Eggs Ain’t Eggs

The topic that welcomes me back into my blogging – postponed due to an action packed holiday schedule back in Australia – is timely for two reasons. The first is that eggs organically became the topic of conversation in Australia a couple of times; the second – and of equal importance – in the news this week is the EU enforcing their Jan 1st ban on battery caged eggs being sold within their borders.

Caged eggs still exist in Australia – in fact they hold about 70% market share – despite most people recognising that they’re a bad idea. If egg cartons had pictures of the conditions the hens live, and said “UNNATURALLY HOUSED EGGS FROM STRESSED HENS”, clearly no-one would buy them. The labelling is misleading, and often terms that we think mean better conditions for the hens are in fact still caged eggs or an equivalent – just with an opaque name. So, a quick look through the common terms.

Cage eggs (and assume anything without a description is as bad as this) – a laying hen that is unfortunate enough to be producing eggs from a cage is subjected to living it’s entire life on the equivalent of roughly an A4 piece of paper; never, ever sees daylight or fresh air; lives in a cage with between 3 and 20 other birds; with nothing but wire mesh for flooring; gets feed an unnatural diet; and after all that only lives for about one year. Something is wrong when this situation is PERMITTED BY LAW.

Barn-laid eggs – doesn’t this invoke images of an old farmer with a straw hat wandering out to pick up a few eggs, just for you? In legality, barn-laid means caged eggs without the cages. Essentially they build massive sheds to house the hens, who hang around on the ground, all 5000 of them packed in as close as they would be in cages. The never-seeing-daylight, unnatural food and lifespan all persist.

Free-range eggs – now we’re onto something, right. This is where the chickens are running around without fences and the farmer has to coax them into a coop at night to lay your eggs. Again, reality a lot different from the image on the box. Free-range eggs only differ from Barn-laid ones in that the hens must have access to the outside. That seems OK? Well, it depends on how one defines ‘access’ – if access is one small door in a shed housing 5000 birds then the outside just became a little more difficult to reach.

‘Certified’ Organic eggs – this one can be just as confusing as the rest! It means that the hens’ feed has no chemicals or additives in it; and that chemicals and synthetics have been avoided to the last resort – especially with regards to anti-biotics. It doesn’t however, guarantee a place out in the sun for the hens – they only need to meet free-range space requirements – and although standards prohibit overcrowding one can imagine it happens on the larger scale farms.

A whole other post is probably required – books have been written in fact – about all the other horrible things humans do just to get eggs for breakfast: but briefly they include – beak cutting; restriction from any sort of natural behaviour like foraging or nesting; and pre-emptive over-use of anti-biotics. These practices would apply to all farming types aside from organic eggs, and are the result of large scale factory farming. Even organic eggs cannot escape the elephant in the cage – what happens to the chicks that are unlucky enough to be born male and therefore of no financial value? In Australia alone, 12 million male chicks are killed every year. Not a typo – 12,000,000. Not cool. They die because you and I want to eat cakes and frittatas, fact.

My own personal view is that it is hard, even for certified organic farms, to be running a successful business whilst having the animal’s welfare first and foremost – if the operation they are running is large scale. I’ve done the feeding at my uncle’s chicken shed and it’s enough work controlling a dozen hens let alone 1000. One of my main reasons for staying vegetarian is animal welfare, and I’m not sure I can justify buying eggs from anyone other than small scale producers like neighbours and friends with a few hens scratching the lawn.

In the process of writing all this I’ve realised I can be better:

– We still occasionally buy the free-range eggs (organic of course) from the larger supermarket downstairs because we feel like a chocolate brownie or something, and our carton is empty. That needs to stop.

– A good tip I’ve read, not just about eggs but all food products, is ask to visit the farm where they’re produced – if the producer says no, they’ve probably got something to hide. I’m still yet to do this at all, but I should.

Finally, here’s my main problem with eating eggs or not, and it not only applies to eggs but is a big hurdle in making a full transition to veganism : there’s a social element to food. One of the major ways my paternal family celebrates special occasions is with cake, there’s always at least two cakes on offer (sometimes for only about 7 people), and often it’s 3 or more. Is it fair to my family in the midst of singing happy birthday to ask about chickens’ living conditions? Plenty of my friends are scared at the thought of having to cook vegetarian meals, I fear a vegan path leads me towards social exclusion, at least in a culinary sense. Which is not cool, because food is the most binding of social and cultural fabric.

Whilst I wrestle with that dilemma, I’m going to visit the producers of the eggs we use at home; and be more forthcoming with conversations about eggs…for those friends who I want to cook me dinner.

Small Habit, Big Change – Buy organic eggs, preferably from a farmer you know (your local farmer’s market is a good start)

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Who To Trust?

MSG is bad for us right? Well, it all depends on who you believe. I’m using MSG as an example here, but this situation probably occurs with every product available – which research can you trust? I saw an article today about soy milk vs cow’s milk and there were so many varied and opinionated responses in the comments section that reflect how individual our diets can be.

Firstly, what most debaters can agree on about MSG, condensed into about three lines and as my best interpretation – a Japanese scientist in the early 1900s wondered why a particular type of seaweed soup tasted so good, and discovered MSG was the responsible party. He extracted the compound from the seaweed and ‘bottled’ it. It came to ‘western’ cultures after WWII, when American troops occupying a Japanese base wondered why the Japanese rations tasted so much better than their spam. They took samples home and MSG is now used in as a flavour enhancer in more items than we care to imagine.

If one is interested enough, or feels like looking, there is plenty of research to suggest that MSG causes more problems than just the occasional headache from eating Chinese food. Scientists opposed to it have linked it to many conditions/diseases like Autism, ADHD, Diabetes/Obesity and Cancer; as well as plenty of issues surrounding it’s effect on unborn/newborn/ailing.

This kind of research is of course not good publicity for the fakefood* companies that depend on MSG for profit, and they try hard to push the case for it’s continued use. If one purely listens to mainstream media, one is likely to come across articles such as this that seem to relieve MSG of all blame. First question that springs to my mind is – How much do such journalists get paid? Of course, this research is also conducted by scientists, so who or what to believe is still the question.

A large indicator for me that companies put profits before people is their active promotion of less transparent labeling for food, confirmed with a quick glance at the alternative names for MSG. If I see any of these names on an ingredients list –

Glutamate

Hydrolyzed anything

Yeast Extract

Gelatin

anything Protein

E621 or additive 621 or flavour 621 or anything else 620-625

– then the product goes back on the shelf. These are just the more common replacements, there are plenty more at this website. The issue for me with this list is that (yeast extract) vegemite pizza is such a good hangover cure, but we’ve managed to reduce our intake to about every second weekend. Chips/crisps are another problem, and a main culprit for MSG-addictiveness. I had an experience over a year ago where I ate most of a box of Pringles myself, and woke up the next morning with what felt like a hangover despite not drinking anything. After devouring a vegemite pizza, I swore off Pringles for life (successful so far), and only eat plain salted chips now. Know what – they’re good enough to satisfy the junk cravings.

So, clearly my feet are firmly planted on the ‘bad for us’ side of the fence, for three reasons. Firstly, I believe that anytime we process or extract anything from it’s natural state, we alter it in a way that changes how it behaves. So while MSG that exists in tomatoes or breast milk is fine for us, the additive is bad. Secondly, if the product is harmless (or any product for that matter), why do companies fight labelling laws? There should be nothing to hide. Lastly, I like to follow the money on these things; who has more to gain here – a huge company dependant on this product for maximizing profit, or an individual with a few book sales at best. I trust wherever the money isn’t.

Small Habit, Big Change – Buy plain salted chips instead of MSG-filled ones

*fakefood is my new name for things that we put in our mouth but are not really food.

Does that coke have corn in it?

A curious question indeed, and certainly not one you would have been asking in your childhood! Next time you buy a can of coke though – or any other soft drink – satisfy your curiosity as well as your thirst and check out the ingredients label. The first item should be water in some form, next should either be sugar, high fructose corn syrup or HFCS, then a bunch of flavourings. But the interest lies in the second item, because most of our sugar – the little white granuled stuff, has been replaced by corn. Yes that’s right, corn – the cobbed yellow stuff that is most delicious in a roast but also fun to dip into guacamole.

Recently we watched an upsettingly interesting documentary called King Corn, about two guys who became interested in food ingredients and decided to grow an acre of corn and follow it’s path through the food chain. There were not many new things to learn if one has already watched Food Inc, one of the most popular food doco’s in recent times. Food Inc seems to be a movie amalgamation of the books An Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, and is an absolute must to watch to discover more about how your food gets to your plate. I was so intrigued that I watched it twice, and there’s so much to understand that it’s probably worth re-visiting time and again.

I did however learn one mind boggling fact from King Corn70% of all the antibiotics in the USA are given to cattle!! Why? Because they’re fed corn, of course. Makes sense to me! Cattle have evolved to eat grass, but because they get fed corn the poor fellas get all sorts of troubles, and therefore their feed gets supplemented with antibiotics. Seems just a little arse-about to me, why not just feed them grass? The EU has banned antibiotics in animal feed since 2006, but does this happen in Australia? Bet your last grocery shop on it – http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/antibiotics/agriculture.htm.

Back to the can of coke – curiously, I discovered yesterday that Sweden coke ingredients list  sugar and not HFCS. I’m reckoning on that sugar actually being HCFS – which does not bother me so much for the coke because I buy one as often as I have jam with eggs, but concerns me for the other products that include ‘sugar’. I try to avoid sugar as a rule, but when I choose it I want to be ingesting little granules, not syrup of engineered cobs.

Small habit change – watch Food Inc. That’s not really a habit but it’s the path to many other roads of knowledge about your food. If you’re interested wink wink then send me an email and wink wink I might know how you can get the movie wink wink.

Four Years of ‘Freak’

As it turns out, I quite like to read. The last two or so years I’ve been getting through books like a Norwegian through dried fish. I thought I might try a little writing too, it turns out I’m taking to it like a dog with a ball….it’s fun to keep me occupied until food turns up and then I forget all about the ball. Thinking about ethics and morals of food has occupied a large frypan in my mind the last few years, which developed into reading lots about it, morphing into an attempt to write about it, and hopefully change some folk’s thinking about it.

A little over four years ago I made the permanent switch to vegetarianism and it’s become clear to me that I feel I’m doing the right thing. When someone discovers you’re a vegetarian there’s two common questions – 1) Why?; 2) Don’t you miss meat?

Here then are my answers, happily unchanged the entire time.

Why? I think it is the right thing to do. Right for me, right for animals, right for the planet. What has changed from four years ago is my knowledge and passion for the whole topic of happy food choices, and the more I learn the more I agree with myself. Vegetarians have probably already taken a bigger interest in happy food choices than their carnivorous cousins, and that interest has increased with every book I read on the topic. Each book inevitably leads to another, each time confirming my choices will make either me, animals or the planet happier…and more often than not all three at once.

Don’t you miss meat? There are two parts to this, firstly the answer to ‘don’t you miss the taste of meat?’ is a big fat juicy steak NO. Occasionally I can be caught sniffing a seafood dish just to be reminded of how that tasted, but it’s incredible how delicious fruits and vegetables are when they are the meal and not just an accompaniment. Legumes and seeds are not merely a substitute but an amazing replacement. In answer to ‘doesn’t your body miss meat?’, the proof is clearly in the apple pie. I have four years of healthiness, energy and happiness to show that it’s possible to not eat meat (and do without nutritional supplements also).

So, I reckon I know a bit about happy food choices and I want to share them with everyone through this blog. There are a thousand million different ideas about which food is bad or good for you, there will be plenty more every week that scientists keep looking into the microscope, and I’m not here to say which is right and wrong because sure as eggplants different choices work for different people. What I hope to do is to encourage people to make the healthiest choice as often as possible and turn it into routine.

Too often our food choices are based on price rather than health. When selecting a stereo or car or dining table or tech support service or shirt or nailpolish or mobile phone contract or potplant or holiday package, by all means take the cheapest option, but what a silly idea to sacrifice your health for a few bucks. As an example, think about buying a pair of shoes – there’s no way you’d choose a pair that was two sizes too small just because it was cheaper, it wouldn’t be good (healthy) for your feet. Why is it then that when we go to the supermarket the number one consideration is price and not health? If there are two competing products on the shelf that look pretty similar but one is way cheaper, bet your last banana that it’s because a healthy natural ingredient has been substituted for a cheaper unnatural version.

At it’s simplest, bread is made from flour, water and yeast….now go to the kitchen and check out the ingredients on your bread packet. Do you even know what that ‘acidity regulator’ is? Do you know what effect that ‘emulsifier(diglyceride)’ has on your body?

Helpfully, it is law in most countries to display a list of ingredients on food packaging, and in most cases they must be displayed in weight order. Two simple reasons to leave an item on the shelf are – 1) if you don’t know what an ingredient is; 2) if it has more than 5 ingredients.

It’s not a chore think more about food, it’s a joy to make the right choices. After four years of being a vegetarian ‘freak’, it comes naturally to me now and I realise that healthy choices apply to everyone – vegan, vegetarian, only-eat-chicken-if-it’s-sustainable eater, or meat with every meal – whichever type you are start taking a greater interest in where your food comes from.

Small habit change – Reading labels takes time, don’t do it all at once or you’ll go mouldy quicker than bread without that acidity regulator. Limit your research to a couple of items every shop, or next time you cook a meal just quickly check out the label on a few items. If they don’t fit the two criteria above, change them – start taking the happy food choice for yourself!