Indians are lacto-vegetarians, at best, and definitely not vegans.

The title of this article suggests a certain vagueness about what ‘being vegetarian' means in the Indian context and how widespread a phenomenon it is within that framework.

The National Sample Survey Office's (NSSO) report on Level and Pattern of Consumer Expenditure, 2009-10, released last month, has enough data to provide insights into the diets of Indians across different States and income classes.

The most striking thing in the data — based on the NSSO's latest quinquennial household consumer expenditure survey carried out during July 2009 to June 2010 — is the inverse correlation that seems to exist between milk and meat consumption.

(The NSSO survey considers the quantities actually consumed, whether out of monetary purchases or from home produce valued at the relevant ex-farm/factory rate.)

COW BELT

From the accompanying table, it emerges that the States recording the highest average household monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) on milk and dairy products are also those spending the least on egg, fish and meat.

Take the traditional Vaishnav-Jain-Arya Samaj belt spanning Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. The per capita milk spends here are way above the national average, whereas it is just the opposite with regard to so-called non-vegetarian items.

A similar pattern holds for the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar or, to a lesser extent, Maharashtra and Karnataka: While their average milk consumption may be below the all-India levels, they still outstrip corresponding expenditures on egg, fish and meat.

At the other extreme are Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and the North-East States (not shown in the table), which are hardcore non-vegetarian. Equally interesting are Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa — States with significant tribal populations that is probably reflected in their high meat consumption relative to the MPCEs on milk, especially in rural areas. Rural households in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, likewise, exhibit a preference for what Indians generally refer to as non-vegetarian.

MAHATMA PARADOX

That brings us to the central contradiction in our notions of vegetarianism, highlighted by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. In a typically reflective 1942 monograph titled Key to Health, he drew a distinction between “vegetarian” and “flesh” foods. The latter covered fowl and fish, but not eggs and milk, which were mere “animal foods”. However, they “cannot by any means be included in a strictly vegetarian diet”.

For Gandhiji, milk and eggs were the same. A layman may view milk as vegetarian food and eggs as flesh food. “In reality, they are not. Nowadays sterile eggs are also produced. The hen is not allowed to see the cock and yet it lays eggs. A sterile egg never develops into a chick. Therefore, he who can take milk should have no objection to taking sterile eggs”.

The Mahatma's above conclusion has been liberally interpreted — notably by the National Egg Coordination Committee — as his having endorsed consumption of eggs. The truth is he treated eggs and milk alike, while calling for shunning both.

Declaring that “we are certainly not entitled to any other milk except the mother's milk in our infancy”, Gandhiji hoped that an appropriate “vegetable substitute” would be discovered in the future to obviate “the necessity of adding milk to the strict vegetarian diet”.

The Father of the Nation's classic ‘vegan' line has, nevertheless, found few takers even in regions or among communities steeped in strong anti-meat values. What they have opted for, instead, is a lacto-vegetarian tradition that, far from seeing milk as an unavoidable addition to Gandhiji's “strict vegetarian diet”, actually elevates it to the ultimate embodiment of purity and good health.

There is some nutritional underpinning to this view. Animal products (including milk) are rich sources of protein, containing a balanced combination of all essential amino acids that the human body cannot synthesise and have to, therefore, be supplied in one's diet.

Plant proteins are, by contrast, incomplete. Even the much-hyped soyabean protein is deficient in the essential amino acid, methionine.

What it means is that the pure vegan route requires a variety of plant protein sources, used in the right combination, to achieve the desired amino acid balance. That can be pretty difficult and messy. Why go for it when a more practical lacto-vegetarian alternative is available? So long as you drink milk, you miss little by not having eggs, fish or meat. And that's what the world champion wrestler and a professed vegetarian, Sushil Kumar does — by taking three litres of fresh buffalo milk and a bowl of white butter daily!

NOT BY DAL-SABZI ALONE

While the inverse correlation between milk and meat spends is very well captured in the NSSO data, no such connections are discernable, though, in respect of pulses or vegetables.

The States with relatively high milk and low meat consumption are not necessarily the ones splurging on dal-sabzi. The average MPCE on vegetables is, for example, more in fish-obsessed West Bengal than in Rajasthan. The top slot is, in fact, occupied by Chhattisgarh.

Intake of pulses, on the other hand, displays no great inter-State variability and also shows no negative correlation with expenditure on eggs, fish and meat. The defining factor of ‘vegetarian' appears to be only milk: Those who have a lot of it tend to abhor flesh foods. This kind of unambiguous preference, positive or negative, does not extend to pulses and vegetables.

The last point comes out clearly in the charts giving the composition of food expenditure across different deciles of India's rural and urban populations. The poorest or bottom 10 per cent rural consumers allocate just 5.3 per cent of their total food budget on milk, which is below the 6.3 per cent on pulses and 17.4 per cent on vegetables.

But as they get richer, the share of both milk and meat rises, while falling in the case of pulses and vegetables. At the top 10 per cent decile, milk's share surpasses every other food, including cereals (not shown in the charts).

There are obvious policy implications from all this. With increased incomes, Indians diversify their diets away from calories (cereals and sugar) to proteins. That tendency, in turn, engenders the problem of ‘protein inflation', to use the colourful expression coined by the Reserve Bank of India. The term is a misnomer. As our analysis shows, it's not ‘protein' but ‘animal protein' that's the real issue.

(This article was published on January 2, 2012)
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