The Un-Retirement of an Amateur Activist

I'm a vegetarian. And a lot of vegetarians have called me a "strict vegetarian."

Yeah, I guess I am strict, if not eating gelatin because it is made of boiled skin and tendons, and not eating cheeses made with animal rennet because it comes from enzymes from the inner lining of a slaughtered calf's stomach is really stringent.

But 11 years ago I became even stricter. I learned a little about the flavor industry and found out that ingredients listed as "flavors" are often considered a product's secret recipe, and thus what's in them doesn't have to be labeled unless the contents are common allergens. To complicate matters further, "artificial flavors" aren't always totally artificial and can have natural components, which can make them non-vegetarian. My world was rocked. Up was down. Left was right. A certain fast food chain's fries, the only thing I ate there, had beef extract in their flavors. I guess I should have known anything was possible if beaver butt juice could make food taste like vanilla.

I started to call companies and the information just got worse for me. A leading soup manufacturer only had two vegetarian soups. Customer service reps from a couple of the biggest processed food manufacturers in the country told me they couldn't even tell me what was in their flavors because the products were reformulated so often.

Not one jar of my go-to spaghetti sauce brand was vegetarian, despite not listing meat in the ingredients. Not a single one of their spaghetti sauces? I considered myself a cook in the early years of the new millennium because I could boil spaghetti and pour a jar of this company's sauce on it. It was what I lived on in college.

This was life-altering news for me at the time and something that affected all sorts of people: those with rarer allergies, vegetarians, vegans, those who give up certain foods for religious holidays and those who couldn't eat certain meats at all due to their religion.

I longed for a labeling system like in India, where a green circle on the package meant it was vegetarian. But then I went to India and saw a shopkeeper putting his own circular green stickers on the very soups and spaghetti sauces he had imported that I knew to be non-vegetarian.

Back home, I was determined to draw attention to the issue and get things to change. I emailed the food companies, journalists, the FDA, senators and representatives. My emails went all the way to the top: Oprah, or at least her production house. I finally thought I was making headway when my alma mater's newspaper made it a front-page story. I was certain things were going to be different, that somehow the information would go viral, (in the days before "viral" could have positive connotations and wasn't just something to avoid at all costs on a college campus). But things didn't change.

So I had to change.

I drastically altered my diet. I stopped eating what little fast food I did eat at the time. I started to cook more than just spaghetti. And soon the only foods I consumed with flavors in their ingredients were ones that were confirmed vegetarian by emails from the companies, themselves, or a vegetarian label on the packaging (I'm, of course, assuming they're labeled by someone with more knowledge of the ingredients than the shopkeeper with the green stickers in India.)

A decade has passed since I last tried in vain to make a difference. I'm now in my 30s. I have two kids and a dog to take care of, worry about and focus on. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest weren't even around when I started working on this issue. I couldn't pose with a selfie and a hand-written sign asking for a million "likes" to get the food industry to change its labeling practice. I probably wouldn't have been able to figure out how to duckface my way into likes-for-change anyway. It took me a week to figure out how to start my blog; I'm practically an Instagrandma in today's tech-savvy world.

Times have changed but unfortunately, labeling practices haven't. But it didn't matter. I had given up. This post, written months ago, was originally titled "The Retirement of an Amateur Activist." I thought I was too exhausted and neurotic, worrying about VOCs and PFOAs and all sorts of other acronyms that meant nothing to me pre-parenthood to be able to handle the stress of another issue. But I was wrong. Just this week, Food Babe took up the cause and someone started a petition, and it already has over 10,000 signatures.

Obviously, social media makes everything public way faster. So instead of being overwhelmed by it, I need to start using it for more than posting status updates, sending fleeting snaps of my kids crying, and reading Real Housewives' articles. Eleven years later, I can now go back to being an amateur activist while feeding my kids, tweeting in seconds, while running defense so my dog doesn't lick my toddler's plate clean. So it's time to celebrate. It turns out I can have my (natural-and-artificial-flavors-free) cake and eat it too. I just hope my duckface doesn't scare the kids.

Author of The Booger Fairy, The Chosen One and several Indian language books for kids, Supriya works as a screenwriter for the Indian production house, Vinod Chopra Films, and blogs about green living and green parenting at

Follow Supriya Kelkar on