Monday, February 12, 2007

Day 153: Is an Egg a Dairy Product?

Are eggs dairy products? Have you asked yourself this question before? Perhaps you have not delved into the confounding world of cataloging foods? No. Well then, perhaps you have not had the long, cloistered nights of an Andean rainy season to ponder such philosophical, scientific material. I know many people have wondered why a tomato is considered a vegetable. How can it be sold alongside green produce when it is so clearly full of seeds and brimming with robust red fruit juice? Is it because we eat it accompanying garden salads and inside sandwiches? Except for the occasional peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich, fruits rarely enter between two slices of bread. Maybe, then, tomatoes were forced to crossover because of their appeal accompanying certain other foods with disregard to its origins as a vegetable’s reproductive organ. I am sure there are many more examples of categorical confusion to consider. There is the in-between avocado, for example. It is green and, similarly to its tomato cousin, it is often found next to vegetables in the grocery aisle. I am fairly sure the enormous seed within the creamy avocado flesh is a fruiting structure and, therefore, should forever place this fruit far from the vegetable stand. Nuts and legumes just confuse me, personally. Cataloging food probably has a lot to do with history of human cuisine and migration and, no doubt, there are doctoral theses written on the origins of various food classification mishaps.

Our niece knows a box of fruit when she sees one.

There is a helpdesk group out of the University of Pennsylvania that claims to be able to locate the answer to any question within several minutes. I witnessed their brilliance once when a disbelieving rock climbing buddy at the University of Maryland called them up to ask the height of Maryland’s outdoor rock climbing wall. We were awed and ecstatic to hear the attendant at the Maryland gym’s front desk answer the phone moments later to deliver the correct response. If the U.Penn crew would, please, take my call tonight from Peru, I would have to ask this burning question: are eggs dairy products?

As an avid avifauna observer and vegetarian, this egg/dairy riddle is burning in my mind. Often I am asked if I eat ‘dairy’ and I confidently reply in the affirmative without ever feeling the need to list the names of these foods. Milk, eggs, butter, cream, cheese, etc are all classically lumped together, no. Dairy has always been easy unlike the frequent confusion with ‘meat’ classification. As a vegetarian, who draws and defends this line daily in a meat-eating world, I would know. In Peru and southern U.S. states like North Carolina, chicken and fish are definitely not considered meat. Meat is restricted to pork and beef, and sometimes lamb. Chicken is just chicken, I guess. Fish is almost a vegetable, just with protein. To a carnivore this may seem clear and maybe even a pointless discussion. To a student of biology these animal products are nearly indistinguishable as hunks of vertebrate muscle. Pork, beef, and lamb can at least be set aside in the sub-category of mammalian flesh. From the vegetarian perspective, all these forms of flesh can remain one large grouping, thank you. North of South America and some southern states, this basic vegetarian-friendly and biologically appropriate classification is gaining acceptance. I find it easier with each passing experience to say, “I don’t eat meat,” and to be understood. Notice there are no tomato examples in the meat category: no fruits confounded with sweetmeats, grains disguised as lambchops, or worse, dairy products masquerading as animal organs. This is unfortunate for me because it means I cannot on occasion slyly order from the carne section on the menu to avoid the inevitable explanation of my dietary restrictions. “Why are you ordering three side dishes?,” they’ll ask curiously, or, “You’re only going to eat appetizers for your meal?” “I do not eat meat,” I’ll say, and launch into the usual mini-oratory on philosophical, political and moral reasoning as well as, oh yes, the aforementioned classification of what exactly I consider to be ‘meat.’

The truth is, as a vegetarian, dairy has always been a fine line. Milk, eggs and cheese are shown together commonly on breakfast cereal boxes, food chart pyramids and just about everywhere I can think. Are they really the same? Biologically speaking they are quite different. Milk, and its associated dairy-vates, cheese and cream, come from cows. Eggs are unformed avian offspring. Both are related to the reproduction of each species, but aren’t they altogether different? Milk is the nourishment mama cows offer to their calves. Birds, of course, do not have mammary glands and feed their young on foraged food. Baby birds develop much more rapidly and need less parental care than mammals as a rule. But the albumen, or white of an egg, is also nourishment for pre-hatchling birds. Thus, mammalian milk and egg whites may be vaguely relative. Yolks are undeveloped embryos, however, and bear no resemblance to other dairy products. How, then, are eggs considered dairy? My two guesses: dairy is any food derived from animals’ reproductive efforts that avoid killing the animal itself; and/or unlike meats, vegetables and fruits these dairy foods are all the color white!

Strict vegetarians and vegans will eagerly explain the close animal origins of dairy foods. Anything produced by animals is out-of-the-question, including the honey gathered by hard-working bees. Honey is eaten by the busy bee colony to help it grow, or reproduce. So, if you’ll permit, I propose honey be classified as a dairy product. Oh wait! It is yellow and not white. Forget it. Anyway, honey is insect food. Do we even eat anything else derived from insects, except the occasional stowaway sandwich ant or unfortunate fly landed in the gawking mouth? Once, I ate ‘lemon’ ants in the rainforest of Ecuador that really tasted like lemons due to the acid content in their bodies. Hmm, don’t they eat termites and beetles in exotic Pacific islands? Perhaps, we just need a new food category for human-palatable insect cuisine. Any ideas?

In conclusion, vegetables are things that are green or go in salads. Fruits are sweet, colorful and anything with seeds not already claimed by the vegetables. Meats are chunks of any dead animal. And dairy is any edible animal product that does not kill the animal, and coincidentally, mostly white in color. This effort in unraveling the mysteries of dairy classification is admittedly going to be an additional annoyance in my vegetarian explanation at the dinner table. Hey, but at least I justified to myself the continued consumption of eggs. And possibly the more widely practical result of all this delving is the discovery that lactose intolerance does not mean avoiding all dairy, just milk products.