I Can’t Brie-lieve It’s Nut Cheese

Plastic food, anybody?

Plastic food, anybody?

Am I missing something, or have words ceased to have any meaning? Take the phrase “nut cheese”. Seriously. Now stop giggling like a 12-year old and actually think about it. Would you buy some nut cheese for your grilled cheese sandwich? Fancy some nut cheese on your pizza? Actually, purely from a practical point of view, no, you wouldn’t. Nut cheeses don’t really melt, they are better for spreading on crackers. But, leaving the double entendres  aside, why would we give Edam (sorry…) about nut cheese? Apparently it’s a product that’s made exactly like cheese, if you ignore the fact that (dairy)* milk doesn’t have to be ground with water to separate the solids before the cheesemaking begins. Oh, and the fact that nut cheese made from nuts. Which means that despite the name, it’s not actually cheese.

Why does the concept of nut “cheese” irritate me so? It’s not paranoia that everybody will become so enamoured by nut cheese that the dairy industry will cease to exist (could a non-melting, spreading cheese really compete with a hefty chunk of Wensleydale?); or the suspicion that it’s a dastardly plot to infiltrate nut cheese into our children’s diets and tempt them away from the wonderful world of extra strong Cheddar and ashed-rind goats cheese. It’s simply because it’s yet another fake food. Believe me, I get equally irritated by soy “milk”; orange-colored soft drinks masquerading as “juice” (ahem, Sunny-D); and burgers made of mashed tofu. Why? Because I don’t see the point of plastic fantastic meals. Yes, I’ve eaten vegan cheese, vegetarian sausages and tofu roasts. I ate them when I was vegan** and I felt hypocritical for doing so even then. No, they didn’t taste better than the “real” thing (although one soy ice-cream was amazingly good). No, I couldn’t believe I was tucking into a juicy hot dog when I was simply chewing on something with all the taste and texture of reconstituted shoe leather. No, they didn’t compensate for my brothers gleefully eating bacon sandwiches. They simply seemed like a poor imitation of the diet that I had previously enjoyed as an omnivore.

When I was vegan I loved vegetables, and I still do now as a happy omnivore. I may lose my beef-loving credentials for admitting this, but after presenting a webinar on beef sustainability yesterday, I prepared and ate an entirely vegan meal. Admittedly I didn’t notice that it was vegan until I was chatting with @MomattheMeatCounter afterwards, but more tellingly, I didn’t miss the meat. I love vegetables because they are fabulously diverse. They have a myriad of flavours and textures that no other foods can provide. I could happily eat that same vegan meal two or three times per week. Yet vegetables aren’t meat or dairy, they don’t provide the same flavours and nutrients, and I couldn’t go back to being vegan. Aside from anything else, I’d miss real bacon cheeseburgers.

Which brings me to my major issue with all faux meats and dairy products. If you’re determined to give up animal proteins for ethical reasons, then why eat an ersatz version? Why not celebrate the fabulousness of fruit and vegetables and cook creative plant-based meals rather than eating a make-believe version of an animal-based food? Why are these faux foods often championed by people who otherwise derive their careers from bleating about “natural” foods and telling us that if a third-grader can’t pronounce it, we shouldn’t eat it? Why are millions being invested  in the promise of growing meat in labs or turning pea protein into faux eggs when we could simply eat peas instead?

Fake chocolateBelieve me, if I ever have the misfortune to become intolerant to gluten or dairy, I will be seeking real (and naturally gluten and dairy-free!) eggs at Easter rather than a faux chocolate egg with all the supposedly sinful ingredients removed***. Yet this treat was next to the regular chocolate eggs in the supermarket this weekend. A great thing for the small proportion of people who actually have dairy or gluten allergies, but also a clever Easter guilt-inducer to parents everywhere who are convinced that little Crispin and Arabella’s blood chemical levels will otherwise reach “toxic” limits akin to being given an intravenous infusion of the self-proclaimed Food Babe’s nemesis, Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Nut cheese tweetMaybe I’m pedantic, overly irritable about the appropriation of words that are specific to certain foods. Perhaps my European roots run too deeply – after all, I come from a country that designates Stilton cheese as only being produced from milk from cows grazed in three specific counties. Yet it seems like a lazy excuse to suggest that if nut cheese isn’t called cheese it will languish uneaten in the supermarket for months because nobody will understand what it is. In a world where new words are invented every single day (please don’t get my Mother started on the validity of the word “webinar”) is it really conceivable to suggest that marketers can’t find an alternative to “cheese” or “milk” to describe plant-based foods? After all, nobody tries to call tofu “meat”…..yet. Perhaps that will be the next label on the faux food buffet table? I’m sorry, but I Camembert it.

*Even typing (dairy) as a modifier before milk raises my blood pressure a few points.
**I was a strict vegan for 12 months when I was 15. When I was 16 I resumed eating bacon as if pigs were going out of fashion. I still enjoy vegetarian or vegan meals, but I’ve never looked back.
***Yes, I have eaten milk-free milk chocolate – it could easily be used as a substitute for candle wax.

Is It Time We Stopped Shouting About The Dietary Guidelines?

The recent report by the advisory committee to the USDA dietary guidelines has certainly caused a media stir in the past week or so. There’s a lot of nutritional common sense in the report – eat more fruit, veg, and dairy, reduce carbs and sweetened drinks/snacks, and moderate alcohol intake. Yet there’s a kicker – from both a health and a sustainability perspective, Americans should apparently be guided to consume less animal-based foods.

10982813_934682089898559_3461048965358255082_oWhen the report was released, my Twitter notifications, Facebook feed and email inbox exploded. Memes like the one to the left appeared on every (virtual) street corner, and the report was mentioned in every online newsletter, whether agricultural or mainstream media. It’s this press coverage rather than the content of the report, that really concerns me.

Individuals don’t pay a lot of attention to a government report on nutrition. Despite the fact that six updates to the guidelines have been released since their inception in 1980, we are all still eating too many Twinkies in front of the TV and super-sized takeout meals in the car, rather than chowing down on broccoli and lentil quinoa bake.

Headlines CollageYet people do pay attention to headlines like “Less meat, more veggies: big food is freaking out about the “nonsensical” new dietary guidelines” and others shown to the left. The media sub-text is that big bad food producers (so different from the lovely local farmer who sells heirloom breed poultry at $18/lb at the farmers market) are appalled by the release of this governmental bad science that’s keeping them from their quest to keep you unhealthily addicted to triple cheeseburgers washed down with a 500-calorie soda, and will do anything to suppress it.

This makes me wonder – at what point do we need quiet, stealthy change, rather than loud protests that attract the attention of people who would otherwise never have read about the guidelines? At what point does industry protesting seem like a modern version of “The lady doth protest too much“?

Rather than posting on Facebook or Twitter that the report is nonsense because the committee of nutritionists ventured into the bottomless pit that is sustainability; why don’t we instead extol the virtues of producing high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable lean meat, and aim to reach the people who haven’t seen the hyperbolic headlines or read the guidelines simply because they’ve seen a lot of talk about them on Twitter? The old showbiz saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity certainly applies here – the extent of the reporting on the industry backlash against the report means they have probably been noted by far more people that they otherwise might.

The impact of the dietary guidelines recommendations upon purchasing programs is far higher than on individuals, and does give rise to concern. Globally, one in seven children don’t have enough food, and school lunches are often the only guaranteed source of high-quality protein available to children in impoverished families. I may be being overly sceptical, but I suspect that if meat consumption in schools is reduced, it’s unlikely to be replaced with a visually and gastronomically-appealing, nutritionally-complete vegetarian alternative.

Sustainability doesn’t just mean carbon, indeed, environmentally it extends far further than the land, water and energy use assessed by the dietary guidelines advisory committee into far bigger questions. These include the fact that we cannot grow human food crops on all types of land; water quality vs. quantity; the need to protect wildlife biodiversity in marginal and rangeland environments; the use of animal manures vs. inorganic fertilisers; environmental costs of sourcing replacements for animal by-products in manufacturing and other industries; and many other issues. Simply stating that meat-based diet X has a higher carbon footprint or land use than plant-based diet Y is not sufficient justification for 316 million people to reduce their consumption of a specific food. Indeed, despite the conclusions of the committee, data from the US EPA attributing only 2.1% of the national carbon footprint to meat production suggests that even if everybody reduced their intake of beef, lamb and pork, it would have a negligible effect on carbon emissions.

Could we all reduce our individual environmental impact? Absolutely. Yet as stated with regards to dietary change in the advisory report, it has to be done with consideration for our individual biological, medical and cultural requirements. As humans, we have biological and medical requirements for dietary protein, and some would even argue that grilling a 16-oz ribeye is a cultural event. I have every sympathy for the USDA committee*, who were faced with a Herculean task to fulfill, but in this case, they only succeeded in cutting off one head from the multi-craniumed Hydra – and it grew another 50 in its place.

*Many people have already commented on the suitability (or not) of the committee to evaluate diet sustainability, but to give them their due, they do appear to have looked beyond greenhouse gases to land, water and energy use. They are nutrition specialists, not sustainability experts, but it would be difficult (impossible) to find a committee comprising people who were all experts in nutrition, sustainability, economics, policy, behaviour and all the other facets of the report. Nonetheless, the sustainability recommendations appear to be based on a small number of papers, many of which are based on dietary information from other regions (Germany, UK, Italy) which will also have different levels of animal and crop production. As somebody who was born and bred in the UK before moving to the USA I find it difficult to believe that the average American’s diet uses substantially more land (for example) than the average UK person, as cited in the report.

Would Being Vegan Really Solve Climate Change? Not if We Don’t Kill the Cows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine drew my attention to this NPR blogger, who makes the point that being “good” isn’t zero sum (a situation where what is gained by one side or cause, is lost by another). If you’re concerned about the environment, you can both recycle cans and buy a more climate-friendly car. If you are passionate about children’s education, you can volunteer in the classroom and financially support literary projects. In most cases, doing good is not an either/or.

Which made me think a little more about the definition of “good”. To that writer it meant being vegan or vegetarian, in the belief that such a diet would improve animal welfare and environmental impact. Yet this is exactly where the conflict arises for me – if we were all vegan or vegetarian, what would happen to the sheep, the cow, the pig and the chicken?

I posed that question to a vegan on Twitter recently and he, in all sincerity, answered that we, as a vegan population, would care for the animals, but would not enslave or control them. Imagine the beautiful utopia where we all have time to calve a cow or throw some grain to feral pigs before we set off to work, expecting nothing in return. Or in a more realistic scenario, we’d have more meat than we knew what to do with simply through car accidents if we suddenly let loose the USA’s 87.7 million cattle (never mind the 62.1 million pigs, 5.2 millon sheep and 9+ billion chickens).

Anti-animal agriculture activists often purport that a cow can live for 20+ years in her “natural” state compared to a farmed animal – so being a data nerd, I did the maths*. Let’s assume that 1) cows first calve at two years of age and that 90% of cows (38.3 million of them in the US at present) have a calf every year**; 2) 85% of those calves survive (mortality would go up due to predation, assuming we wouldn’t shoot wolves, coyotes etc.); and 3) each cow or bull lives for 20 years. Admittedly that doesn’t account for the cattle that would die from starvation through lack of available grazing in 5, 10 or 20 years time, but being good vegans, we’d feed them, right?


Within five years we’d have 602 million cattle in the USA, within 20 years we’d have 3.7 billion – a 40-fold increase on our current national herd. That’s 40x more cattle belching methane, drinking water and producing waste, every single day, all as a result of our changing our diet in an attempt to reduce environmental impact.


It’s a nice, simplistic, oft-suggested argument that we shouldn’t eat meat or dairy products in order to save the planet, yet the conflict between veganism, animal welfare, and environmental impact is clear. Climate change will be solved by us turning vegan? Not unless we reconcile ourselves to killing animals without eating them.

*I’m British, and as such, cannot use the American term “math” as opposed to the British “maths”
**90% is the US average for cow-calf herds, in which few hormones or other reproductive aids are used

Feed = Food? Do livestock really compete with humans for food?

Can we feed up to 10 billion people in 2100 by improving crop yields, reducing deforestation, and reducing meat and dairy consumption? These solutions are among those suggested by Jonathan Foley at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment to enable the increase in food production required by the future global population. These are logical suggestions, yet the proposal that meat and dairy consumption should be reduced is likely to be the most-debated, particularly as livestock industry stakeholders may regard this as yet another attack on animal agriculture.

The futility of the “Meatless Mondays” campaign has been discussed ad infinitum, yet in contrast to the EWG’s recent report, Foley does not attempt to promote a vegetarian or vegan ideology or to suggest that climate change could be reversed if only we all ate humanely-certified or organic meat. Instead, the report concludes that resources could be saved if we shifted to meat consumption towards pork and poultry production as:

…it takes 30 kilos [66 lb] of grain to produce one kilo [2.2lb] of boneless beef… We’re better off producing grass-fed beef or more chicken and pork, which requires far less grain feed

Based on those data, Foley’s conclusion is entirely logical. However, as Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – and here the evidence is lacking. A recent review of feed efficiency by Wilkinson reports that monogastric animals require 4.0 kg (swine) or 2.3 kg (poultry) of feed per kg of gain. Monogastrics are indeed considerably more efficient than their ruminant counterparts as beef animals require 8.8 kg feed per kg gain – considerably more than swine or poultry, but far less than Foley’s estimate.

It would be convenient to argue that the errors in Foley’s feed efficiency data (not to mention religious limitations on pork consumption) negate the report’s conclusions. But isn’t it logical to argue that we should eat meat produced in systems that use fewer resources to produce animal protein? Personally, I spend more than half my time traveling to present precisely that message to the animal industry and to encourage livestock producers to improve efficiency. I absolutely believe that we need to improve productivity and efficiency in order to feed the growing population. However, traditional feed efficiency data have a major flaw – it’s assumed that all animal feed could otherwise be used to feed humans.

Wilkinson suggests that the traditional concept of feed efficiency be re-examined to reflect the quantity of human-edible crop inputs that are used to produce a unit of energy or protein from animal products. For example, humans cannot digest pasture, only 20% of the nutritional value of oilseed meals can be utilized for human food and yet 80% of nutrients within cereals, pulses and soybean meal are human-edible. By partitioning out the human-edible component of animal feed, Wilkinson demonstrates that the human-edible energy feed efficiency ratios for pork and cereal beef are similar (Figure 1*) and that dairy production actually produces twice the amount of human-edible energy than it uses (input:output ratio of 0.5). On a protein basis, cereal beef has a higher human-edible protein feed efficiency ratio (3.0) than pork (2.6), but suckler beef systems where cattle are grazed on pasture again produce more human-edible protein than they consume (input:output ratio of 0.9, Figure 2*). Not only are these revised feed efficiency estimates considerably lower than those quoted by Foley, but they underline the importance of herbivorous grazing animals in utilizing human-inedible forage to produce animal protein.

  

Numbers have power – it’s always tempting to base a suggestion around a single data point that “proves” the argument. Feed efficiency is a useful metric, but as we face an ever-increasing challenge in balancing food demand, resource availability and consumer expectations, it’s critical that we examine the bigger picture. The ruminant animal has a major evolutionary advantage in its ability to digest forages – we may be better acquainted with the human dietary advantages of probiotic bacteria than our ancestors, but until we are equipped with human rumens (humens?) we cannot hope to effectively make use of all crop resources.

*The importance of acknowledging the human-edible component of feed efficiency was part of my presentation at the Alltech Ruminant Solutions Seminar in Ireland this week – to go to a PDF copy of my presentation please click here.