I’ve been a vegetarian for more than six months now and most definitely after becoming an Amritdhari Sikh. Honestly, I haven’t had a single “Where’s the Beef?” moment, really. Not missing the meat at all. You would think it would be easy though, wouldn’t you? Well it is … at home in Punjab where most people are vegetarians. Most food is home made and vaishno and even processed foods and beverages (and restaurant menus) are labelled with a green dot for “contains no animal products” and a red dot for “contains animal products”. At the other home in Canada, however, it’s been a challenge. There are no easy-peasy dots.
Now before your imaginations get totally out of control – no one is waving animal flesh in front of me and trying to convince me to eat it. My friends just aren’t the practical joker that I am. They’re live and let live sorts for the most part.
Restaurants have been a challenge. Very few restaurants in Whitehorse have real vegetarian options, especially when you remove the egg and you understand what is actually in the food. One can only eat so many salads really and so many desserts. Whitehorse just doesn’t have many real vegetarian options in terms of eating out.
The other challenge are the things that are common in Western diets that I can’t eat any more, because they contain animal products that aren’t pure dairy (made from milking the animal as opposed to harvesting rennin from the stomach of a young animal).
Lamb, beef, pork, mutton, fish, shellfish and other seafood, poultry and game meat are obvious and easy to avoid. But other animal products are not so easy.
Rennet is a tricky one. Traditionally, rennin is curdled milk harvested from animals that are not yet weened from their mothers – calves, lambs, kids, etc. It is used in making a lot of cheeses (up to 90% of the cheeses available in Canada, by some estimates). Rennet is the enzyme that is extracted and is also known as chomysin. The animal is slaughtered in the process which makes eating it inappropriate for an Amritdhari Sikh. The list of cheeses that contain rennet is long.
Parmesan has to be made with calf rennet to be called Parmesan, for example. Gorgonzola is also made with animal rennet as is Grana Padano and many other varieties.
The problem is labelling. There are vegetable rennets but these aren’t uses as frequently in cheese-making because they don’t produce the same result. Also, there are few laws that specify how a cheese must be labelled. “Chymosin” is probably animal rennet. “Rennet” is probably animal rennet. “Enzymes” may have a vegetable source but… The other problem is that there are manufactured rennets. The genes which code for chymosin are taken from the animal DNA and inserted into a fungal (aka mushrooms) or microbial (like yeast) DNA, producing a chymosin more suitable for cheese making. They don’t have to label that either but if it says “yeast enzymes, fungal enzymes, etc” it’s probably of this origin.
I’m not afraid of GMOs because I read the studies and I know the testing processes sufficiently well to understand it’s neither the boon that GMO fans think it is nor is it the apocalypse that anti-GMO people think it is. So this process doesn’t bother me on a scientific level. But they are still harvesting the animal genes, which is problematic if I can’t guarantee that the animal is neither treated cruelly, harmed or killed in the process.
Paneer, some cottage cheeses, and cheeses that say “thistle rennet” do not use animal rennet at all and are safe. I can make paneer at home but try finding thistle-rennet cheese in my neighbourhood.
Gelatin is another tricky one. It’s in a heck of a lot of processed food even things I never would have thought of – like marshmallows, some cottage cheese, whipped cream, dry roasted peanuts, gum, cheesecakes, many cereals, shortening, some sour cream and some yogourts. Like rennet, there are vegetarian versions of gelatin but these aren’t easy to find where I live. Again, I can make most of these things at home but sometimes you just want the slightly easier option, you know?
Also, gelatin believe it or not is in some shampoos, conditioners and other bath and beauty products. We’re talking about food today but we will get to the “Why the heck is there dead animal product in THAT?” post soon enough.
But what’s wrong with gelatin, Himmat? It’s J-ello! Yeah, it’s in J-ello. But gelatin is a protein that is made by rendering (boiling down) the skin, tendons, ligaments and bones of an animal in water. The animal is typically a cow or pig. Obviously the animal cannot survive this process and even if it could somehow, I think it would be fair to label that process cruel so not something that an Amritdhari Sikh ought to be eating (or shampooing into their hair).
Anchovies, Sardines, White fish, Tilapia, etc. You think you have this one, don’t you? Caesar salad dressing. Yes. You’re right but it’s also in Worcestershire Sauce, many “fruity” BBQ sauces, and even possible in your orange juice. What?!? Yeap. If it says Omega-3 on the label, the fatty acids that are added to the heart-healthy product (think Tropicana Heart Healthy orange juice, margarines, fortified cereals) are probably sourced from anchovies, sardines, white fish, tilapia or other fish.
L-cysteine. L-cysteine is an amino acid made from human hair (obviously a problem for a Sikh) or from poultry feathers. It’s a softening agent in many commercial breads. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut have both used L-cysteine in their bread products, apparently (though I avoid both anyway) but there goes my take out pizza nights and my bagels.
Egg. You would think this one would be easy. It will say “egg” on the label. Nope. Even some egg substitutes contain egg proteins. In Canada, eggs are a recognized allergen so Health Canada requires that labels contain the word egg or are labelled with “may contain” egg. However, other names can be present on foods elsewhere including albumin, albumen, conalbumin, egg substitute, globulin, livetin, lysozyme, ovalbumin, ovomucin, ovotransferring, silico-albuminate, vitellin. Some of these products are also contained in shampoos and other bath and beauty products.
Lard is common in a lot of commercial bakery products but especially pie and tart shells.
Red Dyes are sometimes made from the carcasses of dead cacti bugs. This shows up as carmine, cochineal or carminic acid. It’s in Minute Maid Grapefruit Juice, which I used to enjoy… a lot.
Yellow Dye contains lutein, which is often sources from egg yolks.
Castoreum is a vanilla replacement in some products that is made from beaver. I won’t tell you what part of the beaver. It’s just too gross to think about but trust me. Castoreum is not something I want anywhere near my mouth. It’s in cream soda, just saying…
Glycerides is another cow or pig product contained in a LOT of processed foods. Some come from plants but if I can’t be sure, I’m not touching it.
Lecithin a fat sometimes obtained from animals and sometimes from plants. Again, if I can’t tell the source I can’t touch it.
Oleic Acid is from tallow, a dead animal product
Stearic Acid and Pepsin are also off limits animal products.
So you see the challenge?
I’m making most of my food at home these days and I expect that will happen more and more in future to ensure that I’m not putting dead animal product or egg in my mouth. Food labelling is great in some cases (as with egg in Canada) but it’s as much work to make fresh food as it is to spend hours in the aisles reading labels. It really does taste better anyway.
I really am hoping that this East Meets West project leaves me with a much broader variety of food to eat. Now, back to it.
Until next time,
Peace & love,