My family and I stopped at Starbucks® for some coffee during a recent vacation trip. While getting into line we chanced upon an ongoing conversation between the clerk and the gentleman in front of us; he was inquiring about the dessert offerings on the counter and their respective ingredients.
He was informed they contained marshmallows. As such, the young clerk pointed out they were inappropriate to eat: “They’re not vegetarian. I wouldn’t eat them.” Needless to say, my interest was piqued by this interaction and instinctively I jumped into the fray. (I just couldn’t help myself.) Tongue-in-cheek, I asked, “Vegetarian? Or don’t you mean vegan?”
The clerk correctly explained, albeit with contempt, that marshmallows were not appropriate for vegetarians because they contained gelatin. However, the explanation should have ended there. She proceeded to detail that gelatin is manufactured from the tissue of animals (also correct). But her illustration is what makes all of this interesting and especially revealing: “Gelatin is made from animal products – like horses hooves.”
Our young vegetarian clerk is misguided. One, gelatin is not derived from hooves (it’s produced from collagen, NOT keratin). Two, U.S. horse slaughter ended with closure of the last operational facility in 2007 (the ensuing outcome of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act). And since gelatin is a by-product, the likelihood the marshmallow bars containing horse-derived gelatin is negligible. Great story – if only it were true; the clerk’s illustration is urban legend just being robotically repeated.
Amidst the complexity and general lack of knowledge about our food system, establishing oneself as an expert usually goes uncontested; the general public often accepts such confident proclamations as fact (like gelatin being derived from horses hooves). The clerk’s pretentious bravado reminded me of last year’s Wall Street Journal book review (Paul Beston) of The Authenticity Hoax (Andrew Potter):
For Andrew Potter, the ever-narrowing search for just the right kind of food has less to do with saving the environment or pursuing a healthy lifestyle than with achieving a certain self-image, one in which the tawdry, consumerist aspects of modern life are thrown over for the sake of a simpler, truer, more "authentic" self. Food is only one part of that broader self-definition. In "The Authenticity Hoax," Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status-seeking game. Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is "a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it." By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before….The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.