April 14, 2002
Gotta love food activists.

From today's Los Angeles Times comes this wonderful "analysis" of the new BK Veggie at Burger King:

Nutritionally, the BK Veggie has little to recommend it. The patty alone is composed of an astonishing 48 ingredients, including such marvels of modern food science as sodium acid pyrophosphate, hydrolyzed corn gluten and "grill flavor."

Well, yes. Perhaps you should take a look at most of the non-meat patties out there. It takes a few miracles of modern science to put something resembling flavor back into a burger that has no meat in it.

Combined with its nutritionally deficient, refined-flour bun

...the overwhelming favorite of people worldwide. If you don't believe me, tell me how many whole-wheat and multi-grain hamburger buns you can find at your local supermarket, as opposed to those made with white flour.

the sandwich reflects the ingenuity of its engineers more than it does Burger King's concern for the health of its customers.

Burger King is in business to make money. While it certainly is not out to kill off its customers, it has to take into account how well the product will sell. They are a BURGER JOINT, not an organic food market. People who eat at Burger King (or any of the myriad other fast food chains) are not going there for healthy eating; they are going for a quick meal. From what I have read, one of the reasons the BK Veggie was made available was to allow a group of people to eat in a Burger King even if one of the group was a vegetarian. Since none of the other chains has anything like it, they have filled a niche. It remains to be seen if the niche *needed* to be filled.

But the mere absence of meat and cheese from the BK Veggie says nothing about its nutritional value. Froot Loops, Pepsi and Burger King's own French fries, for that matter, are also free of animal products, but few health advocates would seriously recommend consuming these foods as part of a well-balanced meal plan. Promoters of the BK Veggie are doing the public a serious disservice by suggesting that it is anything other than a highly processed, nutritionally deficient junk food that just happens to be meatless.

NOBODY IS SAYING THAT FAST FOOD IS WELL-BALANCED. I haven't seen any ads for this item (I don't watch TV), but I doubt that Burger King is positioning this as a dietetic panacea that will cure cancer, AIDS, and the common cold.

From an environmental standpoint, Burger King's new menu item is also not much to celebrate. A BK Veggie is produced with ingredients originating in disparate locations: The onions might come from Iowa, the smoke flavoring from New Jersey and the jalapeno powder from Mexico. They are brought to a central manufacturing plant, assembled, packaged and reshipped in their new "value-added" incarnation to Burger King franchises far and wide. This method of producing and distributing food draws heavily on fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources, a price that our beleaguered ecosphere can ill afford to pay.

Not only are they trying to trick us into thinking that it is healthy, but they are killing mother Earth in the process. Horrors!

True, the ecological footprint of a BK Veggie is appreciably lighter than that left by one of the chain's highly resource-consumptive meat sandwiches. But trumpeting the marginal environmental benefits of a mass-produced industrial pseudo-food—meatless though it may be—does little more than supply the Burger King PR machine with a ready source of greenwash.

So, is it bad or is it good? You can't have it both ways. And why is it that food that is developed in a laboratory is worse than food that is naturally occurring? They are both made of chemical compounds.

Finally, there is the question of animal welfare. Does the addition of the BK Veggie to the Burger King menu stand to improve the plight of the 9 billion animals slaughtered each year for human consumption?

This has absolutely nothing to do with Burger King. If every Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, Carl's Jr, and Jack in the Box were to disappear from the face of the earth, there would still be plenty of meat being consumed. People are not going to give up eating meat because they have to cook it themselves.

In a recent article, vegetarian activist Erik Marcus warned that if the BK Veggie flops, "it might set the growth of the movement [to protect animals] back 10 years." That's an awful lot to hang on the fate of one sandwich.

Oh, please, let it be so! I'd love to see the whole movement set back. I am sick and tired of sanctimonious vegans berating me for enjoying meat.

I have nothing against vegans—it is their choice. I have no arguments with the vast majority of vegans. However, the ones who presume to lecture me on my eating habits can go take a flying leap. I don't tell them how to eat, so they should extend the same courtesy to me.

Consumers who believe that purchasing a BK Veggie will encourage the company to scale back its efforts to sell as many meat sandwiches as possible will be sadly disappointed.

Anyone who is stupid enough to buy into a line like that should exit the gene pool as quickly as possible.

Let's not forget that Burger King has been a leading force behind such "enlightened" policies as suburban sprawl, the homogenization and commodification of the global food supply and the backlash against unions and food- and restaurant-industry workers worldwide—points well documented by Eric Schlosser in his best-selling book, "Fast Food Nation."

No, they have not, despite what wing-nuts like Schlosser would have us believe. Suburban sprawl, in particular, started well before any of the fast-food chains started multiplying; they are a result of sprawl (and of prosperity), not the cause.

Fast food restaurants do not fare well in downtown areas; Downtown San Diego has lost Burger King, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Arby's, and Carl's Jr in the past ten years, and the only big chains still surviving are Wendy's and McDonald's.

Homogenization of the food supply is a good thing, because the US has much higher standards for food processing than anywhere else in the world, and it's not our standards that are changing. Everyone else is raising their standards to match ours.

I will confess I have no idea what he is talking about when he refers to the "commodification of the food supply", because the food commodities markets have been in place for more than 100 years. long before the fast food revolution had even been conceived.

Food chains have little to do with any "backlash" against unions, because a union would utterly destroy them (it's hard to sell a burger for $2.00 when the cashier, the cook, and the two assembly people are each earning $15.00/hour).

Some may object that we can't change the system overnight and that people are used to eating fast food, so isn't the availability of a meatless burger in a major chain a step in the right direction? Well, yes, it is a step, but a step toward what, exactly? A nation in which animal-based foods are replaced by plant foods transformed into products bearing little resemblance to actual plants? Our modern food economy was built on the promise of "better eating through technology." We should be working to create a more just, humane and sustainable food system that provides people with produce in its whole, unadulterated form—as nature meant for it to be eaten. Pinning our hopes for a better food system on the fortunes of the Burger King empire's latest junk food amounts to a rather depressing surrender of the imagination.

And there, distilled down to one paragraph, is the essence of his philosophy; he is a luddite. He is anti-technology,unless it is "socially and environmentally responsible" (my words, not his, but it's implicit in his statements). I suppose he wishes that we get rid of all our cars, our power plants, our fertilizers, our supermarkets, and our hospitals, and returned to a simpler time—one where everyone was a subsistence farmer, running on the edge of starvation, fighting over the prime agricultural land, and dying by the thousands from diseases that our modern technology has cured or curbed. He can always move to sub-Saharan Africa if he wants primitivism. The rest of us can stay where technological innovation continues to improve our lives.

For what it is worth, I ran a google search on the "Center for Informed Food Choice" and didn't get any hits. Does anyone know if this is a real group, or if it was created to burnish the writer's credentials?

Update: 16 June 2002 Edited for style. The link for the Center for Informed Food Choices (note the extra "s") is http://www.informedeating.org.

posted on April 14, 2002 08:07 PM


"I am sick and tired of sanctimonious vegans berating me for enjoying meat."
But that's the whole point of being a vegan: that sanctimonious, self-righteous feeling you get just knowing that you're smarter and more moral than the rest of those fools out there. Why, they don't even care about mother Earth! That feeling helps offset the hollow, empty feeling brought on by eating grass and weeds. Plus, if you're shouting loudly enough at the unenlightened and self-destructive meat-eaters, maybe nobody will notice the uncontrollable flatulence.

posted by Mike on April 15, 2002 04:50 AM

I am a vegetarian, not a vegan, but here's my thinking:

I've got no problems with eating meat; I spent a good portion of my anthropology degree looking at various evolutionary adaptations and I'd argue that our kickass neocortex is directly tied to our shift towards omnivory (and the resultant reduction in tooth and jaw size, leading to a centering of our skull on the spine, leading to a better balance to expand the cranium, am I boring you yet?).

My issue is the fact that in a frantic drive to make profit and efficiency the only factors that matter most of the animals that get consumed every year spend their entire lives in hideously miserable conditions, and are killed painfully by unskilled workers. As a child I used to play on the farm of Mennonite friends of my grandmother -- those were some happy chickens and cows; they spent their days outside, under the sun, eating real grass, and spend their nights in a warm barn, snoozing in stalls which actually allowed them room to turn around. The meat costs more than the usual supermarket or fast food fare. But it is lacking the steroids, hormones and antibiotics you'll get with your cheaper purchase.

People who pay the extra cash to get their hands on meat from animals that didn't have to suffer needlessly can chow down with clear consciences. But if you're so damn cheap that you won't cough up an extra buck or two for your steak, when for that money you get better health and prevent the suffering of creatures that, while not as smart as us unarguabely have rudimentarly consciousness and a nervous system that can feel pain and anxiety, you're a sanctimonious ass as surely as the poncho wearing vegans you detest.

posted by jamese on April 16, 2002 09:52 AM

(Comments section cut off my initial reply)

It's not about idealism for a lot of people. It's about a very real recognition that factory farmed meat is unhealthy for the consumer (you'd be surprised how much fecal matter and e. coli you eat in a year), contributes vast amounts of often dangerous garbage into the environment (look into water table pollution instances near factory farms) and perpetuate an unbalanced eating style.

True, meat has always been a part of h. sapiens diet, but never in the vast percentage that it is in Euro-American culture. Based on analysis of modern hunter-gatherer cultures most anthropologists and archaeologists have estimated our ancestors drew 70-80% of their caloric intake from gathered fruits and vegetables, while garnering a measly 20-30% of the calories they consumed from meat.

What I suggest, by opting for vegetarianism (and subsidizing my boyfriend's meat purchases so we have humane meat in our fridge) is that other lives are valuable; we don't have the right to torment an aminal for years just because we want to eat it. Let it enjoy it's life, sneak up behind it, blow it's free-range brains out and enjoy your fillet mignon.

Or, keep scarfing down McDonalds twice a day, fill your body with shit (literally), wonder why the countryside smells funny, wonder why your tummy never quite settles down, wonder why you're still a little lumpy despite all the time at the gym, wonder why the people who surround you seem oblivious to anything but themselves.

posted by jamese on April 16, 2002 09:53 AM

Firstly, I don't think I'd have a problem with you, since you apparently don't ordinarily hector others about their food choices. I specifically stated that my beef (pardon the pun) was with the militant fascists that impose their values on me (making a mooing sound while I was trying to eat a burger, or berating me on how the chicken that I was grilling had lived a horrible life,and the like).

Secondly, I cannot speak for Canada, but here in the US, the "organically grown" meat you recommend is both scarce and VERY expensive. When I lived in San Diego, I could go the the commissary on base and spend $5.99/pound for a porterhouse steak, or I could go to the Whole Foods Market and spend $11.99/pound for the same cut of meat, organically grown and free of hormones (and ostensibly humane). Chicken Breasts were $1.59/pound at the commissary, $4.99/pound at WFM. At least that was an option; in the podunk town I currently call home, I doubt there is a single place where I could buy organic/natural food in the entire county. It adds up fairly quickly. (For what it's worth, vegetables were also more expensive at WFM, even the conventionally grown stuff; the organics were very pricey).

Finally, you have no idea what my diet looks like, and you are making a lot of assumptions based on very little data. I admit that my post was a bit over-the-top, but then, so are many blog entries. If you look through your own site, I think you will see what I mean. Because I live in a barracks room without a stove (just a microwave), one would think that I am eating nothing but fast food. In fact, I have only eaten at McDonald's (the closest place to where I live) a few times, only a handful of times at Subway, and never at Pizza Hut. (There are no other restaurants on base, and the nearest town is 7 miles away, well out of convenient walking distance.) Looking in my fridge, I see OJ, cranberry juice, coke (my one true vice), cheese, a pre-cooked pork loin, two types of bread, apples, some strawberries, a couple of potatoes, half an onion, along with various condiments. If you consider that dangerously unhealthy, than so be it.

posted by scutum on April 16, 2002 09:07 PM

The LA Times misidentified my organization as the "Center for Informed Food Choice." The correct name is the Center for Informed Food Choices. Our Web site is http://www.informedeating.org.

posted by Rich Ganis on April 19, 2002 11:34 PM

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