Author: Vir Sanghvi
I’ve written before about my struggle to remain a vegetarian on Tuesday – when I abjure meat for religious reasons – while travelling. My problems are many. Several countries simply do not understand the concept of vegetarianism. All over Europe they’ll use pork fat or throw in a piece of ham even though the dish is ostensibly vegetarian. In the Far East they’ll use fish sauce as a flavouring (Thai restaurants nearly always do this, so approach any ‘vegetarian’ Thai food with caution) and the ready-made curry pastes and the Tom Yum cubes will include crushed fish.
People who don’t eat eggs have it much tougher. This pretty much rules out all bakery products (including biscuits) in the West; there’s no question of getting by on an ice-cream and even in India, sneaky chefs will use eggs in such staples as the naan without letting on to their guests. And then of course, there’s the gelatine problem. Enjoy a cheesecake or a cold soufflé at a restaurant and the chances are that the chef has used gelatine (made by melting down animal bones) as a thickener.
Even drinkers are not safe. Part of the wine-making process involves the use of animal blood and a Bloody Mary requires Worcestershire sauce which is made with anchovies.
I hadn’t realised, till recently, quite how bad the problem has got. Vegetarians in the West (a far more aggressive breed than our peace-loving Jains and caste Hindus) have now targeted the packaged foods industry for inaccurate labelling. Many people in the West call themselves vegans and don’t even drink milk (they use the same argument as the one Jains use for not eating any eggs, including the unfertilised variety; it’s not too different from milk when you think about it). Some manufacturers are now obliged to label products as non-dairy. But, say the vegans, the food industry simply shrinks away from telling the truth about everything.
Let’s take some examples:
Gelatine: Probably the biggest offender. You can use microbial gelatine which is vegetarian (and which the Indian food industry now claims to use) but the cheaper alternative is still animal gelatine. The usual method of manufacture is to boil down animal bones but canny producers now also boil down skin, fats and tissues from pigs and cows (thereby offending both Muslims and Hindus at a stroke.)
By now vegetarians have learned to avoid jelly. But they still eat desserts. Few recognise however that gelatine now crops up more and more in ice-cream and in those alleged ‘natural’ fruit yoghurts that vegetarians so enjoy when they go abroad. Worse still, it is used to remove sediments from fruit juices. But because it is part of the process rather than an actual ingredient, food manufacturers are not legally obliged to mention this on the packaging.
So, if you are one of those vegetarians who raves about the wide variety of natural fruit juices available at Western supermarkets, be warned: they are prepared with the help of beef bones and tissues.
If you like prepackaged sweets, you are probably eating beef by default as well. The British Food Standards Agency has found animal gelatine in Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, in Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, in Wagon Wheels, in Miller Light Yoghurt and in many other packaged foods including Kellogg’s Cherry Tarts. Nor are British bottled drinks much safer. Fanta orange includes fish gelatine and Guinness is clarified with animal gelatine.
These are just a handful of British examples. There are hundreds more and I haven’t even started on American products yet.
Cochineal: I bet you’ve never heard of this but you’ve consumed large quantities without knowing what it is. Cochineal is a red food colour and it turns up in all kinds of things: coloured pasta, sweet drinks, artificially coloured fruit drinks, cake icing etc.
It is made by crushing a beetle to extract the red dye. We use it all the time in India and perhaps even our chefs and food manufacturers are not aware that their repertoire has now extended to insects. Your kids are probably drinking it if you are giving them so-called strawberry-flavoured drinks such as Nesquik. The flavour is nearly always chemically-manufactured and the colour is usually crushed beetle. Same with many strawberry jams.
Cheese: All vegetarians are dimly aware that something called rennet or rennin is used to make cheese. What they don’t know is that rennin is a coagulating enzyme extracted from a young animal’s stomach (usually from a calf’s stomach) and then used to curdle the milk for cheese.
Vegetarians pretend that this only applies to fancy cheese (Gorgonzola must use rennin by law) but they don’t realise that you can’t make Parmesan without it. And the cheese that vegetarians eat most often is Parmesan: sprinkled on pasta, risotto and as an essential ingredient of Italian food.
So, every vegetarian who goes to an Italian restaurant and says: “No, I’m sorry I can’t have the spaghetti bolognaise, I’m a vegetarian so just give me simple vegetarian pasta” is actually gearing up to eat the inside of a calf’s stomach.
How does this happen?
The food industry makes two points in its defence. One: it does accurately identify ingredients on its packaging. For instance, if it says that a product contains gelatine, it expects that you will know that you are probably eating beef.
The industry’s point is that if consumers don’t know how gelatine is made then it is their own fault, not the manufacturer’s. And two: there is a legal obligation to mention every ingredient in a product. But there is no obligation to list all the things that go into the process. For instance, most manufacturers of bitter (English beer) use bits of the bladders of sturgeon fish to remove sediment.
This, say the manufacturers, does not mean that fish is an ingredient in beer; only that fish is part of the manufacturing process. And there’s no reason for them to list everything that goes into the process. The same is true of wine where the same kind of dead fish is also used for sediment-removal. Wine is made from grapes, say the manufacturers. Who cares about all the things that go into the process?
I’m not sure that these explanations make much sense. When you buy a food product, you do so because you trust the manufacturers. Part of this trust is that you believe that the Coca Cola company will sell you a vegetarian drink of some description when you buy a bottle of Fanta orange. You can live with the fact that everything about the drink may well be synthetic and that no oranges were used in its manufacture. But you do not expect the Coca Cola company to put fish gelatine in the drink only because it lowers its cost of production. And yet, this is what its British critics claim it does in the UK.
So it is with Nesquik strawberry drink (coloured with crushed beetles) or many so-called strawberry jams. We don’t mind synthetic flavours. It doesn’t worry us that most vanilla ice-cream is flavoured with artificial vanillin (a by-product of the wood pulp industry) or that most strawberry ice-cream has no strawberries. But we believe that if something was made with dead beetles or boiled beef bones, we would be told.
At some level, the food industry knows this too. All the Indian manufacturers who use animal products recognise that they are scamming their customers. Thus they go out of their way to conceal the non-vegetarian content of their products. One small instance: nearly all ice-cream made by hotels (what they laughably describe as ‘home-made’ ice-cream on their menus) contains egg. But nobody tells you this when you order. If you’ve seen a dessert buffet at any five-star hotel then you should know that nearly all of the mousses, cheesecakes etc. are full of gelatine.
The hotels do this for two reasons: Gelatine helps the desserts last longer before crumbling and secondly, most Indian pastry chefs are extremely limited in their skills and incapable of making cheesecake or mousse without several kilos of gelatine. Fair enough. But shouldn’t somebody tell all the vegetarians who wander around the dessert buffet that this is the non-vegetarian section? (Don’t give me all that crap about vegetarian gelatine.
There are enough hotels who still use the authentic, non-vegetarian version). Hotels don’t tell you the truth because it is too much trouble. (For many years, restaurants lied about the stock in their soups as well. Fortunately this has now stopped). Far easier to pull the wool over the guests’ eyes than to tell the truth.
How should vegetarians react?
Perhaps the most sensible attitude is the Princess’s. A dedicated vegetarian, she recognises that we live in an imperfect world. So she tries her best to be vegetarian. If she finds out that something is non-vegetarian – French Onion Soup for instance – she’ll give it up at once. But if she doesn’t know any better, then she’ll go ahead and eat Parmesan, ice-cream or whatever. After all, she says, you can’t live your life treating every bit of food with suspicion.
Perhaps. But shouldn’t the food industry stop exploiting the goodwill of millions of vegetarians like her?