That Silver isn't vegetarian
While I was sitting in the mandap during my wedding a couple of weeks ago now, I was a bit concerned about all of the Indian sweets I was consuming. It seemed that every two minutes another mithai was being prodded in my direction, and the thought of all the ghee, the sugar, the gor (molasses) etc that I must have inhaled was a bit frightening. It wasn't until last week when I read these articles in India-West (Link 1 and Link 2), I realized that as a vegetarian, I should have been concerned with something else. According to the story,
Varak, that gossamer-thin silver sheet that covers Indian mitthai, is made by placing thin metal strips of silver between the steaming intestines of a slaughtered animal or its hide and hammered into a thin foil. A substantial number of cattle, sheep and goat are killed specifically for the industry, according to animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi.
I used to think it was real silver that was just wittled down, perhaps by a machine? Apparently, there is no such thing as machine-made varak, so chances are, if you are vegetarian and you eat mithai or anything else with that silver gossamer on it, you are unwittingly eating an animal by-product. It pains me to think that many unknowing vegetarians, who perhaps think Indian sweets are vegetarian-friendly, have been consuming an animal by-product all these years. What's worse is followers of the Jain religion, a religion that holds the notion of ahimsa or nonviolence in high regard, and the strictest of whom will wear a face-mask so as to not kill any living thing by breathing, have been using varak to decorate their "religious idols and the tirthankaras in their temples."
I was enraged following the McDonalds controversey a few years back in which it was found that McDonalds was wrongfully telling customers their french fries were vegetarian, when in reality, the fries were frozen with a beef tallow additive, and the news in this article doesn't make me much happier. While we all know that gelatin is found in marshmallows and gummy bears, I was surprised to see that certain cereals like Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats, actually contain gelatin, as does a now-former favorite of mine Lucky Charms. With the increasing popularity of vegetarianism, one would think a vegetarian friendly substitute for gelatin would have been created by now.
And while certain members of the food industry allege that it is impossible to synthesize gelatin, like John Magnifico, the technical service manager of Kraft Foods Atlantic Gelatin, others suggest the prohibitive cost of these substitutes make them unpopular choices for food manufacturers. Unbeknownst to me was that the substance agar-agar, which is derived from seaweed, is an existing alternative to gelatin, but is not regularly used vice gelatin because it costs about four times what gelatin costs. As a vegetarian consumer, I would pay the extra amount for gelatin-free favorites, as many consumers do to have the option of buying organic.
Sure, if you are dining out, part of the vegetarian's risk is that some kind of meat might end up in your food. But knowing before hand what items are safe to eat, and what items aren't is a big help. One of the stories I often heard was that Pizza Hut used a cheese which had beef in it. This could have been true, since rennet (an ingredient in many cheeses) can be derived from either animal sources or from fungal or bacterial sources. The usual source of rennet, according to the India-West story "is the fourth stomach of slaughtered, newborn calves." Fortunately, "95 percent of the cheeses currently made in the U.S. is made with non-animal based rennet," including the cheese used by Pizza Hut, Domino's, Round Table, and Little Caesar's.
I wonder now, like I wondered when the McDonald's controversy erupted why the FDA does not require companies to label vegetarian foods as such. Just like Kosher items are required to have the K in a circle, it would do companies well to have a green leaf, or a big V in a circle for items deemed to be suitable for vegetarians. Perhaps this is something companies should do anyway, as a courtesy to its vegetarian clientele.