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Here's a snippet of dialog one often hears.
“I'm a Vegetarian”.
"Huh, cool. What does that mean, exactly?"
"I don't eat meat."
"...Not even chicken?"
And how is a vegetarian different from a Vegan? And what about these "Flexitarians"? What is the "flex" reference to? Is Flexitarianism a cult of weight room obsessives? (Yes and no). “Vegetarian”, Vegan”, and “Flexitarian”; these are good things, right? And isn’t cotton-candy both vegetarian and vegan? And am I suggesting we all move toward a “cotton-candy-three-meals a-day” model to help save the planet?
Aw, hell yeah! I mean NO WAY! Forgive the outburst.
Keep reading to learn more about cotton candy as savior of the Earth’s future, and of all generations to come. First let’s define our terms.
A Plant-Based Diet? Is That Vegetarianism?
Cotton candy is plant-based, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. That is, no actual cotton was harvested to produce the cotton candy you are about to “eat”. The gossamer glob of pure sugar you’re about to shove wholly into your mouth and “chew” in the presence of horrified strangers? The stuff is not related materially to your bedsheets, nor the unwashed undershirt you’ve worn for 9 days straight.
this child is not eating a vegetable (photo by Vika Strawberrika)
In its raw form, Cotton Candy is indeed animal product-free; that’s true. Since sugar principally comes from beets or sugarcane, cotton candy is technically a plant-sourced food item; not that you would guess that by looking at it. Neither does it pack the nutritional punch of actual plants. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.
Plant-based typically refers to a diet that embraces whole grains, fruits, veggies, nuts — unprocessed goodness from the soil to your chompers. There is crappy, processed plant-based stuff, too.
Fruit juices (liquid sugar decoupled from its fiber delivery system), french fries, potato chips, pasta, white rice, processed cereals — these are also built around plants pulled from the earth. Unfortunately, these particular plants were taken from their home in the earthy, nutrient-rich soil and sent to a storm-battered laboratory in the mountains of Transylvania, where mad scientists turn corn into ”puffed corn cereal”, oats into little crispy Os with various flavor additives, and wheat into what looks like sugar-frosted tobacco leaves.
Healthy plant-based eating, on the other hand, is what you would expect. No laboratory is involved. The object in a plant-based diet is avoidance of meat and processed foods. One very loose definition of meat? An animal whose rearing for our consumption makes it an incredibly wasteful resource sink.
Dear reader, you know intuitively what a plant is, and when a plant stops being a plant. A healthy plant-based diet will not be referencing potato chips when the word “potato” is uttered.
The vegan takes it a quantum leap further, into an actionable philosophy. Veganism wants nothing to do with meat or dairy, or anything associated with the commodification of animals for our use. In the vegan’s view, reducing non-human animals to raw commodities is just plainly wrong prima facie.
The various practices around commodification of animals are seen to objectify animals and devalue them as living things. This perspective shows up in the language we use around livestock, for instance. We “destroy” (rather than “kill”) animals that are too sick to serve us, or who have served their experimental purpose and may be disposed of. Doomed lab rats can be ordered online like a pair of shoes.
Vegans point out that laws enacted to prevent animal cruelty are curiously circumspect and always consider the efficacy of the animal’s use when deciding which animals are to be protected, and in what settings.
For instance, the landmark Animal Welfare Act of 1966 is all to do with the humane treatment of animals—but under the law, the USDA's regulatory authority doesn’t include protections for farm animals used for food, fiber, or other agricultural purposes.
Whether we're talking about compassion-based ethical veganism, or environmental veganism that sees commodification of animals as measurably ruinous to the environment, the vegan sees animals as living things possessed of a self-evident moral gravity.
You like your steak. How’s that for an understatement? I know; we can have your Prime Rib when we pry it from your cold, horseradish-daubed fingers. Not to worry—no one is going to take your meat away. But is every instance of your Cow Enthusiasm® worth fighting over?
Au jus aside, there are times you just want to throw a quick helping of protein at your muscle mass, or at your exercise-depleted bod. Does that protein dose have to be a sizzling slab of muscle fiber? Does it have to be a cow at all?
But for a flexitarian, it can be. A Flexitarian is someone who pointedly does not eat meat one or more days a week. Whether a flexitarian's motivations are ethics-based, ecology-based, or personal wellness-based, a flexitarian's choices do help reduce the use of animals as human chattel. Many people adopt flexitarianism as a transitional phase between meat eating and vegetarianism or veganism.
Flexitarian Fence-Sitters are the Future
So flexitarianism — also called (less interestingly) semi-vegetarianism, is a dietary term describing someone whose eating is intentionally centered on plant foods, with the occasional inclusion of meat. Flexitarians are leaning into a plant-based diet, but have left room in their dietary calculus for the occasional inclusion of meat.
Flexitarianism captures conscious humans in their natural state — morally informed, desirous of effecting positive change, but clear-eyed about their ability to fully commit to the necessary personal objectives. The old saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good” could well describe the Flexitarian approach. It is not perfect (from an animal rights/rescue our food system perspective) but it is good!
Flexitarians recognize the soundness of the reasoning around leaving meat behind … but dread a life devoid of bacon. They are honest with themselves and others about the difficulty inherent in full transitions of lifestyle. Flexitarians are nevertheless determined to play a role in this necessary, increasingly intentional global transition.
Flexitarianism and the Heroic Importance of Trying
As a means to convincing people that a nutty-sounding personal revolution is key to moving the needle on both healing the environment and quelling world hunger — flexitarianism may make the most convincing case. It frankly acknowledges the difficulty in making these personal and social changes, but doesn’t back down from acknowledging the importance of trying.
And while edible plants have been shown to pack the same amino acid protein punch as meat, an individual raised on meat will surely be more willing to see the issues at hand, and attempt participation in the solution, if the goal is perceived as similarly difficult for all willing participants.
photo by Zachary Nelson
Flexitarians -- bless them -- are also in the unique position of potentially alienating both the hardcore vegetarian and the steak-lover. This is a good sign. The "Imperfect" novice — a flexitarian, in this case —is the one most willing to learn and change.
Flexitarianism is arguably humanity in a nutshell. As a species we may realize the aggregating personal, ethical, and global downsides of meat-eating, but only a few of us will have the wisdom and courage to attack a seemingly impossible mission armed only with our daily habits.
A moral revolution may be gaining momentum. Flexitarianism embodies the imperfect but unstoppable human energy that will tackle what we can change today, and work diligently at longer-term repairs that will redefine tomorrow. Many of the living, humans and otherwise, are counting on it.