Getting Soy Cheesy

» January 27th, 2013

The ultimate source of “all natural” cheese. 

I got an e-mail the other day from a friend I really respect. She’s a person who thinks deeply and critically about food choices and the broader ethical implications of eating. She’s smart and reflective.

In her e-mail, she expressed mild disapproval of vegans who rely on “substitutes,” noting in particular “soy cheese.” My initial reaction was to agree, noting that the more “real” foods we eat, that the more honest vegetables and fruits and legumes and whole grains we consume, the better off we’ll be, healthwise and otherwise. But it would take only a quick walk to my fridge to find a guilty bag of shredded fake mozzarella cheese, stuff I put on my bean burritos with great enthusiasm to add texture and richness to a vegan meal. And this apparent conflict between thought and behavior got me thinking about the origins of “real” and “natural” and “substitute.”

The implication that cheese from a cow is somehow real/natural while soy cheese is fake/artificial is itself a false dichotomy. Worse, it’s a dichotomy constructed by hip epicures interested in the continued exploitation of animals under the pretenses of “responsible” animal agriculture, environmental ethics, and slow food.  True, historically and sociologically, it has been considered “natural” to purloin the mother’s milk of one animal to serve the interests of another and, just as true, today’s nabobs of sustainability have done little to question that convenient construction. But just because something is historically and sociologically trenchant—and just because the New York Times and Mother Jones says it’s okay— hardly means it’s correct or not in need of deconstruction. (NB: I’m relying on the secondary meaning of “nabob,” and am not referring to a provincial governor of the Mogul Empire.)

I wonder, for example, how these advocates of “all natural” milk and cheese would feel about sucking the milk directly from the cow or goat from which the milk derives. I’m quite serious. This act would be an especially natural thing to do, no? Especially for those who go all weak-kneed over unpasteurized dairy. Truly, if you’re going to purloin the mother’s milk of another species, why not have the decency to get it right from the source instead of allowing an intermediary to intervene between you and your food source? Why miss out on this great chance to shorten the supply chain and connect with your food? We could make real theater of this by lining the milk suckers alongside the human branders and really get a public discussion going!

My guess is that many supporters of “all natural” dairy would be more than happy to yank on the animal’s teat to steal the milk, but would be less thrilled to do the suckling oneself. Why? Aha! That would be weird. Why would that be weird? Because what’s natural, if we’re going to play the “all natural” game, is for the calf to suckle at the teat of the cow. The human hand is the moral equivalent of a mechanical milker when the calf is included in the “all natural” equation. When a modern human with a brain chooses the milk of another animal species over a plant-based substitute, that modern human with a brain is engaging in a tragically artificial act. He’s substituting custom for moral logic.  There is, in essence, nothing at all “real” or “natural” about highjacking the genetics of another animal, artificially inseminating the females, stealing their milk, sending male offspring to live in veal crates, and calling any of this normal, real, natural behavior.

And if you do disagree, than I say pass the fake cheese please.

20 Responses to Getting Soy Cheesy

  1. Katrina says:

    Beautifully written, James!

  2. Elise says:

    I like to compare soy cheese with winter coats (yes, I’m Canadian). For generations, our winter coats consisted of fur and wool. And recently, we discovered more officient ways to produce winter coats using new fabrics. It’s better for the environment, the animals lives and warmer. Nobody will tell you you’re wearing a “fake” coat if you wear a nylon coat. A coat is something warm. It’s not something furry. Cheese is something that adds taste and texture to your meals. It doesn’t have to be made of dairy. Moreover, we’re not the only one to think of this. Our greek ancestors were already fermenting nuts to make some kind of “cheese”.

  3. Rebecca Stucki says:

    Hear, hear, James! I hope your friend reads this. I find little difference (except for the animal exploitation aspect) between the “fakeness” of dairy cheese and cheese made of beans or nuts. All take a “natural” ingredient and, with additions and processing of some kind, turn out a product that doesn’t resemble the original ingredient but is pleasing to eat. Non-dairy cheeses and meats (for the most part) are made with “natural” ingredients – common and pronounceable! – and are no more “processed” (and usually less) than the majority of “foods” containing animal products. (Sorry for all the “quotes”!)

  4. Jo Tyler says:

    Another excellent post. I always look forward to reading your blog! One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing other people (vegan or not) refer to any vegan food as “fake” or “faux.” Vegan meats and cheeses are made from beans, grains, vegetables, vegetable oil, and so on. These foods are quite real and natural. And no more processed than what the typical carnist eats. There’s nothing fake about them.

    The idea that chopping up beans and wheat and shaping them into an abstract shape (like a hot dog, nugget, or shredded/sliced cheese) is somehow less natural than chopping up an animal and shaping her flesh (or secretions) into the same abstract shape is totally nonsensical. And I agree – there’s nothing “natural” about taking milk from another species.

    I love what Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has to say on this subject as well:

    And Will Tuttle has written a brilliant piece about milk that I hope your friend will consider:

  5. John T. Maher says:

    See Bernard LaTour’s We Have Never Been Modern and Baudrillaud’s Simulacra and Simulation. What might really be funny is if this blog was written by a faux vegan

  6. Gabby says:

    I say thank goodness for “faux” meats and cheeses. Without them I wouldn’t have converted. I eat less vegan meat and cheese now than I used to but I definitely still eat it and I have no intention to. And why should I? As with anything just read the label.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Depends on how many issues one has with the entire means of production and information on the label. Certainly with faux meat no critters were directly killed but indirectly many were in the course of clearing land and production, transport and sale of the goods. Don’t think there is virtue in processed soy/TVP convenience foods as they effect critters indirectly in terms of pollution and habitat destruction and waste. My collateral issues include GMO soy or not as one can not assume the TVP chicken in a restaurant is GMO free (by the way GMOs effect animals in a very destructive manner). Not a big one for me is the extraction process for TVP which sometimes involved weird petroleum products. If you buy cheap, non-organic vegan food you can bet this process was used and even with organic labeled items you should inquire. I confess I keep frozen soy dogs on hand fro deadline determined, chained to the desk nights but I prefer fresh veggies as a rule for a variety of environmental, social and animal reasons which go beyond merely saving an accretion of individual cows or chickens. And fresh veggies taste better

  7. Taylor says:

    Bring on the fakes and substitutes. Is there anything at all that humans eat on a regular basis that is “natural”, that hasn’t been endlessly modified, manipulated, and processed? Even so-called “natural” food sources have undergone centuries or millennia of selective breeding to modify their genetic structures. Looked at from another angle, of course, it’s all natural. The question shouldn’t be, “Is it natural?” but “Is it good for you and for others?”

    • Taylor says:

      I simply put in a link above. I had no idea the YouTube image would magically manifest itself. Danged newfangled technology. I’ve still got my old typewriter in the closet.

      • Linda Guffin says:

        wow Taylor I liked this and I am an old lady of more than 6 decades…. but I don’t have the old typewriter.. too many moves :) thanks for the video even though you didn’t know you were putting it up :D

  8. emily says:

    i agree that there is nothing natural about drinking milk from a goat or a cow.

    i do think that it is common in vegetarian and vegan diets to end up eating an excessive amount of processed food to make up for what a person is cutting out. like when i go to a family’s thanksgiving dinner and one person in the family is vegetarian so they have a tofurkey loaf. there’s so much out there to eat, why not eat a delicious vegetarian meal instead of having something that is imitating something you aren’t wanting to eat?

  9. Bea Elliott says:

    Don’t look now but the powers that be are extolling the virtues of soy-dairy blends for it’s “lean muscle” building properties. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before we’ll see that combo in the cheese mix as well. Real plant benefits vs. real wrong cow’s milk. :/

  10. Linda Guffin says:

    eeeee-yup to James Mc Williams and to emily…. I tried the Tofurkey this year …. it is a one time experience because it was not at all satisfying or tasty. It was on sale so I thought OK, I’lll try it …. back to eating the good stuff…. spices sure do add a lot…. I have learned to use these instead of meat and fat.

    • Linda, I hope you’ll consider trying Field Roast or Gardein’s Holiday Roast next time. While I think Tofurky makes many fine products, I don’t think the original Torfurky roast is among them. Field Roast is incredible, though!

  11. Bonnie says:

    In my grocery store I find vegan processed cheese in the place where they store the Yves veggie processed meats. I used to eat that cheese by the package – each slice individually wrapped – and as flourescent orange and salty as the non-vegan equivalent. Yum! However, upon learning just how fattening soy equivalents are, I gave them up. But I had no ethical difficulty in purchasing these products – no animal was killed is what’s important to me.

  12. Lori says:

    While it’s true that there may not be much “natural” about dairy, I also find little natural or healthy about fake cheeses and meats. I try to avoid them most of the time, though once in awhile, they can be fun. These vegan cheeses are mostly full of oils and processed chemicals and sugars, many made from unhealthy and environmentally unfriendly corn and soy sources. (Not to mention that mass produced–especially non-organic–corn and soy production does much damage to wildlife!)

    I prefer to eat organic tofu or tempeh, instead of fake meats, and I prefer to do without the fat of fake cheeses. These products certainly make it easier to go and stay vegan, but they do not make us or the planet healthier.

  13. Jennifer says:

    I don’t know if you have covered this in one of your posts before James but there are some adults beginning to consume milk from human beings versus cows and other non-human animals. Of course, they are viewed as adventurous and some people gag. Which, to me, is really perverse considering how much non-human milk people are willing to consume. But what does make sense about carnism from a non-carnist perspective?

    Here is an art exhibit from a vegan (?) –>

    And here is the chef who made the headlines when be served it in his restaurant. –>

    And here from an ice cream parlor in London that sold “Baby Gaga” flavor. –>

  14. Mountain says:

    James, I hope you can forgive me for not giving your defense of soy cheese the thrashing (or threshing, my grain loving brotha) it deserves. I am weakened by my current vegan diet.

    I am not a hip epicure, and hip epicures did not construct the dichotomy between “real” cheese from a cow and “fake” soy cheese. The dichotomy began as a way to distinguish between traditional cheeses (with which humanity had thousands of years of experience) and adulterated cheeses– typically called pasteurized processed cheese food product (Velveeta’s label struck me as funny even as a kid). Soy is just the latest cheap, industrial adulterant to be added to cheese.

    As for your claim that milk that goes from one species to another must be purloined, ants and aphids adamantly argue against it. Likewise, in the proper setting– in which females are not artificially inseminated and calves are not force-weaned– there is no reason a dairy goat couldn’t give her excess milk freely to humans. Whether that actually occurs would depend entirely on the relationship between the goat and the human.

    Finally, I’ll be happy to suck milk directly from the teat of a goat right after I see you suck soy milk directly from a soybean.

    • Lori says:

      I had to smile at this post, Mountain. BTW, I once lived with a Chinese family in Los Angeles (the father was/is a famous Taoist Master) and the mother was a vegetarian (mostly vegan, although I saw her use an occasional egg) cooking instructor and writer. She taught me how to make soy milk and tofu “from scratch.” While there was no sucking milk from a soybean involved, it was quite a process. I now prefer to just buy it although fresh, warm soy milk is an amazing culinary experience! :-)

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