salt — I personally keep about three different smoked salts on hand for everyday use: A hickory or mesquite smoked salt for that bold smoky flavor, an apple- or cherry-wood smoked salt for that subtle smokiness and an alder or wine vine smoked salt for that medium smoky flavor. I also like to finish salads with smoked olive oil and simply grab liquid smoke for vegan stews and casseroles. Or simply treat your vegetables like your animal proteins and throw them in your smoker. An added benefit of smoking vegetables is plant matter doesn’t contain the collagen and connective tissue that animal proteins contain, so you don’t have to smoke them for hours on end. We simply peel off the tough stuff as part of our cooking preparation instead of cooking them for hours.

Am I Getting Enough Protein?
Sure, if all you eat is carrots, you won’t get all of the necessary nutrients, including protein, but the same can be said if you only eat beef minus the protein part. The key is combining various foods regardless of if you’re a vegetarian or not. For instance, combining wheat, bean and sesame protein gives you a complete protein. Perhaps that’s why hummus (bean and sesame) on pita bread (wheat) has been consumed in the Middle East long before nutrition was even a field in college. And now there are those “super” grains like quinoa and amaranth that, despite being of plant origin, have complete amino acid ratios like any animal protein. The ubiquitous potato also has a complete amino acid profile, making its protein as nutritious as most animal proteins. But unlike animal proteins, these plant proteins come with a healthy dose of dietary fiber and phytochemicals that may prevent or delay certain health conditions. I’ve never heard of beef making you “regular,” lowering your risk for heart disease or contributing to the “Five a Day” nutrition campaign.

Vegan curried fried rice

Vegan curried fried rice. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Any Downside?
Consuming a vegan diet without any dietary supplementation does leave you at risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency, as vitamin B12 or cyanocobalamin only comes from animal sources. Therefore, you would either have to supplement your diet with B12 tablets or occasionally convert to a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. Some processed foods (cereals) are still vegan and are also supplemented with B12. A long-term deficiency of B12 can lead to a pseudo-dementia as well as certain anemias, so you do want to make sure you get adequate B12 if you are a strict vegan.

Therefore, even if you aren’t under doctors’ orders to convert to a pure vegan diet or vegetarian diet, trying to incorporate more plant-based matter into your diet is always a good thing. And I hope it contributes to the health and well-being of my friend.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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