Suggestion Box: The Processed Vegan Food Debate Rages On

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

In recent news in the food world (and in our own Shuttle), plant-based foods are a hot topic. Beyond Meat went public, Impossible Burgers will be rolling out at 7,200 Burger Kings this year, and Quorn is supplying a vegan version of its product for the United Kingdom’s largest bakery chain, which produces Gregg’s vegan sausage rolls. 

What do these three companies have in common? They all claim to improve people’s health and our global environment by providing a plant-based alternative to meat. But their products all are made in large factories using highly processed ingredients. How are they different? The primary food ingredient in Beyond Meat is pea protein isolate; in Impossible Burger it’s soy protein concentrate. In Quorn it’s mycoprotein, basically a fungus grown in large vats. You don’t really come across any of these ingredients in nature. Not to be left behind, other food giants — Tyson, Cargill, Nestle, ADM, etc. — are also developing vegan products. The food industry loves being “on trend.”

I’ve been critical of these products, as I see them in part as perpetuating an unhealthy food system where large global corporations dominate production and distribution with technology-based products, and owner profit is still one of the primary motivations for production. While it is nice to see these companies talk about human and planet health, and while I do believe large food corporations seem to care more about these issues today than they did in the past, I still wonder if this is the way out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into with our food system. 

I’ve read and heard opinions that this development in food production is progress, and if it helps wean people off so much factory meat consumption, society ends up better off. Maybe there is also a side benefit in that people are at least thinking about the impact of their food choices more. But it seems there is still a long way to go. Is anyone asking how that soy protein concentrate is produced? What inputs are required, what waste is generated (including toxic waste). Does the soil producing all these soybeans end up depleted, enriched, or the same? And where did the land come from to begin with? Were rainforests cleared, waterways polluted, workers exploited, single-use packaging created? Are these products part of a truly sustainable food system solution, or will they end up buying us a little more time while we figure out what that system really looks like?

suggestions and responses:

s: “Could we carry the Three Twins sea salt caramel ice cream again? How about a vanilla malt replacement for the Chilly Philly Malt Chip, which is no longer available?”

r: (Matt MA) With summer approaching, we are due to revisit our ice cream selection. We will seriously consider the Three Twins Caramel. Unfortunately, none of our suppliers currently produce a malt chip ice cream.

s: “McCutcheon’s Apple Butter. 20 kinds of BBQ Sauce, NO APPLE BUTTER.”

r: (Matt MA) McCutcheon’s Apple Butter is stocked with the other McCutcheon’s preserves, to the right of the Field Day fruit spreads.

s: “Cans of 15-oz. crushed tomatoes or ground tomatoes. You have those in 28-oz. cans but not 15 oz. Plenty of room on that shelf, which has many rows of 15-oz. diced tomatoes.”

r: (Matt MA) Sorry for this oversight in our tomato set. We’ll add the ground, but our supplier does not list 15-oz. crushed, so we’ll look for another source.

s: “I noticed the other day while at the Carpenter Lane store that Weavers Way carries little or no shade-grown coffee. I only drink shade-grown coffee because it is the only coffee that does not require the destruction of habitat to grow. All other coffees are essentially ‘dead bird’ coffees. Many sources of shade grown-coffees are also cooperatives of small farmers, which I think would fit with the Weavers Way philosophy. One possible source is CafeMam, which has the advantage of being on this continent.”

r: (Norman) Thanks for your concern. We do have a few certified shade-grown packaged and bulk coffees in our stores: Golden Valley, Take Flight, Bird of Paradise and Punch In The Face. Ask a staffer to show you if you need help finding them. In addition, our info (from Equal Exchange and other sources) is that most Fair Trade coffee is shade grown. Hope this helps! 

s: “I spent part of my morning today working as a ‘bulk ambassador’ at the Ambler store. It struck me how there’s this great bulk food section, but it’s dwarfed by the industry-traditional ‘food desert’ of crappy stuff in the middle of the store with all that packaging, like any other grocery store. The business being what it is, there are perhaps two areas of unavoidable hypocrisy for an ordinary store: all that more typical product in the middle, and all that convenience-store-like impulse buying stuff like toys, etc. I think a lot of people would flock to a package-free food store: deli, bakery, produce, and bulk. That’s it! No hypocrisy close at hand for anyone to see and be diverted by. I really think that is an idea whose time has come.

r: (Norman) Thanks for being an ambassador and sharing your thoughts. The grocery industry seems trapped in its need for packaging, both to hold and market products, and also to include that all-important barcode. When I read about all the “advances” in the industry — Amazon Go, home delivery services, click and collect, self-checkout, scan using your phone into your cart, etc. — it’s hard to imagine any of them functioning without packaging. The reality is that for shoppers who want to reduce packaging, shopping has to become less convenient, not more convenient. Bringing your own containers takes pre-planning and makes shopping take longer, but that seems to be the most sustainable option at this time. In addition, for a true zero- or low-waste system to exist, it’s not just the consumer packaging that has to change — the wholesale part has to change, too. Remember, all the packages you see on grocery store shelves themselves come in a larger package. Things such as bulk granola come in a cardboard box (which can be recycled) and are lined with a plastic bag (which can’t be recycled). Even things we buy in bulk plastic pails — such as olives, honey, and oils — are only used once, and there is no mechanism to return the pails to manufacturers for re-use even though they are fairly easy to clean and refill. The two shining examples of refillable containers at the wholesale level are the apples we get direct from the orchards and produce from our own farms. These items are transported in reusable crates or boxes, which are returned. Wooden orchard boxes get used hundreds of times, as do our plastic tomato trays. This points to one of the advantages of dealing with smallish local farmers: We can put systems like this in place to the benefit of all.

s: “I see a lot of cats in the neighborhood. Can a cat become a member? They are members of our community yet have no representation in our Co-op or government.”

r: (Norman) Most cats are not registered to vote. (The few that are typically register as Independents.) A cat cannot be a Weavers Way member, as there is language in our bylaws restricting membership to “persons.” Most dictionary definitions of “person” include being a human being. While that may seem restrictive and somewhat arbitrary to non-humans, as a practical matter, it makes sense. For example, our bylaws require notice of meetings to be posted and “reasonably communicated to members.” Cats do not read or speak English, which, although it is not the official language of the Co-op, is the language customarily used and has decades of precedent. If cats were members, how would we communicate meeting notices? Code this info into a synthesized meow using artificial intelligence? For now, cats will have to remain non-members. 

Weavers Way does have an honorary cat staff member, Lizzy, who you can often see watching over her domain in front of the Community Room at 555 Carpenter Lane. Sometimes she appears to be sleeping on the job, but that’s just to lull her enemies into complacency; she’s actually mentally calculating the angles and thrust of her pounce.

s: “Can I park in the loading zones at the stores?”

r: (Norman) Park, no; load, yes. In Philadelphia, all unrestricted loading zones can be used by the general public for loading and/or unloading for up to 30 minutes. You do not have to be a patron of the business that has the loading zone permit, nor do you have to be loading or unloading into that business. Some loading zones have restrictions, such as for passenger pick-up only, but those zones have signage showing those restrictions. So feel free to use any loading zone anywhere in Philadelphia for your loading and unloading needs.

s: “I think I saw a KGB agent in the Ambler Bulk department. I dutifully notified the manager on duty, who seemed to look at me like I was a whack job, leaving me feeling a little disrespected.”

r: (Norman) As we know, Russians can be anywhere. They love to snoop on Americans both in person and remotely, as they don’t get as many cable channels as we do and spend lots of time indoors due to the cold. They are also very jealous of our fresh bread, so they will come to bakery departments and sniff around. Our informants tell us most of these Russians are mostly harmless, except for the ones with the last name of Stalin. So, if you come across a Stalin in our Mt. Airy store, please inform Lizzy — she will ensure they do no harm.