17 September, 2007

But don’t you miss dairy?

“One day I was visiting my parents and all of a sudden I started to crave manicotti!” So were the words of a long-time friend, a person that inspired me to go vegan, but who ultimately (after 5-plus years, no less) went the way of so many ex-vegans that seem to surface the moment I mention that I’m vegan.

The answer I give people who ask if I miss or crave cow’s milk, cheese, ice cream (insert creamy cheesy product) is a resounding “No.” I don’t crave dairy products, because like most of the brown people in this world I am lactose intolerant. While signs of lactose intolerance can be spotted in premature babies and young children - regardless of race or ethnicity - the inability to properly digest lactase enzymes are prevalent in Native American, black, Asian, and Hispanic populations.

When I learned that I was lactose intolerant in my early 20s it forced me to seek out alternatives for calcium, which was not hard, much to the relief of my worried mother, since so many foods are fortified. When I started moving to a plant-based diet I was surprised to learn how much calcium leafy green vegetables pack in a serving. And all that time I thought the way to strong and healthy bones was through the mammary secretions of herbivorous animals. (Side-rant: If we called milk for what it is, would people still clamor for a slice of that hideous American single?)

When people talk of craving milk products, they are not too far off; casomorphins (think casein + morphine) in cow’s milk is a protein compound that draws baby calves to their mother. Humans who consume large amounts of cheese can actually experience cravings for the stuff, similar to a coffee drinkers’ need for their morning cup.

Just like hardcore coffee drinkers can cut back and ultimately stop drinking coffee, so too can those hardcore cheese eaters. I personally stopped consuming dairy products all at once, but for those products that you think you cannot live without, chances are there are vegan alternatives. If you’re craving something salty along the lines of parmesan, toast some walnuts or use a soy sauce, two products that contain high levels of naturally-occurring glutamate (of MSG fame.) There are plenty of options for non-dairy ice creams, and I’ve found that extra firm silken tofu achieves a texture very similar to cheese cake. Beware of some soy cheeses that contain whey and casein. Or better yet, give your taste buds time to adjust and appreciate the multitude of foods beyond dairy.

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