Is Umami a Secret Ingredient of Vegan Activism?

In a recent New York Times article, wellness reporter Tara Parker-Pope explored the challenges of going vegan. Those challenges—including knowledge about how to prepare vegan foods and finding support—are real, although not nearly as insurmountable as Ms. Parker-Pope would have us think.

In particular, she focused on the taste and experience of familiar foods, saying “Giving up favorite foods is never easy, food scientists say, for it means overriding taste preferences imprinted on the brain during a lifetime of eating.”

No doubt that’s true, but I’m not sure that we have to override those taste preferences. I wonder if the people interviewed in this article have ever had Isa Moskowitz’s Mac and Shews. The genius of this recipe is that Isa uses sauerkraut to achieve the aged/fermented essence of cheese. And because of that—and perhaps the reason I am so in love with this dish—it’s packed with umami.

Understanding umami might help meat-eaters who struggle with a transition to vegan meals. The word is derived from the Japanese term for “deliciousness.” It’s been dubbed the “fifth taste” (the other four being sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). Discovered over 100 years ago, umami has more recently become a respectable area of research.

The taste/experience of umami is imparted by high levels of the amino acid glutamate. While certain vegetables have umami, it’s especially abundant in protein-rich animal foods. Foods that are very high in umami include aged cheeses—especially Parmesan cheese, which has a very high content of free glutamate—and also anchovies and fish sauce.

One theory about the appeal of umami is that, because breast milk is high in glutamate, we might develop a lifelong desire for this taste beginning within hours of birth. Another is that we evolved to favor umami-rich foods because they delivered all-important—and sometimes scarce—protein. (While that might not serve us well in a world ruled by McRib sandwiches and 20-ounce porterhouse steaks, once upon a time it was probably an advantage.)

Regardless of the reason for this taste preference, it’s important to recognize that a penchant for meat and cheese may be innate or due to early experience. It’s about taste. And research consistently shows that taste is the primary driver behind food choices.

But that’s not as dismal for vegan diets as it sounds, because we can add umami to vegan recipes. In her cookbook World Vegan Feast, author Bryanna Clark Grogan notes that “Umami elements can add a powerhouse of flavors in meatless dishes, where it supplies the robust element that meat or poultry often give non-vegan dishes.” Chef Robin Asbell also talks about umami in her cookbook Big Vegan. She says that animal foods “concentrate all sorts of chemicals into complex constructs” so that “cooks can fall back on the fats, amino acids, and browned sugars from a piece of beef to flavor a whole dish.” But, she says that we vegans can “layer flavors and use plant-based chemistry to give the palate well-rounded flavors and sensations.”

Bryanna and Robin both give suggestions for adding umami to vegan meals. Fermented foods have umami, so wine, tamari and miso are good additions to dishes. Ripe tomatoes are loaded with umami and so is ketchup. (If you know someone who has the annoying habit of putting ketchup on everything, it turns out that he or she is an umami trendsetter).

Dried sea vegetables, marmite, nutritional yeast, mushrooms, olives, balsamic vinegar, dried mushrooms, and sauerkraut are other umami-rich vegan foods. Roasting, caramelizing, browning and grilling all boost umami because they free glutamate from proteins.

People who falter on vegan diets because they find themselves craving protein could very well be craving umami—and they might feel like something isn’t quite right without it. Interestingly, some research suggests that a subset of the population may be impervious to umami. Rice and beans versus grilled chicken? It’s all the same to them. And maybe these people have an easier time going vegan (which could also mean that they have less patience with those who struggle with giving up animal foods).

In the vegan community, there is a pervasive belief that animal foods are “addictive.” Along with the idea that you’ll “detox” when you go vegan, this suggests that adopting a vegan diet is some horrible ordeal, akin to spending a month in rehab. Instead, I think the fact that a preference for animal foods is probably more about taste than anything else is good news. Adding umami-boosting ingredients to foods can be an easy way to help people find what they think is missing in vegan diets.

 

Edited to add: Several comments below have suggested other  good sources of umami and I’ll add them here: Umeboshi plums, umeboshi vinegar, beer, sun-dried tomatoes, and MSG–which was developed over a century ago by the scientist who identified umami

 

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73 Responses to Is Umami a Secret Ingredient of Vegan Activism?

  1. meg April 18, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    I love cooking with wine and miso! Both add so much depth to the dishes they’re cooked in. Thanks for pointing out this correlation, my tastebuds agree with your conclusion. :)

  2. BG April 18, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    Very interesting point of view. Again and again I appreciate your way of putting things :)

  3. Mark Yerrington April 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Excellent post. I’ve been fascinated with umami since I found out about it. Better living through food chemistry! I’m moving to Madison in a few weeks, so I look forward to seeing you at the Vegan Fest. Cheers!

  4. Amanda (@amanda__rock) April 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Such a great article! I truly think my first attempt at veganism failed because I wasn’t eating delicious things. :)

  5. Kezia April 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    I’m an umami addict, both pre-vegan and now. (Good parmesan and anchovies were once some of my favorite foods.) I stand as proof that these tastes can be found in a vegan diet if one is good in the kitchen. When food has a rounded balance fat, salt, spice, and sweetness, nobody leaves the table unsatisfied, regardless of how they grew up eating.

    I’ll volunteer for any nutritional study that involves feeding me olives, capers, marinated porcini mushrooms, wasabi, sun-dried tomatoes, etc.

  6. Erin April 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Great post, as usual, Ginny, and excellent points re umami’s importance. But I paused when I read this –

    “In the vegan community, there is a pervasive belief that animal foods are “addictive.””

    Really? I’ve often heard that about dairy specifically, but very, very rarely about eggs or meat. In fact, when I talk to other folks, it seems meat is one of the easier things to give up and one of the things people seem to crave the least.

    • Ginny Messina April 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

      I definitely hear this much more about dairy, but I also hear people refer to meat as addictive. Probably “pervasive” overstates that, though.

    • Bill Samuel March 6, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

      Studies have shown that the milks of all animals tested have small quantities of opioids (same thing that makes heroin addictive). Since opioids are addictive, dairy is addictive. The opioids are concentrated in cheese, which may be why cheese is one of the hardest foods to give up. The concentration in fluid milk is so low that it is much easier to give up.

  7. David April 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    What about MSG? Is there something wrong with that as a source of umami?

  8. Dave Rolsky April 18, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    I love to use soy sauce for umami. For example, I’ll brown boca crumbles in olive oil in a pan, then add a tablespoon or two of soy sauce at the end and reduce it under high heat. Throw this on top of spaghetti with red sauce and it gives it a “meaty” taste.

    But Ginny, you missed the number one awesome source of umami. MSG!

    Yes, the much-vilified “chemical” used to make campbell’s soup taste like food.

    It has a bad rap because of its overuse in canned food and bad Americanized Chinese cooking, but used in moderation it’s great.

    You can buy MSG in crystal form at an asian market. In Chinese cooking, it’s often added during preparation, along with salt. My Taiwanese mother-in-law keeps it next to the salt in her kitchen.

    I like to add it to green vegetables when I’m stir frying them. Stir fry some spinach or bok choy at high heat with garlic. Add some salt and a _small_ pinch of MSG. It adds a great depth to the vegetable. I’ve also tried adding it to some mock meat products when I didn’t want to add soy sauce.

    Go easy on it when you’re first using it. Too much and it becomes overpowering.

  9. Maija Haavisto April 18, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    It’s also important to mention that both our tastebuds and our mental ideas of flavours are very flexible to changing. Many people don’t really like the idea of being flexible. They like to think “I like this, and I’m going to like this, I don’t like that and it’s going to stay that way”.

    But the thing is, we can adapt to new flavours quite well. We can learn to like new things and (sometimes also begin to dislike things we once liked). For many people umami, salty and sweet may be pretty much the only flavours they’ve tasted (and fat, which some experts do regard as a flavour these days)!

    That said, umeboshi “plums” and umeboshi vinegar are good ways to add umami/aged taste. Some use them in salads, others in mock cheeses. And sundried tomatoes, of course! Tomatoes were mentioned, but not sundried tomatoes.

    P.S. When I reviewed the recent vegan transitioning book Vegan Bite By Bite I specifically paid attention to the fact that the recipes use a lot of umami. Not so much soy sauce and nooch as many vegan cookbooks, but e.g. miso and sundried tomatoes are used a lot.

    • Ginny Messina April 18, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

      I’m going to add an edit to the article to include umeboshi plums and vinegar, and sun-dried tomatoes. All great additions to the list!

    • vegangsterARNP June 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

      Well said. Also, what we have here is simply talking about food alone, whereas veganism by definition is living out the philosophy of not eating or using animal products (knowingly). You simply cannot get people who think of animals as commodities to even consider giving up steak. Why would they?

      Also, I think the writing is great, but yes, flexibility, and the fact that, let’s be honest here, people are NOT craving protein…. they are craving salt and fatty foods. This is one reason I really like Colleen Patrick Goudreau’s lecture… because it doesn’t just make out like people are just walking zombies, ruled by tastebuds…

      BTW, I want to tell you all that hands down, the best thing I have used for this “umami” i suppose you call it flavour, is chick pea miso. I think it is the greatest thing. I recommend trying it. Jo Stepaniak lists it in several of her recipes in “the ultimate uncheese cookbook”

      • justin January 27, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

        “You simply cannot get people who think of animals as commodities to even consider giving up steak. Why would they?”

        i gave up meat initially for health reasons. i watched a few family members go through gruesome therapy, surgery, treatment, etc. for cancer and heart disease and i immediately thought, “if that’s what’s waiting for me on the other side of my diet, count me out.”

        seeing as it’s fairly easy to substantiate the fact that animal foods GREATLY increase your risk for heart disease and cancer, isn’t that enough to cause people to give up steak, compassion aside?

  10. JL goes Vegan April 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    This is such an interesting post, Ginny!

    “some research suggests that a subset of the population may be impervious to umami. Rice and beans versus grilled chicken? It’s all the same to them. And maybe these people have an easier time going vegan (which could also mean that they have less patience with those who struggle with giving up animal foods).”

    Uh oh! I think that’s me!

    You’ve give me much to consider in how I approach non-vegans in my life (including my husband)!

  11. Jill, The Veggie Queen April 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Thank you for this post. My comment in response to The New York Times piece was that what people miss in cheese, they get in fermented foods – the ones that you mentioned, and other foods with umami flavor.

    I appreciate your spelling it out. I am a bit of a miso, sauerkraut, tamari and olive lover even though I don’t love salt. I also am a mushrooms hunter and buyer. Shiitake and I are buddies. The complexity of flavor is what I crave. No indifference here.

  12. SkepticalVegan April 18, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    You forgot beer! Beer is great for cooking as well as for drinking.

    I definitely tend to eat lots of umami rich foods and agree that they are probably important for staving off what are interpreted as “meat cravings”.

    to David re: “What about MSG? Is there something wrong with that as a source of umami?”

    Short answer is no.

    The glutamate in MSG is chemically identical to the glutamate found naturally occurring in others foods. MSG is generally a safe food additive and there is little reason to fear it. You can even buy a box of MSG powder at many grocery stores if you wanna add a little umami kick to your cooking. MSG can also help you make lower sodium food without sacrificing taste as much.
    The “MSG is bad for you” meme & “chinese restaurant syndrome” meme are based on unfounded fears.

  13. Ginny Messina April 18, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    Interesting about the MSG which is, of course, sort of the quintessential umami ingredient! I had no idea that people actually cook with it in their homes, though. But I guess I should have realized that it would be a common ingredient in some Asian kitchens. I’m definitely going to give it a try.

    • SkepticalVegan April 18, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

      You can find MSG in small bottles in the spice section of many major super markets but you will get a better deal at an Asian market where you can get it in big boxes. I dont currently use it at home but I have before, I’m considering playing around with it again in more creative ways, I like Dave Rolsky’s idea of adding it to stir fried bok choy. I like the idea that it can help you reduce sodium intake too, i probably get way too much sodium for my good.

      • amaya January 16, 2014 at 8:25 am #

        I do believe that “Accent” seasoning is plain old MSG.

  14. Gena April 18, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    Love this!

    My first bio professor basically said just this to us in class; he was an unabashed carnivore, but interestingly, fascinated by my veganism and very supportive. He had an anthropology background, and was certain that glutamate was key to feelings of satiety. I seem rather impervious (I have never once missed meat or felt less satisfied as a vegan) but I do love to use nutritional yeast in my recipes, and have found that it pleases non-vegans.

    G

    • vegan_scientist April 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

      yeast extract is just natural msg with an extra mono sodium aspartate kick!

  15. Dave April 18, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    And soy sauce, of course. Though my favourite umami-rich ingredient is “Maggi Seasoning”. It’s processed, it contains MSG, it’s probably not healthy, but damn it’s delicious. A few drops makes everything taste better.

    In Poland, it’s a staple. Though I was surprised to see it everywhere in Thailand too, as well as Chinese grocers.

    • Going Vegan March 4, 2013 at 6:43 am #

      I love Maggi Seasoning. I also find a few drops of Frank’s Hot Sauce does wonders in dishes like guacamole. I use a few drops of liquid smoke in pea soup or dishes that people might have used ham hocks etc.

  16. Nadine April 18, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Thanks for introducing me to this concept! I love nooch, miso and Bragg’s so much – one of them is in almost all of my dinner and lunch foods.

    • Denise March 4, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

      what is nooch?

      • Ginny Messina March 6, 2013 at 8:13 am #

        Nutritional yeast!

  17. narf7 April 18, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    BEER! My husband is SOOOO going vegan now! I have been employing the wrong tactics here…cheers for giving me my secret weapon ;)

  18. Melissa April 18, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    Well, that explains why I put nooch on darn near everything. ;)
    Even my french toast recipe has nooch in it … and it’s wonderful.

  19. Julia April 18, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    Agreed! And very well stated. It’s a rare sauce or soup creation of mine that doesn’t contain either a dollop of miso paste or a few heaping tablespoons of nutritional yeast.

    Also, tempeh is one of my all-time favorite foods, and one that seems to make it onto few umami-rich-foods lists.

  20. Rob April 19, 2012 at 1:54 am #

    Very interesting! This called for controlled experiment. Make two identical food batches. Then spice one with MSG. Let two groups of meat eaters eat and rank the tastiness.

    • vegangsterARNP June 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

      i think you should put MSG on two groups of meat eaters, and see who’s left standing. ROFL

  21. Pythagorean Crank April 19, 2012 at 11:23 am #

    I F*CKING LOVE MSG! Heh. I even keep a shaker of it handy on my stove! http://ow.ly/i/ycGV
    The first time I tried it straight I immediately thought “THIS IS DORITOS!”. So yeah, thanks for explaining to vegans the secrets of umami. They would do well to add this to their culinary toolkit. :)

  22. Virtually Vegan Mama April 19, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    This is a great article…thanks! Now I know why I have a great response to a lot of my dishes..unami! making one of my family favs tonight…roasted rosemary string beans with nutritional yeast tonight…and I was going to blog it, I will reference this for sure =)

    xoxo,

    Jen

  23. Wendy April 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    A fantastic article about seaweed & umami (master piece):

    http://www.flavourjournal.com/content/1/1/4

  24. CaptainSakonna April 23, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    Interesting. When I think about the savory “thing” that used to draw me to meat and dairy, it seems about as far away from ketchup, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes as anything could be. (I never used ketchup very much — my universal sauce was ranch dressing, and not that stupid over-sweetened fat free kind either.) When I want to satisfy this craving, I typically find myself going for the peanut butter jar. Olives, soy milk, and MSG-laden ramen noodles also work. I’ve recently discovered that mashed black beans and oats fried in oil make me happy the same way ground beef used to. Maybe it’s the fat I’m after, not just the umami. I wonder, are vegan food producers shooting themselves in the feet by avoiding plant oils and marketing all their products as “low-fat”? To someone who isn’t a health nut, “low-fat” frequently means “not delicious.” Adding sweeteners such as cane juice to make up for a lack of fatty flavors doesn’t help (yes, Nayonaise, I’m looking at you).

    • Vegan Dude September 9, 2012 at 4:47 am #

      Absolutely. I was just pondering this same idea this morning as I made some vegan sausages.

      Making ‘healthier’ versions of vegan foods does not help broaden their appeal considering that ‘healthier’ versions of non-vegan foods are generally considered to taste inferior to their ‘less healthy’ counterparts.

      Bring on the oil, sugar, salt, etc.

  25. Lukas Meier May 1, 2012 at 12:49 am #

    Two big soruces of umami, mushrooms and algaes are totally missing here.

    Kombu, the algae used in Japan for soup stock, was the first food out of which umami-MSG was won by a scientists.

    The white dust on dried kombu is cristallised glutamate..and mushrooms are also full of it.

    Especially shitake(also used in soup stock)

  26. Eriyah June 4, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

    Wow- I made that recipe posted above on the mac and shews and it was yummy! I think I liked it better before baking it! LOL! But it was delicious and I look forward to making it again!

    I’m interested in this umami factor- thanks for bringing it to my attention. I do love the nutritional yeast…

  27. vegangsterARNP June 8, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Dear Vegan RD, I think one reason people don’t find plant based food tasty, is because it is not seasoned correctly, nor does it have sufficient fat. As you know, understanding organic chemistry, the fat helps the tongue absorb flavour, so if there is not enough fat, the flavours don’t get through.

    I disagree 100% that it has to do with lack of MSG, and I also think that you should please not encourage people to be eating MSG if it is possible to avoid it. MSG activates the glutamate receptors of the brain, and it is an excitatory neuro transmitter, best left alone.

  28. Danielle June 19, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    Makes a lot of sense. I think knowing about umami will help me stay vegan. TYVM

  29. Ninufar July 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Nutritional yeast has got to have more than umami alone, bc I can barely stand the stuff. Made GF vegan “seitan” once and even though I cut the nutritional yeast in half from the recipe, after a serving or two, I was *done*. (Sad, bc the recipe had many servings and lasted for 2 weeks… and I then pitched it.) Haven’t yet tried any of I.C. Moskowitz’s cookbooks, even though the reviews are amazing, bc the online discussion boards are so “nooch” heavy. And FWIW I love the other stuff that’s high in umami: miso, very ripe tomatoes, etc.

  30. Greg Laviolette August 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    Hi Ginny,

    I’ve been meaning to respond to this post but cooking gets in the way. I’m a vegan chef and cooking instructor and since reading this entry, umami has become my new best friend. I explain umami to every new student that I get and include foods or condiments high in glutamate in all of my recipes now. Even if the taste of tamari, tahini, caramelized onion or nutritional yeast is not obvious in the recipe, these ingredients seem to fill in any flavour holes and make for a very happy mouth. I’d say that half of my students and the majority of my diners are omnivorous and umami really is helping me win them over.

  31. Eric Brooks September 29, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    What About Sea Salt..?

    I’m curious, what about sea salt and Umami.

    Recently I underwent a fascinating (if harrowing) food ordeal. Once I learned how much radioactive material had been (and is still being) dumped into the ocean due to the Fukushima disaster, I resolved to take any food gotten out of the open oceans permanently off my menu.

    But this created a dilemma. I have been using iodized sea salt for decades, and discovered that when I switched from sea salt to standard issue mined Morton salt, my food now tasted absolutely lifeless, (even with lots of tamari added in).

    After several months of this culinary purgatory I ventured onto the internet and searched diligently for an iodized sea salt culled from a water body not connected to the open oceans. At last I discovered a source from Trapani, Italy (on the Mediterranean Sea) and ordered it.

    Problem solved! This new salt was far superior to even the more generic sea salt that I had used before, and made my food taste like it had been prepared in heaven. The change has been so dramatic that I now find it far less necessary to add tamari to my food to make it taste good.

    So this leads to the question – does sea salt have Umami?

    Or is it simply a more diverse mineral profile that makes it taste so good?

  32. Gina October 2, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    Ginny, this was incredibly helpful for me, as I’ve fallen off the wagon multiple times in my quest to be vegan. It also explain why a balsamic marinated tofu sandwich with carmelized onions was so satisfying for me. I’ll be adding more umami flavors to my food now.

  33. Dawn (Vegan Fazool) October 2, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    Ginny, this is a very important, evocative post, and something I’d been struggling to help define for folks and friends interested in doing a plant-based diet. The preference for Umami is definitely an issue in taste preference and your suggestions for including it in a plant-based diet are spot on. I find miso and nutritional yeast particularly convenient (and any fermented food actually) for adding a lot of Umami to foods with little effort.

    Thanks as always!

    XOXO!

  34. Danny Peck March 4, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Is MSG a “good” source of umami? I thought MSG was bad for you and was to be avoided.

    • Ginny Messina March 6, 2013 at 8:22 am #

      It might cause problems for people who suffer from migraines or have fibromyalgia. Otherwise, it’s not harmful. It’s used extensively in China.

      • Danny Peck March 6, 2013 at 8:29 am #

        Thanks for the reply. I’ll have to try it out!

  35. Rosemary June 29, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    Thank you so much for this post and for your blog in general. I have vegetarian and / or pescatarian for 30+ years and have long considered going vegan but never really researched. I just dramatically cut back on the dairy products. Still, even if I rarely ate cheese, I couldn’t imagine forswearing the wonderful gourmet cheeses from a real-honest-to-god cheese shop. Now, armed with this knew knowledge and all the links to blogs, cookbooks, and recipes, I’m ready to take this step. Many many thanks to you and all of your commenters!

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    […] Tip number 3 is use umami! Mmmmm, that savory flavor that the Japanese consider the fifth taste, after sweet, sour, salty and bitter is so necessary when you are cutting out the meatiness of animal products. I didn’t realize that beets are considered to have the umami flavor until the last week, so it was just coincidence that I happened to keep a stash of fresh steamed and cubed beets in the fridge that I added to everything from salads to sandwiches. Mushrooms are high on the umami list too, and although I didn’t find any specific reference to this, I believe olives are too. I ate a lot of olives! Other foods high in umami include tomatoes, wine, beer, fermented foods like sauerkraut, dried sea vegetables, and nutritional yeast. Roasting, caramelizing and grilling foods also brings out the umami flavors in foods.   […]

  19. Umami magic | Vegan in Medway - May 23, 2013

    […] the ‘umami’ flavour – here is a great article that really explains it well: http://www.theveganrd.com/2012/04/is-umami-a-secret-ingredient-of-vegan-activism.html So I’m always looking for ingredients for my food, like mushrooms, soy, nutritional yeast, […]

  20. Living in a “multivore” home: How I use umami to bridge the vegan-omni gap | Vegan for Her - June 18, 2013

    […] just wrote a piece on umami here and her post Is Umami a Secret Ingredient of Vegan Activism? on The Vegan RD really motivated me to put more umami-thought into my meals, which, I believe, […]

  21. Catching Up With Science: Burying the "Humans Need Meat" Argument - August 16, 2013

    […] umami to your […]

  22. The Science Of Salad: How To Make A Salad That Serves As A Real Meal, And Actually Keeps You Feeling Full | Bonzai Aphrodite - May 14, 2014

    […] for another day, but if you’re interested, The Vegan RD wrote an awesome piece entitled Is Umami A Secret Ingredient Of Vegan Activism?. Definitely worth a […]

  23. The ‘I don’t like veggies’ – Vegetable Recipe | the vegan hausfrau - May 23, 2014

    […] a little round-up of basic info about umami for vegans: Is Umami a Secret Ingredient of Vegan Activism? asks (and answers) the always knowledgeable Ginny Messina. She says: People who falter on vegan […]

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