We hope you didn’t eat in the past hour — some of these foods and the ways in which they end up on your plate are hard to stomach. This list breaks down the top 10 foods that have stirred up the most controversy, whether it’s due to sustainability issues, animal welfare concerns, ethical dilemmas, or sheer grossness. You may find yourself reconsidering your own food choices by the time you finish reading.
1. Foie Gras
This pricey delicacy is the king of culinary contention, dividing consumers and restaurant industry professionals alike over whether the animal welfare issues surrounding it can be justified. Foie gras, a fancy term for cooked duck or goose liver, is produced by force-feeding the animals until their livers enlarge to about 600 percent their natural size.
Animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Legal Defense Fund condemn the practice because they believe it qualifies as cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. And not many would argue that shoving a gavage, or metal tube, down an animal’s mouth and stuffing it with food three times a day for 25 days sounds humane. However, a Serious Eats piece investigated the issue by exploring La Bella Farms, the second largest of the three largest foie gras farms in the United States, and found that the issue is often shrouded in misconceptions.
Before you start harassing me with comments, take a few minutes to read the article, which we found to be admirably objective. The ducks are actually provided with an expansive amount of space within a barn — though, the author noted, it could have used more natural light. They’re completely unconscious when slaughtered, and mishandling of the animals damages the liver, thus reducing the price they can sell for, so the farm has a good incentive to take care of the birds.
While we can’t imagine being force-fed through a metal tube stuck down our throats, you have to remember that these animals also are not humans; they’re built differently. Moulards, the ducks used at La Bella Farms, don’t have gag reflexes, and their bodies are built for storing excessive amounts of food — though not this much — to prepare for migration. While it still can’t be comfortable, it may not be quite as horrific as some make it out to be. And the article also pointed out that the farm isn’t wasteful; they use and sell all parts of the duck, except the head and feet.
However, not everyone believes these reasons justify the treatment ducks and geese receive. On July 1, a piece of legislation known as SB 1520 went into effect, and foie gras was banned in the state of California.
Baby cows may be cute, but plenty of carnivorous people would also agree that they taste delicious. Most of the debate surrounding veal has nothing to do with the cow’s age at the time of slaughter, though. Instead, the problem for many people lies in the way the animals are raised.
According to an eye-opening story by The New York Times, veal sales dropped drastically in the 1980s after photos were released showing veal calves tied to crates so small they they could barely move. The impact of society’s reaction to these photos was so extreme that the average American’s yearly veal consumption plummeted from 4 pounds in the 1950s and 1960s to about half a pound in 2007.
Today, the American Veal Association has set a plan to eliminate the use of crates by 2017. They’re already banned in Arizona, Colorado, California, Maine, and Michigan; and the European Union put an end to the use of crates back in 2007.
If you enjoy veal but don’t want to support inhumane treatment of livestock, you can find veal that’s "certified humane" by Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization that certifies the humane treatment of animals raised by meat, poultry, egg, and dairy producers. For certification, producers must adhere to strict guidelines, such as raising calves without confinement, in small groups, tether-free, and on a wholesome diet that satisfies basic nutritional needs, including iron and fiber, which are often excluded in the feed used by other producers.
Popular veal packer Strauss Brands is one company that adheres to more humane animal welfare standards; on Dec. 31, 2008, it became the first U.S. veal packer to raise all veal calves in groups and without tethers.
3. Unsustainable Seafood
Sometimes it’s not the treatment of animals that causes controversy but the environmental effects prompted by hunting or fishing them. This is the case with unsustainable seafood, which the Monterey Bay Aquarium describes as seafood that is "caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment."
On its list of seafood to avoid — to name just a few — are Chilean sea bass, Atlantic cod, king crab, octopus, Atlantic salmon, sharks and skates, and yellowfin and Bluefin tuna (among other kinds). According to Monterey Bay, Chilean sea bass populations have been depleted in some areas because of unreported and unregulated fishing. Plus, the way in which they’re caught often accidentally kills thousands of seabirds each year, including the endangered albatross. Spicy octopus might be your favorite sushi roll, but Monterey Bay says it should be avoided because of heavy fishing pressure, habitat damage caused by the fishing gear, and a lack of fishery management.
Sometimes these animals are only marked as unsustainable in certain areas where they’re being overfished, so it’s important to be aware of what to avoid and where to avoid it. For more information, check out this easy-to-read pocket guide of what to avoid in your area or nationally. Monterey Bay also has an incredible app for your smartphone. Check out our review here.
Yup, you read that right. Placentophagy is the practice of saving your own afterbirth and consuming it. It’s often eaten dried like jerky or in the form of supplements. See what we meant about some of these being "hard to stomach?"
A placenta usually weighs about 1 to 1.5 pounds, and while American hospitals usually dispose of it, traditional Chinese medicine has encouraged eating it for centuries. And now it’s catching on in the United States as well.
So why would anyone ever do this? Because some people — by "people" we do not mean scientists — swear that it does everything from improve lactation problems to alleviate postpartum depression. Fanatics of the trend point to the fact that most mammals chow down on their own afterbirth to explain that there must be some good reason to do so.
Mark Kristal, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Buffalo, is the country’s leading authority on placentophagia. Here’s what he had to say in a New York Magazine piece: "Every 10 or 20 years people say, 'We should do this because it’s natural and animals do it.' But it’s not based on science. It’s a fad." Kristal also stated in a USA Today article that withholding the placenta from an animal mother after birth hasn’t led her to withdraw from her offspring or become depressed; he said this would suggest that animals don’t consume it to alleviate or prevent postpartum depression.
It is possible that there’s some sort of placebo effect happening, so some proponents of the practice say it’s worth it even if the effects are only psychological. But is it, really? We’re fighting a gag just thinking about it.