SINGAPORE: In Singapore, when most people picture vegetarian food, what comes to mind?

Probably, a stall in a hawker centre, staffed by middle-age hawkers who might have been doing this for a while but haven’t really focused on the nutritional value of the food.

Their education level and science knowledge might not be so high, and sometimes it’s hard to communicate what you want when many hawkers prefer to speak dialect rather than Mandarin or English.

And, what about their technology to provide these vegetarian meals, if you want to call it that?

A wok sitting over a fire, with a metal spatula, a knife and a cutting board. 

Chinatown

(Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

As to cleanliness, it might be fairly good, but how often do you see hawkers get an A from the National Environment Agency?

What about the dishes served at this vegetarian stall? The same tried and true recipes, featuring lots of SOS (Salt, Oil and Sugar), with whole-grain rice or noodles hard to find.

Not exactly what modern nutrition science would suggest as part of a healthy diet.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH VEGETARIAN FOOD

Is anything wrong with this image of vegetarian food? I’ve nothing against the age of the hawkers; I ride public transport with my senior discount.

I’ve nothing against dialects; linguists tell us that dialects are languages, it’s just that I don’t understand them.

I’ve also nothing against the hawkers’ implements; I use all of them at home. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy traditional dishes?

What’s wrong with this image is that it is inaccurate. Today, vegetarian food is taking on aspects of cutting-edge science.

READ: Healthier options ‘killing the hawker vibe’? Why so resistant, Singaporeans? A commentary

YOUR CUTTING-EDGE VEGETARIAN OPTIONS

For example, we can now enjoy high-tech plant-based meat substitutes from Beyond Meat (who make burgers and sausage), Omnipork (that do a plant-based “minced pork”), and Impossible Foods (who do burgers and minced beef).

Products from Beyond Meat Inc, the vegan burger maker, are shown for sale at a market in Encinitas,

Products from Beyond Meat Inc, the vegan burger maker, are shown for sale at a market in Encinitas, California, US, Jun 5, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS)

Locally, Shiok Meats is working on cell-based prawns, Life3 Biotech is perfecting a range of plant-based meat, and Sophie’s Kitchen, which already makes plant-based products similar to food from marine animals, recently won at S$1 million grant from Temasek Holdings for the development of algae-based food alternatives.

And, there’s so much more science-based vegetarian food afoot in the incubators, accelerators, pitch meetings and various funding rounds across Singapore and the world.

READ: Clean meat – the next big thing in Singapore’s push towards agriculture? A commentary

That’s not to mention Quorn’s foods, invented years ago, using a fungus found in a field in England and made into food using a patented fermentation process. 

Quorn only arrived in Singapore a couple years ago, but it is already popular in supermarkets and a growing range of eateries including Soup Spoon, Rebel, 4 Fingers, and Ichiban Bento.

Why the sudden interest in Singapore and beyond in applying new science to the creation of goods that provide all the benefits of meat, eggs, and dairy, without the negative affects of animal-based foods? Well, that also has to do with science.

THE SCIENCE OF NUTRITION

First is the science of nutrition. More and more research supports the view that switching to plant-based and other alternative foods protects our health, especially when those foods are less processed, such as eating whole fruits, instead of sweets made from processed sweeteners.

Also, a growing body of research reports that animal fats, more than processed sugars, are our crucial opponent in the War on Diabetes.

READ: Want to fight the sugar problem? Start counting calories, a commentary

FILE PHOTO: Journalists taste test the plant-based hamburgers during a media tour of Impossible Foo

Journalists taste test the plant-based hamburgers during a media tour of Impossible Foods labs and processing plant in Redwood City, California, US October 6, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach/File Photo)

Second, environmental scientists argue that moving away from meat is one of the best things we can do if we want to get serious about fighting the climate crisis.

Geography researchers predict the world’s human population will grow beyond 9 billion. As a result, new technology will be needed to produce food of the quantity and quality (read: taste) that all these people will want to eat.

READ: Add more plants, and less meat to your meals. Here’s why, a commentary

Third, scientists who study the thoughts and emotions of the approximately 1 trillion animals (including marine animals) whom humans eat annually are finding more and more evidence that these fellow earthlings do engage in consciousness.

In 2012, a group of noted scientists came together to issue the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness which states in part:

Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. 

Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.

In conclusion, when we think of vegetarian food, instead of picturing it as unscientific and anti-modern, we should see moving away from meat as the modern, science-based prescription required to protect human health, to address the climate crisis and to show the deserved respect to our fellow animals.

Dr George Jacobs is president at Centre for a Responsible Future. A version of this commentary first appeared on Alliance for a Responsible Future blog. Read it here.