Once I decided to transition into the vegan lifestyle, many things that I wouldn’t even consider to be difficult were now opportunities for controversy. I can go on and on about the challenges that some vegans face if they want to live mostly pure of animal products. For now, I will just focus on one of the most common cases that many vegans experience: cooking non-vegan food as a vegan.
There’s quite a lot of controversy when it comes to surrounding yourself in an environment or around other people that aren’t necessarily accommodating towards the vegan lifestyle. In my case, I am a Food Science major studying at an agricultural-oriented university and in a college that also teaches the very ways of slaughterhouses. It sounds absolutely awful, I know it is, and I’m not entirely proud of that. Regardless, I absolutely adore my field of study and continue to fascinate myself with new information that will enable me to become a wiser, more experienced, and more cultured food scientist.
Having studied Food Science for two years thus far, I have taken three courses where I work with non-vegan ingredients and whip up non-vegan recipes. In addition, I work in a dining complex that includes a burger joint, Chick-Fil-A, a burrito and taco bar, and an international food vendor that always serves animal-based food. Not to mention that I lived with five non-vegans during my first year of college and came home to the smell of Spam and eggs every other night. Oh yeah, and nobody in my family is vegan, so even when I return home, I’m closely present around meat, cheese, eggs, etc. Trust me, if there’s ANYONE who is totally used to being around about animal products, it’s me.
With that being said, I don’t voluntarily choose to work with animal products because I want to. The aroma, the texture, the appearance, and the residue of meats and viscous dairy grosses me out just as much as any other vegan. However, I choose to work with animal products because I want to obtain the knowledge on handling animal products properly as well as analyzing why these animal products are important in their roles as food items. On top of that, my food science program is part of my educational experience, after all. Why would I want to waste tuition and vigor by not participating in my labs?
Yes, cooking animal products goes against my morals. However, we live in an imperfect world where a lot of industries and establishments run on unethical practices, so we can only do the best possible job on our part to eliminate suffering. Remarkably, amazing vegan, cruelty free, and/or fair trade start-ups are on the rise. That being said, some vegan companies, according to their job applications, do require experience in meat or dairy processing plants. It makes complete sense, given that many vegan companies manufacture meat, dairy, and/or egg alternatives that aim to parallel their non-vegan counterparts as much as possible.
Truth be told, I don’t know how many times I will have to work in a non-vegan food establishment or processing plant. But I know that 100% of the time, I will comply with cooking non-vegan food for now and in the future when I do so. There is no other way I will know how to coagulate milk for cheese production if I want to create my own vegan cheese. There is no other way I will understand the properties of eggs in baking and that it is more than just a structural binder–it works as an emulsifying agent that adds moisture, leavening, stability, coagulation, and so much more–to decide which egg substitute or blend I should use for vegan baked goods.
Stepping into the food industry entails that I will be at the hands of all kinds of customers: elders, pregnant women, children, celiacs, cancer patients, diabetics, Paleo folks, vegetarians, pescetarians, vegans, ketogenics, flexible dieters, bikini competitors, bodybuilders, obese individuals, eating disorder patients, the list never ends. If I refuse to serve anyone that requests a dish with animal products or byproducts, I lose my privilege to serve food that I am passionate about myself, which includes ingredients from a varied, flavorful, and nutrient dense plant-based diet. I want to be able to feed all kinds of people and show how fulfilling it is to eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and plant-based desserts (of course!).
To simplify, I don’t think I’m dishonoring veganism by partaking in non-vegan food preparation in my food science labs. Vegans still encompass a minority of the universal human population and need to employ themselves in all kinds of food establishments. It would be nearly impossible for veganism to expand if vegans isolated themselves from those who could potentially adopt this lifestyle. Facilitating the vegan movement in places where veganism is not as prevalent is absolutely key to spreading the message.
One day, I can start my own business with a completely vegan menu that only carries fair trade and ethically sourced material. But for now, I need to acquire the experience, the knowledge, and the confidence to do so. I openly acknowledge that I have no qualifications to “brand” myself if I’m just starting from scratch, and I think that’s important. Knowledge is power, but it is in your power to use it, ignore it, or optimize it to your personal advantage.