You Call That Vegetarian?

The dairy and egg industries are no less cruel than the meat industry,according to growing evidence.

Rachel Talshir
Rachel Talshir
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Rachel Talshir
Rachel Talshir

The question of who is actually a vegetarian is the topic of a lot of discussions, arguments, articles and also water-cooler conversations.

Supporters of the prevailing definition think that a vegetarian is simply someone who abstains from eating meat, preferably fish as well. According to their view, it is much more ethical, compassionate, ecologically sound and also healthy to eat eggs and not poultry, dairy products and not steak, omelets and cream. This thinking is based largely on values that hold that the animals intended for slaughter experience abuse, followed by killing, whereas the creatures that provide eggs and milk graze peacefully, snooze to their heart's content, and generally enjoy life.

Furthermore, according to this mindset, from a health standpoint, too, meat is a product that should be consumed in limited amounts, whereas dairy products and eggs can be eaten without restriction, in various forms, in countless flavors, and can be used to nourish children and babies.

This thinking has been undermined and shaken in recent decades, and there are more and more people, who are backed by evidence, that say the dairy and egg industries are no less cruel than the meat industry. There have also been growing numbers of researchers, not all of them charlatans, who think the Western diet is excessive when it comes to dairy products and eggs, and that this can be damaging to health.

Vanilla Black is a vegetarian restaurant that opened in York in 2004, moved to London in 2008, and established itself as innovative and sophisticated. It offers creative dishes featuring eggs and cheeses: a pudding from duck eggs, warm walnut panna cotta with blue Stilton dumplings; brie ice cream with black elderberry and hazelnut crumble; slow-cooked duck egg with smoked cucumber; goat's cheese and cauliflower mille feuille; goat's cheese and licorice macaroon; and peanut butter cheesecake. There is very little use of fruits and vegetables at Vanilla Black, and the use of legumes and whole grains, if offered at all, are sparing.

What the hell is so vegetarian about eggs and dairy products? Nothing. That is why the menu at Vanilla Black raises even more forcefully the question of whether frothy concoctions - with which the restaurant is well endowed - and recommendations from the best guides - it boasts plenty of these - should suffice to convince us that this establishment and others like it benefit either animal rights or human health.

Documented horrors

At vegetarian restaurants in Israel, too, and in the homes of vegetarians, one often gets the impression that au gratin dishes and creations of multiple eggs constitute the foundation for the vegetarian menu.

Vanilla Black and its kind demonstrate well just how detached and even irresponsible can be the mindset that defines vegetarian as anyone who abstains from meat, even if they permit round-the-clock gorging on egg and dairy dishes. It is hard to understand how people who do not eat meat because of compassion for animal suffering can maintain their equanimity in the face of the documented horrors at dairy and egg farms.

A new and more rigorous examination of how vegetarianism is defined - one that takes into account the current reality at dairy and egg farms, and scrutinizes the proven connection between consumption of animal products and damage to human health - raises the urgent need to update that definition and adapt it to the spirit of the times and the changes that have occurred.

Therefore, what may be beneficial to earth's welfare, human health and animal rights is introducing a sweeping change to the old familiar definition of vegetarianism, and swapping a qualitative yardstick for a quantitative one.

According to this idea, what matters is not what you eat, but how much you eat. According to the quantitative measure I am proposing, individuals whose diet is based at least 85 percent on produce, would be considered vegetarian. The remaining 15 percent of what they consume would be their own business. Those who want to will eat junk food, those who prefer will eat fish or chicken or steak. And eggs and dairy products, too, because it makes no difference in my eyes - not from a health perspective, not ecologically, and not in terms of rights - what you eat so long as at least 85 percent of your diet is based on fruits and vegetables.

So, restaurants in Israel and the world, simple or starred, whose menus aren't based on fruit and vegetables but rather on sophisticated or au gratin dishes with dairy products and eggs, are in my opinion no more legitimate or recommended or healthy than fish or steak restaurants.

All of this also applies, at least from a health standpoint - and here I am really on thin ice - to vegan restaurants that are wholeheartedly dedicated to animal rights but give less consideration to human health, and therefore fry and sweeten their foods even more than regular restaurants.

To sum up, opting for 85 percent produce is a concrete commitment to animal rights, earth's welfare and personal health. It is true that 100 percent produce is even better, but that is a decree most of the public cannot sustain, and as is known, sometimes the enemy of the best is even better.

For me, for the sake of our health and because of the animals, and also out of concern for the planet, someone who eats fish - or even steak - once a week, is a lot more vegetarian than someone who constantly eats eggs and dairy products.

Illustration by Amos Biderman