Saturday, October 31, 2009

Being Vegan in India

Veganism as a concept is practically unknown in India, as this starry-eyed idealist learned when she attempted to keep the faith
by Elizabeth Flock | Sep 26, 2009

Read it at Forbes

When I moved to India, I thought it would be a vegan’s Mecca, a place where, at last, I could mingle with others who practiced a lifestyle just as fervently as I did.

I had chosen veganism a few years before because the whole animal slaughter thing became too difficult to ignore. I knew that most often the motivation for vegetarianism in India was more religious than animal-inspired, but the idea that an entire country could strive for ahimsa towards animals seemed both astonishing and perfect.

That first day in India, taking in the barrage of things foreign and unknown on Mumbai’s streets, one thing stood out: Nearly every restaurant had a sign that marked itself as “Veg” or “Non-Veg.” Entire restaurants devoted to vegetarianism? I had died and gone to heaven!

Later that day, traipsing through the supermarket with naïve glee, I revelled in the system of labelling in which vegetarian products bore a green dot in a green square and animal-based products bore the label in brown. Very few vegetarian labels existed in the US.

The Jain family with whom I was staying told me how pleased they were that I had chosen vegetarianism even though I was American. (Translation: They were glad that even though I was from a heathen country where a typical dinner was a hunk of meat, I had chosen to forego that.)

The notion of the sacred cow, which I loved ingenuously as a kid, I saw in practice: Buses and cars bunched up in traffic to let them pass. It all seemed too good to be true. And it was.

You see, while India can lay claim to the earliest records of vegetarianism, adopted for similar reasons to mine — “Thou shalt not kill to eat” — the more than 30 percent of the population who are vegetarians in India are lacto-vegetarian. Vegetarianism comes in different categories, and it is these crucial distinctions that make my trusting vegan assumption so wrong.

Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products, and this country consumes a lot of them. India is the number one milk-producing country in the world, and dairy products are a vital part of the diet, in both rural and urban areas. I soon realised Amul’s milk, butter, and cheese were as ubiquitous as their ads.

Veganism runs against all of this. As a diet and as a lifestyle, it excludes the use of any animal products to produce food, clothing, or anything else you might use in daily life. So, not just no milk, curd or ice cream; it also means no silk sarees, leather shoes, and making the sometimes Herculean effort to use alternate toothpaste, shaving cream, and other basic products. Even sugar, which can be refined using charred animal bones, is taboo. (The first time I was told this by a zealous vegan cash register girl, I sheepishly removed the sugar from my shopping cart, and wondered if I would ever enjoy dessert again.)

Going to a restaurant was the first test of my veganism in India. My ignorance of Indian dishes at that time aside, there were few items on the menu which excluded dairy products.

Actually, that first time, there were none. Undeterred, I asked the waiter to please leave out the following: sugar, butter, milk, and any other dairy products. He looked at me without expression, though in my self-consciousness, I sensed derision. “Par wahi to khana hai,” he said, take all that away and what’s left? When the food came, I realised the dal had the glorious-yet-prohibited taste of ghee, which I had forgotten to mention.

After lunch, we went to get roadside tea. The vendor happily agreed to leave out the milk. Later, I found out the flavouring agent in the tea came from animals.

Just like in the US, animal products were intrinsically woven into the daily fabric of life.

As for vegan non-food products in India, forget it. Toothpaste? Bone powder. The beautifully-patterned shirts and sarees I had always longed for? Silk. Most cosmetics have wax. And alas for my premature excitement over supermarket labels: The same manufacturers who are so stringent about green dots and squares often do not list milk in their ingredients. That is, when they bother to list ingredients at all.

In a country that loves dairy products, and uses so many other animal-produced luxuries, I wondered dejectedly — but with a lingering sense of American superiority — was veganism even possible here?
Manish Jain is a vegan, and the creator of, a portal which promotes veganism in India by stressing ethical reasons, debunking myths and employing health experts for back-up.

Jain lives in Indore, and he says he can easily find all the necessary plant-based products needed to replace animal ones.

“Maybe it would be a problem in a small town. But in any city, you can replace dairy products with soya products, which are cheaply available. Instead of ice cream, you can eat gelato. We even order vegan cakes home.”

I was confused. Mumbai obviously had a wider selection of foods and products than Indore, yet I hadn’t found vegan products to be cheap, or easily available. Soya tofu that had any sane level of fat cost Rs 150 for a small pack, when a satisfying vegetarian meal in a restaurant cost just Rs 40. Seitan or tempeh, two Asian substitutes for meat, which are readily available in the US, were nowhere to be found.

Image: Abhijeet Kini
Jain tries another tactic. Many Indian foods, he says, are naturally vegan, such as dals, pulses, and legumes. He names bhindi masala and khachu as two delicious and purely vegan dishes. He was right. And after time, I found out how to specify exactly what not to include, instead of telling waiters, “Muje sirf ek bottle paani chaiye.” I soon found pure vegan restaurants in Mumbai, and even vegan groups in various cities around India.

While I had felt sheepishly jejune after realising I had confused vegetarians with the likelihood of a vegan lifestyle among them, I wasn’t completely off the herbivorous mark. The term ‘vegan’ was first used in the UK in 1944; a proper vegan community had already been in place in India for 20 years. Goodbye, lingering sense of Western superiority!

And yet, nearly 100 years later, that movement is still in its infancy in India. There have been some baby steps, and even large leaps, lately. McDonald’s, best known for its carnivorous menu of burgers and shakes, began to offer vegan meals in India in 2006.

The Indian Vegan Society, a branch of the Vegan Society in the UK, is bringing veganism more mainstream through concerts, book events, and excursions. Even Café Coffee Day now has a vegan shake.

But while restaurant menus can be modified, and most dals don’t have ghee, staying vegan sometimes isn’t possible. On domestic flights, for example, vegan food isn’t an option. Most Indian airlines, so careful to offer one or more vegetarian options, have nothing to offer to vegans.

I know what you are all thinking. Is this vegan thing even healthy? Forget India for a minute. Can a person subsist without dairy products, or any animal products, anywhere? I assure you they can.
To be balanced, I must say that the vegan lifestyle has long been criticised. In June last year, the debate came to a head when a 12-year-old girl in Scotland, whose parents kept her on a vegan diet, was rushed to the hospital with a degenerative bone condition. Back in 2001, a 10-month-old baby died from that diet. But while the parents were taken to task for their grave mistake, most health experts eventually decided the problem was the age of the children in combination with the diet, not veganism alone.

A few doctors in the US, India, and elsewhere, have told me that veganism isn’t healthy. Having someone tell you the way you are living is misguided is not easy to swallow. But its true that many vegans miss out on protein, calcium, iodine, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and omega 3 fatty acids, they say. I thought it sounded like a lot of mumbo-jumbo until I found out about the problems deficiencies of these vital elements can cause. For instance, children who are fed an unbalanced vegan diet can get anaemia, rickets, or cretinism. (Read: Extreme fatigue, soft bones, and stunted growth.) Adults may be diagnosed with osteomalacia, softening of the bones, or hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid gland, which can cause a host of other problems.

Most doctors agree, however, that the vegan diet is not the problem. The culprit is the poor dietary planning that often results from that diet. Many vegans substitute dairy products or meat with unhealthy processed foods. Mea culpa: I often submit to the allure of deep-fried banana chips instead of a real banana.

Dr. Deepika Malik, CEO of and Dr. Deepika’s Wellness, two widely-consulted health portals, stresses that vegans must make an extra effort to include certain elements in their diet.
“A person needs one gramme of protein per kilo that they weigh, daily. So a 60 kg person needs 60 grams of protein, which vegetarians can get through soya. Vegans must especially focus on calcium, which lacto-vegetarians get from dairy products. They can eat sesame seeds, almonds, green leafy vegetables, or take calcium supplements to satisfy this need.”

Image: Abhijeet Kini
The parents of the little girl in Scotland weren’t giving her enough calcium, which is why she ended up with a bone disease. The balance just wasn’t there.

Even more likely than calcium deficiency is deficiency of Vitamin B12. Jain concedes that vegans can never naturally include B12 in their diet — it is a bacteria not found in plant foods. He suggests vegans take a B12 supplement, soya milk fortified with the vitamin, or get the B12 shot, which is increasing in popularity. Before I added a B12 supplement to my own diet, my skin started to turn more sickly pale than usual — I had a mild case of anaemia.

Yet for all its detractors, veganism has its share of health experts on its side. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that if properly planned, a plant-based diet is healthier than many others because it includes much more fruit and veggies. The group created a new food pyramid to replace the pervasive older one, this time with four food groups: Vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and legumes.

The American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada join the cluster of advocates by insisting that vegans often have lower cholesterol levels, lower saturated fat levels, and a lower body mass index. After I became vegan, all three lowered for me. I also felt more awake (I stopped needing coffee), more satiated after eating, and didn’t get sick nearly as often as I used to. Vegans, the two dietary associations point out, also generally have a lower risk of colon cancer and heart attack, the two biggest killers in India.

Whether veganism is healthful, detrimental, or, well, weird, it cannot be completely ignored. Manish Jain estimates there are 500 or so declared vegans, and a whole lot more who don’t use the word but aren’t consuming dairy products; for example, many Jains.

Regrettably, I’m not among them. The attempts to read labels that weren’t always there, to ask a family hosting me to make pao bhajji with a different bread that contained no butter, and to brush my teeth with baking powder or toothpaste shipped from the US — it became too much. I couldn’t maintain a healthful, balanced diet in the face of all these road bumps. I felt a fraud, and still do, for losing faith just because I didn’t reach the Promised Land. I came with an ideal, and I will leave with a stomach full of sugared, milky sweets.

But there are some who remain, and their numbers in India are growing.

Someday, ahimsa might means vegans rule the planet. If so, India would be leading the charge.

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