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Attack of the Vegan Molecule!

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An article in this week’s Daily Telegraph tracing the link between eating animal flesh and the human propensity for chronic diseases has cyber pundits buzzing. At the center of the debate is whether or not humans are “natural” meat-eaters. The larger question, at least from an animal rights perspective, may be: Does it matter?


“Mystery of the Meat-Eaters’ Molecule” explores the discovery that humans, unlike all other mammals, do not produce the molecule Neu5Gc, and that when we ingest certain meat (especially beef) and dairy foods, our bodies believe that molecule to be a foreign invader, generating an immune response to attack it. According to the article’s author, former Telegraph science editor Roger Highfield, “This raised the fascinating possibility that anti-Neu5Gc antibodies are involved in auto-immunity. Auto-immune diseases, such as type-1 or juvenile diabetes and some types of arthritis, occur when the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.” Highfield, who has since left the newspaper to become the editor of New Scientist, also notes that consuming the flesh of animals could trigger heart disease and certain cancers.


Does this revelation worry meat-eaters? Apparently not. Members on one Atkins Diet forum, for example, call the findings “extremely dubious” and “yet another bit of science that PETA can pounce on, twist and use to insist that humans really should be vegetarians!”


While I am sure my fellow animal activists will be touting this fairly recent finding as further evidence that humans are not meant to consume meat, eggs and dairy products, I think it’s doubtful that many omnivores will care. After all, there’s plenty of evidence that meat is bad for us (in fact, Dr. Atkins himself dropped dead at 260 pounds), yet most people blithely stuff their faces with animal corpses, never letting our world’s increased rates of cancer, heart disease and obesity get in the way of their appetite for steak, cheese and other cholesterol-laden pleasures.


This is not to say I think the health argument for vegetarianism and veganism is unfounded; indeed, many people do abstain from meat in an effort to stay healthy, and that’s wonderful – I support any reason to not harm animals. I just think the “humans weren’t designed to eat meat” argument is not as important as pointing out that humans don’t really need meat to thrive, so there’s no excuse for killing chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, fish, sheep and other animals to turn them into dinner. There is a bounty of delicious, nutritious plant-based foods available, so why subject animals to the enslavement, torture and death of factory farms and slaughterhouses?


The main obstacle is habit. Most people grew up eating meat, and they’ve come to enjoy it. We find comfort in food, and for many people, that comfort comes from animal flesh. Moreover, animal agribusiness, with its deep pockets and political clout, continues to sell consumers the illusion of animal-based foods as our veritable birthright, reinforcing the public perception that animals are here for human use, and that we need to eat them and their secretions (milk and eggs).


Yet we can still eat ethically without sacrificing our comfort foods. You can now find a delicious analog version of just about any meat-based food you can think of. Grocery stores carry mock chicken, beef and sausage in the form of burger patties, strips, meatballs and crumbles, as well as imitation bacon and lunchmeat. And if you’ve never tried the BBQ Riblets from Gardenburger, you’re in for a treat. There are also fantastic dairy-free ice creams, and vegan cheese options are getting better all the time. These foods offer all the flavors and consistency associated with comfort foods, without the cruelty and cholesterol.  


There are lots of great reasons to not eat meat. Livestock agriculture takes food away from starving humans, since sixteen pounds of grain are required to produce just one pound of meat, and we would have enough plant-based foods to nourish the world if we didn’t feed them to farmed animals. Animal agribusiness requires vast resources, resulting in the devastation of the environment, and is a major contributor global warming (more, in fact, than all the world’s cars, trucks and airplanes combined). And avoiding meat is better for our bodies: the American Dietetic Association reports that vegetarians have lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease, lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, type-2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer and that vegetarians are less likely to be obese than meat-eaters.


But no indictment of meat-eating can compare with the unimaginable cruelty we inflict upon billions of animals every year. Today’s agribusiness practice of producing the most meat, eggs and milk as quickly and cheaply as possible – and using the smallest amount of space – means that animals raised for food are kept in tiny cages, barren stalls or overcrowded sheds, sometimes unable to even turn around. They endure many agonizing procedures like debeaking, tail-docking, castration, toe removal and branding – all performed without painkiller. And they are deprived of exercise so that virtually all their bodies’ energy goes toward producing flesh, eggs or milk for human consumption. Still in their youth, these sensitive creatures are forced onto transport trucks for a grueling ride to the slaughterhouse, frequently hundreds of miles away and often without food or water; this cruelty results in “downed” animals who are so sick or injured they are unable to walk on their own. Finally, the killing itself is so inhumane that slaughterhouse workers wear earplugs to muffle the screams of pain and terror.


Fortunately, it doesn’t take a molecule to make a difference for these animals. Helping to improve their lives – as well as our health and our planet – is as simple as choosing a plant-based diet. To learn how easy it is, please visit and


Mark Hawthorne is the author of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism (

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Mark Hawthorne is the author of two books on animal rights: Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering and Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, both from Changemakers Books. He gave up eating meat after (more...)
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