In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.
‘There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.’ – Denis Waitley
My cousin used to keep chickens as pets. She had about two dozen of them, and they would all happily run around the yard all day clucking and pecking. Then, one day, she bought some ex-battery hens to add to the group. I remember the day that the new members arrived. My uncle released them from their cage, and immediately you could tell the difference. Unlike the healthy hens that had been bred as farm pets, the ex-battery hens were skinny, scrawny, sorry-looking creatures with few feathers and sores all over their poor little bodies. For their first few minutes of freedom, they all just stood still in the middle of the yard whilst the other hens ran around them and looked at them like they were crazy. They were so used to living in a small, cramped cage that they didn’t realise they could actually move around. As soon as they started moving, however, they didn’t stop. I’ve never seen hens that looked so excited, making the most of their new life. For me, that was the day that I questioned whether humans should really eat eggs.
As a vegetarian, eating eggs had always been a bit of a grey area. Some vegetarians eat them, some don’t. Personally, I always did because I believed that as the egg wasn’t fertilised, it never would have become a chicken whether I ate it or not. Since progressing to becoming a plant-based vegetarian, I’ve learnt a lot more about the farming of eggs and why they are not suitable for humans to eat.
Humans get nothing nutritional from eggs. They have zero dietary fibre, about 70% of their calories are from fat (of which most is saturated) and the only thing they give you is cholesterol. Whilst we need cholesterol to survive, our bodies produce enough and we do not need any extra from food. In fact, eggs are loaded with cholesterol, about 213 milligrams for an average-sized egg. To give you an idea of how high this is, people with diabetes, cardiovascular disease or high cholesterol are advised to consume no more than 200 milligrams of cholesterol each day.
Even if eggs were healthy for us to eat, the way that hens are exploited and mistreated to produce them should shame us all into becoming vegan. Just like most modern farm animals, hens have been selectively bred to produce more food for humans and are far from their natural, wild origins. If left to their own devices and natural evolution, chickens would produce 10-20 eggs in their lifetime, which is 5-10 years. Modern hen-laying eggs lay 300 eggs a year. They are kept in tiny, wire battery cages that are stacked row upon row. The end of their beaks are cut off to prevent them for pecking each other, the equivalent of cutting through the quick of a human fingernail, but it doesn’t work. They lose their feathers after rubbing up against the bars of the cage, and the little light that they see is artificial. Their feet literally grow over the bars of the cages and they become trapped. By the time they are slaughtered, most hens have broken bones. A lot of eggs are laid next to dead hens because diseases such as salmonella spread so quickly in the stressful, overcrowded conditions. Being forced to lay so many eggs drains calcium from the hens’ bodies and leads to osteoporosis and brittle bones. After 72 weeks, their egg production begins to decrease and they are no longer useful to the industry. They are then slaughtered and made into cheap meat products. In some ways, the females are the lucky ones. At least they get to live for 72 weeks, even if it is in cramped and squalid conditions. Male chicks, which have no value, are gassed or minced alive shortly after hatching. The machines can mince up to 500 chicks per minute, and the resulting mush is used in animal feed and fertiliser. In the meat industry, unlaid eggs are removed from the dead bodies of hens and used in the manufacture of cakes, biscuits and pasta.
Eggs are not the easiest ingredient to replace in cooking and baking, and it does take a bit of experimenting, but you can do without them. Fruit and veggies purees, tofu, non-dairy yoghurts and eggless mayo can all be used, depending on the recipe. Vinegar and baking soda combined creates a chemical reaction that is useful in baking, especially for yummy buttermilk-style pancakes (my favourite J ). My personal fallback, however, is xantham gum, especially as it is difficult to buy other processed egg replacements in the UK. I’ve learnt to be careful with xantham gum since I first started using it, though. I only use about ¼ of a teaspoon for every equivalent egg, and I make sure to add it to the mixture at the very end, otherwise it’s like trying to cook with chewing gum!