SIKESTON - While the rest of the world feasts on tacos, pepperoni pizzas and hot wings, there's a select group that marches to a different drumstick.
A meatless one.
Beefless hamburgers, chickenless chicken sandwiches, sausageless sausage. Vegetarianism has become a booming trend in the United States. And to meet the growing demand, foods to please the vegetarian palate can be found most anywhere, from restaurant menus to the grocer's freezers to cookbooks.
It's a far cry from when Missy Marshall first took the leap.
"Compared to over nine years ago when I became a vegetarian, it's unbelievable. With all the choices available out there now, it makes my life so easy. There's a market out there, obviously I'm not the only one in town buying these products."
Don't knock it, 'til you try it, she said.
"It's really good. I've fooled so many people by using soy crumbles in my homemade chili. They think it's beef, they really can't tell the difference," she quipped.
Vegetarians even have a choice in deciding how far they want to go with it, Marshall pointed out. The lacto-ovo vegetarian, like Marshall, doesn't eat meat, fish or fowl but does eat dairy and egg products. According to a poll sponsored in 2000 by the Vegetarian Resource Group, of the 968 adults ages 18 or over who were surveyed, 2.5 percent fell into this category.
An ovo vegetarian doesn't eat meat, fish, fowl or dairy products but does eat egg products.
Although a lacto-vegetarian eats dairy products, he stays clear of meat, fish, fowl and eggs.
Then there's the vegan who avoids all animal products. No meat, no fish, no fowl, no eggs, no dairy, no honey, etc. Most vegans also dodge using animal products such as silk, leather, wool, etc.
The Vegetarian Resource Group's poll showed that 2 percent of youths ages 6-17 never eat meat, fish or poultry and approximately 0.5 percent of American youth are vegans.
Finding out which category they're in is the first thing Ann Burns, a nutritionist at Women, Infants and Children, asks clients who come to her for answers concerning their vegetarian lifestyle.
"The American Dietetic Association takes the position that well-planned vegetarian diets offer nutrition and health benefits to adults in general," she said. "Planning a diet with one less food group can be challenging. When eliminating meat but continuing milk and eggs, protein needs can be met. If no animal products are eaten, a mixture of protein from whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts and vegetables can provide adequate amounts of all the amino acids."
Meeting all the nutrient needs will depend on the type of diet chosen, she said, noting that the problem arises for vegans. Vitamin B-12 occurs only in animal-derived foods and supplements are necessary to prevent deficiency.
"A vitamin B-12 deficiency can take a long time to develop in adults because up to four years' worth of the vitamin can be stored in the body," explained Burns. "But when the deficiency sets in, it does severe damage to the nervous system. A note of caution, in infants or children, deficiencies set in more rapidly because of less in storage and so threaten their nervous systems early."
Burns said concerns to all vegetarians are iron and zinc. Although legumes are an important source on iron, she said they are not as absorbable as in meat. To help increase the iron absorption, Vitamin C sources should be offered and will triple the iron absorbed.
"This is an area of current study," she said. "Vegetarians are advised to eat varied diets that include whole-grain breads well-leavened with yeast, which will improve availability."
Calcium is an important mineral and can be obtained by vegans from soy milk, calcium fortified foods, almonds, sesame seeds and legumes. The vegetarian is urged to use soy milk on a regular basis and it is especially important for children.
Infant formula based on soy is fortified with calcium and can be used in foods as well as beverages.
Burns said people who exclude all animal-derived foods (vegans) may have trouble obtaining enough food energy. This is especially true for children and pregnant or breast feeding women. She warned vegan diets can fail to provide food energy sufficient to support the growth of a child within a bulk of food small enough for a child to eat. Plant foods that are best suited to meeting energy needs in a small volume are cereals, legumes and nuts, which are foods that she said should be emphasized in a vegan child's diet and could help with the needed weight gain of pregnancy.
"Vegetarians can enjoy a nutritious diet if they follow basic guidelines and are willing to plan accordingly," Burns said.
"Some evidence shows that vegetarians may actually be healthier than meat eaters since they have eliminated many problem foods from their diets. The quality of the diet depends upon adequate nutrition intakes, balance and variety and appropriate energy intake."
There are any number of reasons people choose a vegetarian lifestyle. Some take that route because of economics, while others do it for ecological and religious reasons.
Some individuals are on restricted diets and choose vegetarian food to lower their cholesterol or keep their blood sugar under control.
Others are simply curious. Intrigued by the whole idea, even those who are meat eaters have been known to stroll through the frozen food aisle to see what kind of vegetarian cuisine is out there.
Some individuals simply dislike meat or are supporting their belief in non-violence.
Then there are those like Marshall who are doing it out of compassion for animals. "In the first place I am a bleeding heart when it comes to animals," she said. "Then one day when I was on the road I stopped and got a hamburger and got sick after eating it. You know how it is when you get sick after eating something, whether it was really that food or not, you will never eat it again. I started eating just chicken and a little bit of fish after that but then I tried not eating either and you know what? I really didn't miss any of it.
"What's interesting is Sikeston has more vegetarian food items on menus and in stores. It just thrills me," Marshall said. "I think vegetarianism is a bigger movement than people realize. Some people make fun of me about my way of eating but then there are those who say they admire my being a vegetarian and that really makes me feel good."