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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, July 22, 2012

You and "Ethical Eating:" What's Right for You?

Presented by Mary "Tyrtle" Rooker, Teresa Meeks, Sandy Roberts, Alice Tyler and John Sebastian, Worship Associate, Audrey Andrist, Guest Pianist

THEME 1: Common Marketing Tricks: Had, Took, Misled

In our Chalice lighting at each service, we celebrate ourselves as the Church of the open mind. The open mind questions everything you believe to be true and looks for and challenges hidden assumptions. So that’s what I did when I began studying food issues several years ago. I questioned my own vegan views, and I especially sought to understand opposing views.

At first, I thought that science simply hadn’t reached consensus on these foods. Over and over, I’d find one article that a given food was bad for your health, and another proving that that very same food was good for you. I was very, very confused. Is it just me, or have you also noticed how these studies are contradictory? If so, say Aye!

Two years later, I was stunned to finally realize that scientists had reached agreement in major areas. I could now see that many of these seeming contradictions were the result of psychologically sophisticated marketing campaigns by the various food industries to dispel the real science and to confuse the public.

Could this really be true? Are we being had, took, misled? Sadly, we are. And none of this is new.

We've been hoodwinked before from the 1930s through the 1950s, when scientists & doctors endorsed cigarettes. Yes, scientists and doctors endorsed cigarettes, touting this or that brand for “less irritation” and “reducing coughing.”[1] If you know about that, say Aye!

We're being hoodwinked now by the fossil fuels industries efforts to deny climate change, using the same smoke and mirrors tactics of the tobacco lobbyists. And they work! The latest poll shows that only 62% of Americans believe that climate change is real. But scientists have accepted it at the 99% rate or better for several decades, and climate change is still underway, 100%, no matter what anyone’s opinion is.

Yes, we are being had, took, and misled yet again, this time on food. I have a factsheet in the lobby that discusses all the tactics, but I’d like to share with you now the two main deceptions. The first trick is to discuss only one isolated ingredient. Here’s an example of the isolated ingredient trick:

  1. Omega 3 fatty acids are good for you. (True!) Fish contain omega 3s. (True!) Therefore, fish are good for you. False! Scientists have shown repeatedly that fish contain other things that are not good for you and outweigh the benefits. Bill Clinton learned this the hard way: with stent surgeries.

You’ve seen this isolated ingredient trick, right? They’re quite common. Some of you must be thinking, “But, wait; that fish claim didn’t sound fishy to me; I thought it made sense! What’s the problem?” Right? Say Aye!

Yes, they sound logical because the two premises are true, but the premises don’t prove that the conclusion is true. In formal logic, such arguments are called the fallacy of composition. I can exploit this same logical error to show that poison hemlock and antifreeze are good for you:

  1. Antioxidants are good for you (true); poison hemlock is rich in antioxidants (also true); therefore, poison hemlock is good for you. (Uh, no.)
  2. Pure water is good for you (true); antifreeze is mostly pure water (also true); therefore, antifreeze is good for you. (Definitely not.)

We know not to fall for the hemlock and antifreeze arguments, and we shouldn’t fall for the fish argument, either. So that’s the isolated ingredient trick.

The second tactic is comparing the food they’re selling to something worse to make their food look better than it really is. Here are two examples of the comparison trick:

  1. Grass-fed, small family farmed beef is better for the environment than conventional beef. True! But both are quite bad for the environment. It’s like comparing a Hummer that gets 8 mpg to an SUV that gets 16 mpg. Sure, the SUV looks great—next to a Hummer, but it looks horrid next to a standard or hybrid car, or mass transit, or a bicycle. Here’s my second example of the comparison trick:
  2. Eat organic, free-range chickens because they are healthier for you than conventional chicken. True! But what the stories don’t mention is that they’re only a little bit better, and that even organic, free-range chickens greatly increase your risk for many of the same diseases.


THEME 2: Surprising Scientific Agreement

Most of you know that former President Bill Clinton adopted a vegan diet in 2010 and reversed his heart disease. At the time, his doctor, Dean Ornish, broke to him the news about his need to go vegan by telling him: “[Real] friends tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. And I say this not to blame you but to empower you.”

So to empower you, I’d like to share the 4 things I learned that science has reached agreement on. Even the American Dietetic Association quietly and begrudgingly admits these truths, and it is NOT a pro-vegan organization, it’s the largest dietician association in the world with heavy ties to the food industry.

And be warned: I was startled to learn that scientists are no longer debating these points, so you, too, might find them startling!

  1. Humans have no known nutritional requirement for any animal parts or products; a plant-based diet is nutritionally sound for all people of all ages, including children and pregnant women;
  2. Eating animal parts and products is highly correlated with all our top diseases in the US
  3. Eating a plant-based, whole foods diet is highly correlated with a lack of these top diseases and with optimal health;
  4. A plant-based diet has far and away the highest sustainability rating for the environment

If you’d like to know more, see the special literature table in the back or come to the Reverberations session after the service today.

But the most surprising thing I’ve learned didn’t come from nutrition science but from a psychologist named Melanie Joy. I met Dr. Joy when she gave her presentation at several local Unitarian Universalist congregations last year.

She teaches that all of us, throughout our entire lives, have been profoundly affected by an invisible belief system that trains us to see eating animals as normal, natural, and necessary, just like those people in the 1860s thought their “horse training” methods were not “abuse” but just normal, natural, and necessary. She calls this hidden cultural programming by the neutral term “carnism,” which is the counterpart to veganism.

If you eat meat, she says, you need and deserve to know the truth about carnism so that you can make your choices freely, because without awareness, there is no free choice.

Examining this hidden belief system with an open mind frees you to choose what you eat, whatever you decide.


THEME 3: Healthful, Humane, Sustainable: Continuum, Varies with Definition, Values, Assessments

If we all were ruled by logic like Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, we could just change because the scientific jury is in. But entrenched habits and ingrained cultural biases run deep and don’t respond to logic. And only 2.5% of any population is a Henry Bergh, able to easily think outside the cultural box of the status quo and willing to go against the grain and risk ridicule or attack. Most people stay with the herd and will not join a Henry Bergh until a trend has caught on and the tipping point is reached. This is just human nature!

And each person has their own assessment of what is “healthful, “sustainable” or “humane.” For me, the important thing is not what decision each of us reaches but that we stir up the issues with that Unitarian Universalist open mind, questioning what we believe and considering views that differ from our own.

Philosopher H. L. Mencken noted that it is human nature to reject what is true when it’s unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false if it’s comforting. A cartoonist once noted that “Thinking is very upsetting; it tells us things we’d rather not know.” Yet, thinking and questioning are fine Unitarian Universalist traditions that, although uncomfortable at first, result in feeling liberated.

And we know that, as Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

We Unitarian Universalists have historically been leaders when it comes to cultural change, advancing the cause of freedom and justice, even when doing so is uncomfortable or at times even dangerous.


Instead of the usual action item of writing a letter to your legislators, I invite you to use real science and the power of the open mind to question the status quo and to reassess the diet that’s right for you. Even if you don’t decide anything, you will have done the valuable work of stirring up the question.

Because we are we the church of the open mind, are we not? AYE!

Are we victims of the past and of our habits, like one of Pavolv’s dogs? NO!)

Are we independent-minded, free thinkers? AYE!

Do we blindly follow the spells and dictates of advertising? NO!

Do we allow our habits and cravings to override our intellect and throw our values out the window? WELL, OK, SOMETIMES, YEAH.

We are human, after all. And we can change, too.

Wake up from the advertisers’ disinformation campaigns.

Wake up from dietary habits that harm your health and your values.
Wake now, my senses!

When choosing to eat more ethically, remember the value of small strides. Focus on progress, not perfection. Like Unitarian Universalists on many issues, we’re a diverse community with different choices and with different reasons for making those choices. Whatever you eat, make sure it was prepared in the bowl of an open mind, and thoroughly stir up the assumptions.

[1] A great slide show accompanies this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/business/media/07adco.html.

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