THE GOCHISO GOURMET: You say vee-gan, I say vehj-an

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALAlthough I completed my undergrad studies in nutritional science way back in the ‘80s, and actually spent a year in the master’s program at the University of Hawai‘i, there was one thing I never understood. Why are people who adhere to a strict vegetarian diet referred to as vee-gans (vegan)? Since it’s a vegetable-based diet — as in vehj-tah-bul — why aren’t they called vehj-ans? I mean, we don’t call the food items in the produce section veeg-tah-buls. Oh well, maybe that’s why I moved on to pharmacy.

Vegetarians
Vegetarians are people who don’t consume any animal flesh or products derived from animal flesh. So obviously, steak, pork, poultry and sea critters are off limits. However, so are dishes that use beef or chicken broth, as the broth is also created from the flesh (and bones) of the respective animal. Vegetarians can consume products that come from animals, like milk and eggs (non-fertilized) and often are referred to as lacto-ovo vegetarians.

The biggest issue with vegetarianism is dining out, as the public’s understanding varies as to what you can and cannot consume. For instance, my sister was a vegetarian for several years, and when we visited the local neighborhood Chinese restaurant, we would inquire about possible vegetarian dishes for her. “Yes, it’s vegetarian, there’s no chicken meat, just chicken broth” or “Yes, it’s vegetarian, there’s only fish in the stir fry.” Um … not vegetarian on both counts.

Vegan
All vegans are vegetarian, but not all vegetarians are vegan, as veganism excludes all animal products, whether flesh or not, so even milk and eggs are off limits. In fact, many vegans embrace abstaining from animal products in their entire lifestyle, so no animal hides are allowed to adorn their bodies. When my sister was in her vegetarian phase, we used to tease her that she had to wear plastic shoes.

And although a totally plant-based diet means zero dietary cholesterol, as cholesterol only comes from animal-based foods, you can still be afflicted with hypercholesterolemia, as your own liver produces cholesterol and high levels of serum cholesterol are often due to genetic causes. Dietary cholesterol simply makes a bad thing worse, and it’s dietary saturated fat that raises serum cholesterol even more so than dietary cholesterol. So even vegans who consume excess saturated fats in the form of palm and coconut oils can inadvertently raise their cholesterol levels, even without consuming any beef, pork or chicken. Although the biggest dietary drawback to veganism is a lack of vitamin B12 or cyanocobalamin in your diet as B12, like cholesterol, is only found in animal sources. This can be a serious issue, as along with the possible megaloblastic anemia that a B12 deficient diet can cause, chronic low levels of B12 can lead to dementia, which isn’t reversible by supplementing B12 after the fact.

Ham Bits.
photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

But is it a Healthier Diet?
For the most part, a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier, as it usually is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol free, plus you invariably consume a lot more dietary fiber and micronutrients — both vitamins and minerals — than your basic animal-based diets. And although plant proteins usually aren’t complete proteins, lacking or low in one or two of the nine essential amino acids, combining different plant proteins such as bean, wheat and sesame now makes it complete with each different food source making up for what the other lacks. Or simply consume more quinoa, buckwheat, chia seeds, soybeans or potatoes.

Personally, I adhered to a vegan diet for several weeks — not by choice — but because I volunteered for a classmate’s nutrition thesis research project. Because she was looking at vitamin B utilization during both aerobic and anaerobic activity, she provided research subjects with their daily vegan meals. This was the only time I was able to swat the net on a basketball court. I literally was jumping about five or six inches higher … and it wasn’t because the higher fiber in the vegan diet was giving me a turbo boost from my backside. I also felt a lot more energetic during those several weeks.

So why didn’t I continue with a vegan diet? With food technology today, you can substitute real cheese with soy-based “cheese.” You can substitute ground beef with textured vegetable protein. Heck, there are even plant-based burgers that “bleed” red while cooking and have the exact mouthfeel as real beef. But science still hasn’t been able to mimic a real sunny side or poached egg with that glorious runny yolk. Until then, I’m not giving up all animal products!

Because of the strong flavor of chili and spices, I’m pretty sure you won’t miss the animal flesh, and although this isn’t like your usual bowl of Texas Red, it’s the classic style of chili common in the 50th …

Beef Not! photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Vegan Chili
1 cup textured vegetable protein (I’m using Beef Not! Which is soy flour and corn-based)
1 medium onion finely diced
4 to 6 stalks celery finely diced
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Vegetable oil (I use garlic infused macadamia nut oil)
3 to 4 cans kidney beans (drained and rinsed)
1 can chopped olives
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can tomato sauce
1 can tomato paste
Water
2 to 3 tbsp chili powder
1 to 2 tsp powdered cumin
1 to 2 tsp dried oregano
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Powdered chipotle or hot sauce (optional)
In a large Dutch oven, cook the onions, celery and garlic until softened. Add the water, beans, olives and tomato products so the liquid level is a little above the solids. Add the textured vegetable protein and powdered/dried spices then bring to a gentle boil then reduce heat to simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes stirring occasionally and adding extra water if the liquid drops well below the solids.

Pescatarian Diets
Finally, if going totally animal free is just too large a leap for you to take, you can take smaller steps with the pescatarian diet, which allows seafood. It still is a healthier alternative to the usual animal-based diets, as most seafood is lower in saturated fat and fattier seafood options like salmon, tuna and mackerel are higher in those long chain omega-3 fatty acids, and unless you’re pregnant, are always better to substitute for those land-based animals. Or if you’re not ready to make the vegan leap or love your runny egg yolks like I do, simply make smaller changes but reducing the portions of your land-based proteins substituting them with plant or seafood-based proteins. However, if converting to pescatarian diet, you do want to consume sustainable seafoods … but that’s a whole column in itself.

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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