Faux animal products and veganism

 By John Carbonaro

[The opinions expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect the position of ARAUNY.]

10394634_647230645365652_6736248418456498792_n-2It seems that a plant-based diet is more popular than ever if the growth of the non-animal products industry is any indication.

It is not always clear if people are doing this based on the tenets of veganism or whether they are merely following a vegan’s diet. Veganism holds that any animal use by humans is morally problematic. Many argue that no matter what the reason, if consumers are choosing more plant-based products, it lessens the harm done to animals, people, and the planet. As the market demand for these products grow, more and better tasting options become available.

The vegan-as-animal liberationist may ask, when transforming society away from the mindset that animals are food, should we be trying so hard to replicate their taste, texture, and smell? It seems for some that the criteria for success depend on that very goal.
Not only do faux animal products seem to be judged by this gold standard, but perhaps accessibility to a vegan life as well. Characterizing veganism as only as good as the product’s replication of animals sets it up to appear perpetually second rate, a sacrifice, a diet, and non-challenging to the status quo of an animal’s “place” in societal hierarchy.

The language being used to convey animal associations for marketing success include such words as “beefless tips,” “chick’n,” “tofurkey” and “pulled shreds.” In some instances companies may do so to protect themselves from litigation. In 2010, dairy lobbyists tried to challenge the right of soy companies to call their product “milk.”

The furthest example of language appropriation (to keep close to societal norms of meat), is the opening of a “vegan butcher shop” in Minneapolis M.N. It features deli-style faux meat slices. The word “butcher” has had few other connotations other than slaughtered animals along with the mindset that labels them as food.

Interestingly, animal farmers (and hunters) have appropriated “harvest”, a word typically reserved for vegetables and fruits, to frame the slaughter of animals. In both cases, a product is being marketed to maximize consumer familiarity and acceptance. “Vegan butcher” pairs a violent word to sell a non-violent product, and “harvesting animals” uses a benign word to advocate a product of violence.

Arguably this falls into the social marketing continuum shared by PETA when they promote an animal welfare issue wrapped in a sexist (yet widely normative) advertisement. In the end, do replicating society’s norms about meat and sex in order to gain acceptance help the plight of animals and their rights?

It partly depends on whether one sees these developments as signs of transition. Initial steps involve close, familiar proximity prior to moving out and beyond to new ways of relating. Those ways of relating will need to be vastly supplemented with the wider philosophy of veganism. Developing a superior tasting faux bacon will not necessarily assist in considering the moral argument for animal rights.

Still, initial questions when considering a vegan’s diet include “What will I eat?” which is normal on the basic scale of needs. If one is ready to make the commitment, pre-made foods can create an immediate sense of personal change.  Other positives include convenience and the ease of “fitting in” to events such as cook-outs and holidays. Vegan burgers, hot dogs and ice cream may help children feel connected at birthday party, and show others that veganism is easy and adaptable.

Faux “animal” products retain the positive attachments that are built around food. Replacements reacquaint us with family recipes, favorite foods, and ethnic traditions. We learn that we were not so attached to the taste of animal products themselves, but the emotional connections cultivated around the dinner table. Tastes, smells, and textures of foods are conditioned throughout our lives. Some vegans are uncomfortable associating food tastes with animals. Yet many of these come from the spices, sauces, and creams rather than the animal flesh itself. All of these can be replicated with plant-based alternatives.
It has been noted that early in the vegan transition people experience “cravings” which can often be satiated with meat & dairy alternatives. Research has proven that there is no link between cravings and nutrient deficiencies. As time passes, even desire for old tastes change and many vegans no longer chase after meat and cheese flavors. Their palates broaden and change with new food experiences.They may come to enjoy creating new foods using basic ingredients without the faux food processing, extra packaging, and expense that sometimes makes veganism appear classist.  However, some vegans have stated “The fake ham I eat doesn’t taste like ham, I just like the way it tastes.”
A bit of cognitive restructuring reveals that typically our lifelong conditioning involves viewing foods as objects, disassociated from the whole animal and its life. We see “steaks” and “pork chops.” Through veganism, we stop objectifying and compartmentalizing the animal. Following this we can return to see, smell and taste the food object via faux products. Even products that replicate fish taste can be resolved by simply noting that all aquatic life, from seaweed to fish, is infused with the sea. So one is not replicating the taste of fish, but the taste and smell of the sea itself.

With time and experience, one can hope that a greater vegan presence in the world will mean that there are fewer people who need to compare what (who) they once ate with mock alternatives. Meals will involve dishes with little reference to animal shapes and textures. Unique and separate will be the special of the day; it is how vegans view animals in a just world.

(photo by John Carbonaro)