Health v. Ethics in Veganism: A False Dichotomy

A couple of years ago, a friend in Israel spearheaded a farm animal sanctuary. Several of the volunteers were living onsite, working hard physical labor in fixing up the grounds so they’d be suitable for the cows and chickens they were bringing in. He called me from the supermarket: “I’m so appreciative of the volunteers,” he said, “that I’m here getting them snacks: bamba, bissli, vegan chocolates, and the like. I wish I could do more.”

“One thing they might appreciate,” I said, “is a weekly vegetable and fruit delivery box from a local CSA. Maybe I can chip in?”

“They are ETHICAL vegans, NOT health nuts,” my friend responded. And that was that.

Health nuts?

The three main reasons for veganism that are advocated in books, films, and elsewhere, are health, animal rights, and environmentalism. And the conversations about each of these issues tend to be siloed. Some people come to veganism via Earthlings and some come to it via Forks Over Knives.

I came to veganism through ethics (biocentrism and ecocentrism), and even if this were not a healthy way to eat I’d probably make some compromises. Happily, if one is mindful of what and how much one eats, it is a very healthy choice. So, in this reality–and not in the alternative one, in which vegans lack nutrients–I think that the health-versus-ethics debate is a false one. And it is not harmless: it has several pernicious effects.

One side of this problem I’m seeing is an upsetting celebration, on the part of ethical vegans, of food that might not be cruel to animals, but is certainly cruel to people. Lists pop all around the Internet, rejoicing that Oreos and Fritos are vegan. Of course I’m happy that this stuff isn’t cruel to animals. That’s reason to rejoice, but it is not a good reason to eat it. It’s not good for you, and it’s not something that gives you energy and strength to fight for animals another day. This phenomenon is not limited to the low-grade, cheap packaged snack food (which has the scary advantage of being affordable, and thus an easily available sugar/starch fix): all around town, vegan businesses are popping up, which traffic in the upscale, albeit not particularly healthy, vegan fare. Vegan cinnamon rolls. Vegan deli sandwiches and cookies. Vegan cupcakes and donuts.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted to see this vegan renaissance. I’m glad that, in our imperfect world, these businesses exist and even thrive. But giving vegans alternatives that mimic the (bad-for-you) options in the animal-consuming world can also a disincentive to eat better. I confess that I sometimes feel pulled to order some deep-fried thing or sweet from one of these good folks because I want my money to go into vegan businesses, even though ultimately this stuff makes me feel groggy and heavy. And while it’s true that buying sweets and starches is a choice, it is not an entirely free one given our evolutionary attraction to fat, sugar, and salt.

I think these businesses also crop up to counter the prevailing view that veganism is some sort of horrible, self-depriving sacrifice, which always makes me want to ask people: excuse me, have you ever eaten a tangerine or a pineapple? Or enjoyed a dish of freshly-picked greens and white butter beans (just to name what I had for dinner last night)? It is possible to have a very enjoyable and varied diet without making unhealthy stuff the centerpiece of your self-validation.

I understand the “everyone wants/needs a treat once in a while” mentality. But recently, through my work with Tilly Paz-Wolk and reading about emotional eating, I’ve come to realize that the emotional connotations of these treats–as compensation, comfort, you name it–hide deep needs for love, belonging, and acceptance. It takes more work to figure out what you actually want–empathy and compassion from a friend? More appreciation from colleagues or from a boss? Some help with household chores from family members?–but it is ultimately more rewarding, because a donut, vegan nor not, merely dampens your feelings for a few minutes and leaves your deeper needs unanswered.

The other side of this problem is the scorn and elitism of “health vegans” toward diets that are not healthy enough. The world of health veganism comes with a lot of discontents, the most odious of which is perhaps the term “clean eating,” which reeks of pathology and orthorexia. There’s a lot of nutritional Calvinism in that world, and a lot of guilt if the wrong thing touches your lips, and with all that self-flagellation comes flagellation of others–from commenting about other people’s food choices to just keeping your paternalistic and scornful thoughts to yourself (yes, others can read your scorn in your face even if you exercise some restraint and don’t voice them.) I’ve had family members discreetly move food items out of my reach at restaurants “for my own good” when they thought I wasn’t noticing. And of course, much of this goes hand in hand with the disrespect and dehumanization of our fat brothers and (especially) sisters.

Some of the “clean eaters” and health vegans take to spending money on powders and supplements and so-called “superfoods,” with the fads coming and going with the blink of an eye. Careful attention to the ingredients of this stuff reveals some surprising similarities to the food they scorn and disdain. Folks who advocate unprocessed foods (a good idea in itself, of course) sell you their own versions of highly-processed shakes and pills, supposedly to supplant the cheaper processed foods you won’t stoop so low as to eat. Sometimes, this stuff is harmful only to your wallet; other times, it can dissuade you from seeking empirically proven, life-saving medical care.

So, how do we reconcile these differences between the health and ethics seekers and bring some unity and compassion to this situation?

First, we rejoice in everyone who reduces their reliance on the animal industry, for whatever reason they choose. The intent is secondary; what mostly matters is the outcome, which is less cruelty toward animals, and that’s a net good. We thank everyone: flexitarians, vegetarians, vegans before 6, new vegans, old vegans. Each and every one of them, in small or big ways, is bringing us one step closer to the world we want to see, which is free of animal cruelty. We can gently encourage people to step up their ethical game, but ultimately, people need to awaken to compassion on their own.

Second, we decide to rely on fresh, seasonal produce as the main components of our diet, and to eschew our reliance on artificial “nutrients,” whether cheap or fancy. The one exception to this rule is vitamin B-12, which you should supplement if you’re vegan.

Third, we all need to wake up and see through the commercial interests of anyone who is selling us things. Oreos sell us temporary numbing and something very sweet and devoid of any nutritional value. Fancy vegan donuts sell us something more upscale but of similar nutritional value. Fancy powders and shakes sell us an image of health and reasons to snub others. Look at fonts, colors, advertising language, and ask yourself–beyond food, what am I being sold here? How is buying this supposed to say something about my self identity? The more aware we are of this, the more able we are to resist it.

Fourth, we refuse to neglect our health to prove the purity of our ideology. You are not less of an ethical vegan if you eat more fresh vegetables and fruit. It is not a betrayal of your ethics to forego buying that bag of vegan chips. You are not stabbing the ethical vegan movement in the back if you enjoy a banana in lieu of a donut.

Fifth, we provide honest and unvarnished opinions about animal welfare when appropriate (such as when we’re being asked), but otherwise, we stay out of other people’s plates–certainly where issues of weight could make the conversation strained and hurtful. Commenting on ethics is important, because the eater is hurting others, not just himself or herself, with their diet, but when done with animosity and without love and compassion it can be counterproductive. I’m on the fence about the Liberation Pledge, for exactly that reason. Sometimes it works wonders and sometimes it isolates and depresses (more on my version of the Pledge in another post.)

And finally, we listen to our bodies and our souls in making choices about food. When we do that, we start noticing patterns of hunger, cravings, and deeper needs. We listen carefully to our stomachs and reward them with qualities and quantities that are good for them. We take very good care of ourselves with quality fuels, so that we can continue to fight for a just world with energy and verve.

Food Forests and Other Bright Futures for the Planet

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Starhawk’s new book, City of Refuge. I was very much looking forward to it, being a long-time fan of Walking to Mercury and The Fifth Sacred Thing.  And it was an overall enjoyable experience: familiar characters experiencing new adventures. The two later novels in the chronology are set in the 2040s, after an ecological disaster affects California, splitting it into a Northern utopia-in-recovery and a Southern patriarchal theocracy. The novels interrogate the possibilities that these futures offer by incorporating many elements of present-life Bay Area delights and keeping the environmental stuff as real as possible: San Francisco (“Califia”) is a city of water, in which people shuttle around in gondolas on the river, a-la The Blue Greenway. 

But there is one aspect of the new book that made me cringe with discomfort. One of my favorite ecofeminist heroes and authors got it wrong–very wrong–with regard to food.

The citizens of Califia eat very well, and their concoctions, as well as Bay Area booze, are extensively described in the book, especially contrasted to the faux-nutrition “chips” and “sweeties” consumed by the Southerners. Indeed, echoing and crystallizing much of the recent scholarship on our consumption of faux foods, the Southerners have a hard time adjusting to the real food in the north. The book made me feel like Starhawk conjured her favorite meals from the present and planted them in a future in which people’s agricultural ingenuity strives the overcome the effects of an ecological horror. Much time is spent in the book on the ways in which my beloved heroes, Madrone and Bird, start their “city of refuge” in the South by starting agricultural production, and the (real) magic of compost is explored in depth.

But what is on the menu in Califia? Much to my surprise, quite a lot of meat, cheese, and eggs, sometimes (but not often) hailed as “humanely raised.” Our heroes are served beef and chicken and lamb, eat honey by the bushels, and enjoy dairy with quite some frequency. Oh, there are vegans, of course, but that’s briefly described as a “personal choice”, with an “option” to order a chickpea-quinoa stew at a restaurant, side by side with the default meat choices.

Not only is this a deeply upsetting culinary repertoire for a presumed utopia, but it’s also massively unrealistic, because one has got to ask oneself–where the heck do they even raise all these animals?

Surely, Starhawk must be aware of the massive contribution of animal pasture areas and feedlots to the deforestation and corruption of the earth. Surely she knows that every burger we eat is the equivalent of months of showering. Surely she’s heard of waste and manure lagoons covering vast areas and endangering our health. As an avid permaculturist, surely she knows that vegan options are possible, realistic, and cost-effective. In a future affected by climate change, veganism will not be a “personal choice”–it will be a fact of life for everyone.

And, where are all these mysterious cows, lambs, and chickens raised? Where do the chickens lay their eggs? Where are the utopian slaughterhouses? Or do we just not like to talk about the fact that meat comes from animals?

And that’s before we even discuss the cruelty involved in the gratuitous raising and killing of animals for our own consumption, which doesn’t even begin to be portrayed as being at odds with the deeply Pagan, one-with-nature vibe of Califia. People pray over their food and give thanks to the animals–to the Goddess, to spirit, to whatever–which may make them feel great and a part of the cycle of life, but all these spiritual feel-good florid incantations don’t actually affect the animal’s fate one bit. For more on the “but I express gratitude for my wild salmon” sensibility and its hypocrisy, read Sherry Colb’s excellent Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?, focusing on the chapter on Native Americans.

Actually, without much effort one could envision a Northern Californian utopia just by looking at one marvelous permacultural initiative: the food forest. Here are several examples of food forests around the world, and for the Hebrew readers among you here’s a great story about the new one in Israel. The animals in food forests aren’t “raised”: they LIVE there. Birds nest in the trees, rodents run around collecting nuts, etc. To the extent that we benefit from their presence there, it’s as we would from any naturally-occurring phenomenon.

A world in which all the territories formerly devoted to animal farming are repurposed as food forests and homes for wild animals? Now THAT’s what I would consider a really inspiring utopia.

Ecocentricity, Biocentricity, and Hunting

The Hunt in the Forest, Paolo Uccello, circa 1470 (original at Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
We’ve been hosting Chad’s family for a week, a visit that is still ongoing, so in a few days I’ll put up a big post on vegan hosting with some fab recipes and advice. But for now, I want to talk a bit about hunting.
Earlier this year, we hosted an event at Hastings titled Hunting for Answers about Sustainable Use Conservation. It was an impressive initiative by our students, which brought together NRA gun enthusiasts, hunters, and Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) activists and lawyers to talk about hunting. The event was prompted by the brouhaha about the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe. Among other guests, our event featured a self-described former vegetarian turned hunter and trapper, who spoke about the “hate campaign” waged against her by animal rights activists.
As with all events funded by the ALDF, lunch had to be vegan. Our animal rights student chapter members (of which I’m a proud faculty advisor) liaised with the other student groups organizing the events, and were puzzled when asked where to find “vegan food vendors.” “How about… the Earth?” asked one of my students. “You do know that vegetables and fruit are vegan.” They were also saddened to see that, in letters to attendees, there was a tone of apologetics about serving a vegetarian lunch. In response to the courteous but overly apologetic email, one attendee, an NRA member, wrote back a furious email, protesting the fact that lunch would not include dead animals (I cannot even fathom what mind produces an angry email about the contents of a free lunch, which do not exclude anyone, and which one is more than welcome to privately substitute for anything they desire across the street. But I suppose my students got a valuable lesson that not everyone in the world is gracious.)
But more to the point: At the event itself I sat with my beloved friends and colleagues, Dave Owen and David Takacs, both of whom know more about the environment than I’ll be able to learn in a lifetime. David, whom I consider one of my closest friends, is vegetarian (almost vegan) and a very conscientious person. During the break, we got into an interesting conversation about hunting–a practice that we all absolutely abhor from a personal standpoint, as we can’t see any pleasure in promulgating death and suffering for sport. I was surprised to hear from David that there were some advantages to animals in allowing hunting on a small scale, in a heavily licensed and restricted regime. Where one stands on this issue has a lot to do with how one sees the natural universe: through an anthropocentric, ecocentric, or biocentric perspective.
Setting aside anthropocentrics, who think the natural world is here to serve us and cater to us, there are two pro-animal ways to examine hunting. David’s view is ecocentric, which is to say, he focuses on the natural world as an ecosystem and on sustaining and encouraging biodiversity as an overarching goal (here’s his terrific book on biodiversity.) From that perspective, selling hunting licenses to rich tourists who hunt for leisure, and singling out prey that is too old to reproduce, can bring much-needed funds into poor communities in developing countries that would better serve wildlife species overall. My perspective, by contrast, is biocentric, which is to say, I perceive all life to be of intrinsic value. I simply do not believe that animals are at all ours to sell, kill, or regulate, or that it is for us to judge who lives and who dies, and I believe than any killing that does not serve an immediate survival goal should be outright banned (and socially reviled as a serious moral crime.)
Part of the reason we differ is that we come to the issue of animal rights from different places. David’s view has been shaped by science and environmental ethics, while mine owes a lot to philosophy (such as the work of Peter Singer, J. M. Coetzee, and Sherry Colb.) But even though I am fairly firmly in the biocentric camp, I have to be honest and ask myself whether the sanctity of individual life holds well in our less-than-ideal world, in which regulated hunting may result overall in less gratuitous cruelty than poaching. I also have to wonder whether it makes sense to view eusocial insects, such as ants, bees, and wasps, as individuals or as part of a group enterprise (maybe, if ants could philosophize, they’d be more ecocentric; that’s at least how matters seem in our kitchen, when they go for a crumb we forgot on the counter!). In short, I know where I stand, but I have respect and appreciation for the competing worldview.

Stop Bragging and Gloating about Eating Bacon

In the aftermath of the World Health Organization report published yesterday, which linked red and processed meat to cancer risk, several of my friends have recurred to Facebook to reiterate their commitment to stuffing their faces with bacon, because it’s tasty, goddammit, and because the minuscule increase in risk is not worth giving up their delightful pleasure. As a reward for this sentiment, they get “likes”, and “mmmm, bacon”, and smiley emoticons.

I understand why people do this. They cling to what they know and are used to, they don’t want to change, and they therefore reject new information that contradicts their old ways. It’s the oldest heuristic in the Kahneman and Tversky bag of tricks. Moreover, if they post about their desire to cling to their habit, they’re bound to get “likes” and other confirmations from people who are also reluctant to let go, which strengthens their resolve to stick with it.

I also understand how easy it is to ignore the realities of what one is eating as long as one is not directly confronted with them. Any disruption of this ignorance (such as a new report or a vegan’s presence) reminds people of things they don’t like to think about, such as that the meat on their plate once swam, walked, flew, enjoyed the sunshine, and wanted to continue living. Or that the meat on their plate came from someone who lived their lives in conditions comparable to those in a concentration camp before being deprived of life. It’s not a comfortable thought; we all like to believe that we are good people, so it’s easier to ignore our complicity in something horrible and go back to one’s meat-eating support base and get some pats on the back.

Nonetheless, reading these posts throws me into an abyss of distress. I get that it’s hard for people to let go of what was traditionally on their plate. But to take moral relish in the killing of pigs for taste? To openly revel and boast in opting for participating in the world’s vilest, cruelest industry and in the suffering of living beings because it’s tasty, goddammit? It’s particularly disturbing when it comes from people who I know are committed to world improvement in all other aspects of their lives. From people who cry out against much lesser cruelties on a daily basis. I guess the human rights buck really stops with “human”, even though the desire to live, the love of our offspring, and complex emotions of fear, pain, and suffering, are common to all of us.

When things like this happen, I’m reminded of J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. Like his heroine, Elizabeth Costello, “I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.”  But how do I cope, every day, with friends and acquaintances that I know to be kind, good, moral people, and who participate in the most horrific crime against other living beings every day without batting an eyelash, and feel it is appropriate to gloat and boast about this? It’s a contradiction that is really hard to live with.

Please, open your eyes. If you cut back on animal products–or, better still,eschew them completely–the taste sacrifice you’ll supposedly make is minor (as this blog proves, it’s non-existent!) and you’ll exit the vilest human crime on earth. The cancer prevention is just a side benefit.

Catering Book Release Parties!

I’m happily expecting two book release parties–one at work, on 2/11, and one at Book Passage, in the Ferry Building, on 2/25, at 6pm. The invite is for the latter event is here, and I hope you’ll come and bring friends!

As I started to prepare both events I realized I’d feel really bad if the food served did not align with my ethics. I really find it difficult to justify eating animal products (for us humans; my cats are a different story, and one we shall discuss another day.) So, my workplace is kindly accommodating me and ordering a nice spread from Golden Era Restaurant which, to my great joy, is located right behind school. I imagine their kale smoothies will be a bit too much to expect folks to contend with, but their wonderful rice paper tofu and avocado wraps are sure to please.

For the bookstore event, I’m having the good people from Local Love treat all of us to wonderful vegan morsels. I’m really excited about the menu, and am keeping it a surprise even though I love chatting about it; suffice to say, the colors on the table will match the green and orange on the book cover.

I’m so glad about the proliferation of businesses serving folks like me, and I’m sure all attendees, vegan and nonvegan alike, will enjoy their fresh and delicious fare.

Travelling and Eating Healthy

Hiya all,

We’re en route to Berkeley, California, where we’ll spend the next two weeks – mostly working, but also meeting old and new friends. We’re very happy about the trip, but also somewhat concerned – my health still is far from perfect and the last thing I need is the jetlag.

And the food.

Say what you may about Israeli politics, behavior, whatever – it wins the food competition with America, hands down. When I moved to Berkeley in 2001, I could hardly bring myself to shop for anything that wasn’t vegetables or fruit – everything seemed processed, fatty, and strange. Getting used to foreign food is always a challenge, but apparently American food is particularly problematic. Many Israelis who have lived abroad (my sample includes lots of grad school students, who also sit and study a lot and therefore have somewhat sedentary lives) find that they gain a lot of weight in America.

Is it possible to live and eat in America without feeling bad and gaining a lot of weight? I maintain it is – at least in California. If you stick to the following principles.

1) Go slow at first. It’s hard enough to adjust to a new place, whether you’re visiting or staying to live there. Get a few familiar foods, just so your stomach doesn’t get as homesick as the rest of you. Being so food-obsessed, I remember how I almost cried with joy when I bought a bag of small, deep green “mediterranean” cucumbers at the overpriced yuppie store. Not all of us can afford shopping at places like that on a regular basis, but sometimes it’s important.

2) At the same time, pay attention to the quality of stuff. What is generally good in one place, doesn’t necessarily have a good equivalent elsewhere. For example, in my second year in America I finally realized that the low fat cheese market was a disappointment in comparison to the stuff in Israel, and shifted to tofu, which was much better. On the other hand, good luck finding a decent veggie burrito in Tel Aviv (and if you have found one, please, let us all know!).

3) Do not eat weird processed fake foods (and I don’t mean these, though they certainly are entertaining). The nature of a globalized, large scale capitalist food market is that it offers a load of new, pre-packaged products for our consumption. There is no need to eat stuff that has an unappetizing, artificial list of ingredients.

4) Exit the supermarket and head to the nearest farmers’ market. The markets have much better and fresher – and often cheaper – produce.

5) Do not be afraid of new vegetables. Before coming to America, I didn’t know of mustard greens, bitter melon, jicama, bok choy, and other wonderful things. In my first year in California, I played a game that you may find fun: Vegetable of the Week. Each week I bought a vegetable I didn’t know, and tried to cook it in various ways. My diet got richer, and my palate was certainly happier!

6) Make use of the advantages of immigration countries! In America, try Asian and Mexican restaurants – it’s best to avoid the sanitized chain versions, and go for the real thing.

7) And, finally, find a way in which, when you’re sad or lonely or homesick, you can have and enjoy an old favorite… a small bag of Bamba does wonders for Israeli kids and kids-at-heart, anywhere in the world…

Safe travels!

(images for this post from: and

Vegetarian Dating

Every day you learn something new. The other day, for example, we were handed a flyer in the street, inviting us to join a vegetarian dating service.

A quick checkup when we got home (we were curious) revealed that the board is a project of Anonymous, one of Israel’s oldest and most active organizations for animal rights. On their website, they are operating a vegetarian dating board, to which people post about their interests. Is this a unique venture? Apparently, there are others, like the American Veggie Date, which allows vegetarian applicants to specify whether their vegetarianism is related to religious or ideological concerns, and of which flavor.

Of course, what I asked myself was why. I mean, is vegetarianism such a fundamental trait that folks would apply to a specified board, because they wouldn’t even consider dating meat eaters?

I suppose everyone’s answer to that is different. Mine is, yes and no. There are some personal habits that I more easily identify as deal breakers. Smoking is one of those; nearly any dating board you see has a smoking/nonsmoking information. It’s quite difficult for smokers and nonsmokers to live together. One could also think of more than one milieu where people of different political opinions would find it difficult to share a household.

But what about nutrition? I’ve seen Israeli families successfully negotiating the issue of keeping Kosher in the house. Usually, the solution is that the secular person gives in, since the religious person can’t. It seems that vegetarians and carnivores can coexist even more easily, particularly if no separate dishes are required for meat. Even if the vegetarian party dislikes having anything to do with meat – including cooking it – the carnivore can chip in (actually, this could happen even with squeamish, not necessarily vegetarian, spouses).

The substantial problem arises when vegetarianism comes from a strong ideology, where the person can’t live with someone who eats meat because that’s taken to signify that the prospective partner is a cruel, insensitive person. I imagine in this case, vegetarianism in itself is not the issue, but it is rather an index of a whole other set of values.

Food is More than Chemistry

A few weeks ago I was stranded in an airport with a pal of mine on the way to a conference. We sat in a little coffee shop, having juice and tea, and talking about various interesting ways in which people relate to their bodies. She said: “Have you noticed how Americans always refer to eating and drinking in scientific terms?” She was right, of course. How many times have you heard someone say “I need my caffeine” rather than “I want to drink coffee”? How many times has someone ordered a smoothie not because they wanted one, but because they “need their vitamins”?

There are so many ways to relate to food. Some people numb their senses to health, binge on alcohol, sodas, sweets and fats, and contribute to the high rates of heart disease and obesity (both of which also have genetic componenets). Others become gourmet fanatics and impose highly-refined and expensive standards of wining and dining on themselves and on others. And some become body chemists rather than living, eating people; food loses its joys, smells, shapes and aromas, and becomes a set of particles required for maintaining the organism.

Why do people do that? Why would anyone eschew the pleasures of eating to regard it as merely good practical science? I have no idea; it could be, to some extent, related to the medicalization of diets. In a society obsessed with thinness, interest in calories, carbs, fats and proteins increases. We are bombarded daily with good and bad science about how what we eat contributes to how we function and to what we look like. I think the health obsession, maligned by the ones who are trying to label “orthorexia” an eating disorder, is a close sister to thinness obsession and often tries to mask it. We say “we’re eating healthy” to mask the fact that we want to lose weight or maintain our diet achievements. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that our constant concerns with what we eat have turned into meta-science.

We are, of course, right to be concerned. Supermarkets and chains feed us sprayed, chemical-treated food devoid of nutrition. American food prices create strong incentives for purchasing boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese over a nice bag of tomatoes. I’ve seen it often at Safeway or Albertson’s: a tired mother, standing in line in front of me, short on cash, and on a budget, trying to figure out how to feed her children for the week, and opting for the cheaper option – a humongous set of cardboard boxes of instant food (“just add water”). The dry and chemical-ridden food was, itself, exciting science at some point; isn’t it ironic how now we regard other foods as such? It *is* upsetting that the machinations of food corporations has weakened us so much that health considerations have become a luxury. Here, in Israel, things are somewhat better, as vegetables and fruit are very affordable; and yet, whole grains and organic produce is still not easily available.

So, yes, there is cause for concern. And there’s all the more reason to encourage healthy, organic, local food production, and to mind what we are putting into our bodies. But while we’re at it, can we perhaps enjoy the food? Consider a nice fruit plate for breakfast. Yes, it offers sugar and vitamins and available energy. But that is not the (only) reason we eat fruit.

It begins with how they look. Their amazing array of colors, shapes and textures. It continues with their tropical intoxicating aroma. And it ends in their sweetness and tartness, and set of complex flavors. First and foremost – eating fruit is an enjoyable experience. The vitamins are important, but they are only part of the experience.

I’ll be heading off now to eat a load of passion fruit and figs for breakfast; it’ll likely make me smile, and give me an uplifting sensation that all is well. At the same time, yes, it’ll introduce some vitamins and energy into the “system”. Such is the magic of living things: we – and what we eat – are a web of complex science, and at the same time, so much more than that.

The Tricky World of Refreshing Beverages

The other day, walking on the beach, a horde of enthusiastic youngsters with matching teeshirts pounced on me happily, chirping about a “new exciting product, here, try it”. I looked behind them and saw their booth, belonging to a local mineral water company called Neviot. There were bottles, and plastic cups, and since I was very thirsty I took one and drank it up.

Gaaaah! It was sweet!

Apparently, the odd trend of flavored water has reached Israel.

As I was drinking, a strange sensation of deja vu hit me. After all, wasn’t it, like, three years ago that I was accosted by a similar group of youngsters near San Francisco’s Powell Station and offered a similar product? Yes, it was quite vile, even then. So now Israel has a line of peach and apple flavored water.

What is flavored water? apparently, it’s somewhat of a lighter version of the juice syrups we used to have as kids, only without the food coloring. The water basically contains either sugar or an artificial sweetener and some artificial fruit flavoring, and also some added vitamins. If you are a Coke or Diet Coke drinker, this option might be better for you; but if you think (like me) that sodas taste vile and are vile, why not skip the ridiculous flavored water and drink water, instead?

The constant struggle to find new and exciting ways to quench and refresh us has yielded various interesting trends. I won’t even get on the topic of sodas – there’s plenty of people talking about that. There are also the sports drinks – again, much like the artificial syrups of our youth, only with the added halo of SCIENCE behind them. Sports drinks contain electrolytes and sugar, and are aimed at replenishing these particles lost in sweat, while encouraging one to drink more. “What’s wrong with water?” asks one website, and answers:

Drinking plain water causes bloating, suppresses thirst and thus further drinking. It stimulates urine output and therefore is inefficiently retained. A poor choice where high fluid intake is required. Water contains no carbohydrate or electrolytes.

Yes, water does “cause” bloating. Anything ingested will make stomach expand as it takes some time to absorb. Yes, consuming liquids “stimulates urine output”, as they are supposed to; the kidneys and bladder do their job for a purpose. This might, perhaps, be tricky for marathon runners, but for us simple folk there’s really nothing better than good quality water. “Flavored water” is not much different from the fake juices of our childhood. Yes, it doesn’t have coloring, possibly to make it seem more healthy (which it probably is, to some extent). But the flavor is still there. Want to ask yourself what it’s doing there?

It seems that food manufacturers do not believe that we’ll drink anything unless there’s some sugar and added ingredients to it. Do pour yourself a glass of good water and prove them wrong.

Takeout Pet Peeves of the Vegetable Adventurer

Takeout is an inevitable part of city life. Often, we are too tired, lazy or hyper to cook. When one’s vegetables are delivered to one’s door, it doesn’t happen often, but still, there comes a time when you pick up that box or bag or folder of leaflets and browse through them, searching for something that the good city restaurateurs can haul over to your doorstep.

Such, indeed, was my mood a few days ago, when I picked up the Tel Aviv Food Book, proclaiming itself to contain menus for most of the restaurants in Tel Aviv. Now, we are very fortunate here in this respect; there’s more than pizza and MG-laced Chinese. The city has hundreds of wonderful food digs and many of them offer deliveries.


However, the offerings in the vegan/vegetarian/whole grain department are pathetically slim. I assume there’s not much demand: folks who like wholesome food have often gotten used to making it themselves, thus diminishing the supply market for such foods. But wouldn’t you occasionally like someone *else* to bring you your quinoa bowl? Also – it’s possible that health food is considered snobbish and expensive; but so are many of the extravagant items on the menu, and whole grains and beans don’t have to be expensive, at all.

So, here are some of the things I was disappointed with.

1. I *know* there are organic restaurants in this city. I’ve *eaten* in them. Why no deliveries?

2. Is it too much to ask for Chinese and Indian restaurants to offer steamed brown rice, in addition to the white rice? I’d be willing to pay more and I bet many others would, too. It could make a whole lot of difference for me. One Indian place already does deliveries with brown rice; others should join.

3. It’d be kind of fun for those of us that eat eggs to be able to order Shakshuka from eggs that don’t come from chicken coops. Again: there are people who care about this. Would anyone pick this idea up?

4. How about marking the menus, to let us know which dishes are vegetarian/vegan and which aren’t? We hate being pests and asking on the phone “does this have meat?”. Yes, there are people who won’t eat the soup if it’s chicken broth. Yes, there are people who want to know if there are eggs in the cake. Why not help them out?

5. Sometimes, generous restaurants give us really nice offers: if we order a certain value of food, we get desert – free! That’s really nice of them. Would it be possible to ask them to extend that good will, and offer a free small salad, or water, instead? Some people in this town are diabetic, and it’d be really nice to treat them to something as well, if they spend a lot of money ordering food from your establishment.

6. We can deal with paper containers. No need to produce and consume all this plastic. How about that? And, while we’re at it, most of us can, and will, use our own cutlery. The less plastic in this world, the better.

Thank you for your attention, restaurateurs of Tel Aviv; there are many, many great options for folks who eat locally and ethically, here, if they want to eat out. All we need to do is stretch them out a bit, so they apply to folks who order in, as well.