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Dairy-Free Decadence

Vegan doesn't have to be boring.

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In a small kitchen in West Oakland, a batch of freshly glazed doughnuts cools on a baking rack. The rows of ring-shaped pastries glisten under coats of chocolate, cinnamon, and blueberry. It's a tantalizing scene for any junk food lover, but there's something missing from these doughnuts — and it's not just their centers.

The cake-style doughnuts made by Pepple's Donuts lack some of the quintessential ingredients of the traditional fried dessert. They're largely organic and totally vegan, meaning they're made without butter, egg, milk, or lard. While the term "vegan" may conjure images of a sparse diet of nuts and berries, Pepple's doughnuts are part of a growing number of non-dairy options that dispel that minimalist image.

"Vegans want junk food, but so much junk food isn't vegan — and the stuff that is, is just — junk," said owner Josh Levine. "I wouldn't even say that my doughnuts are junk food, because there's nothing junky inside them."

Pepple's is a small but sizeable operation: The deliver about 500 doughnuts a day to coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores throughout the East Bay and San Francisco. They cost more than conventional coffee shop doughnuts — ranging from $1.75 to more than $2 each — but then, these aren't your conventional doughnuts.

Levine's vegan concoctions are in fact healthier than the treats found in many bakeries and stores, which are riddled with preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. He uses organic ingredients when he can — including fresh fruit from local grocers like Monterey Market and Berkeley Bowl — and estimates that the finished product is about 90 percent organic. Additionally, the doughnuts are sweetened with evaporated cane juice, which his girlfriend, pastry chef Rebecca Stevens, says gives people less of a sugar spike than cane sugar. While they make the usual flavors, like chocolate and maple glazed, they also make unusual flavors like lemon poppy seed, coconut, blueberry, and even one with cookie crumbles.

Still, the pastries are comprised of pretty much what one would expect from a dough mixture destined for the fryer. The flour is unbleached, the salt is kosher, and the oil is organic — and it's all held together by soy lecithin, a binding alternative to eggs.

If there's any question about the healthiness of these ingredients, the answer might be found in the sizzling sound of frying oil. "They're vegan, yes," said one of the company's two bakers — aptly named George Baker — but he has no illusions. "It's still fried dough. I mean, how good can that be for you?"

Pepple's fries their doughnuts in palm oil, an animal- and cholesterol-free alternative to the pork-rendered lard once prevalent in doughnuts. You might be more hard-pressed to find a lard-laden doughnut today, as many bakeries (including chains like Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Donuts) now use vegetable oils in their fryers. But even the healthier alternatives may contain the trans fats that result from hydrogenation, and which have been linked by the FDA to increased risks of high cholesterol and coronary heart disease.

Levine doesn't deny that his doughnuts, despite being vegan, are still high in fat and sugar: "If it's junk food, it's the fanciest junk food you can get," he said. And there's no rule that a vegan pastry should be healthier than any animal-filled dessert.

That's just fine with Mike Thorn, an Oakland resident and nineteen-year vegan, who eats a Pepple's doughnut with his coffee every Sunday from Rockridge's Cole Coffee. He went vegetarian at fifteen for animal rights and environmental reasons and cut out dairy shortly after.

Any health benefits of veganism — like a lower overall intake of saturated fats and cholesterol — were largely incidental to Thorn's dietary decision. While he does eat a lot of vegetables, he still craves junk food. And after going nearly two decades without a doughnut, Thorn said he has no qualms about indulging in the fried food when he has the option.

"It's a damn doughnut," he said. "Deep-fry that shit and cover it in sugar. It's not supposed to be good for you — it's supposed to taste good."

Thorn isn't the only vegan whose animal-free diet choice hinges on more than his health. Dustin Hall, drummer for the now-defunct Bay Area band Gather (a politically charged straightedge hardcore band with all vegan members), said his choice to go vegan stemmed from a staunch opposition to animal abuse.

Hall said the absence of cholesterol and animal fats in vegan junk foods give them an instant advantage over their dairy-filled brethren, but that's where it ends. "The biggest killer in all junk food is sugar," he said. "Vegan snacks tend to have just as much sugar, which is why it's still appropriately considered junk food."

To be sure, a vegan diet does not guarantee an exclusively healthy or balanced diet. Many vegans still salivate over the foods that are but a memory on the tip of their taste buds.

"We all grew up on the typical, horrible American diet," Hall said. "So, now that we're vegan, we're still not opposed to the flavor of a hot dog — or pizza, or ice cream, or candy bars. We're opposed to the ingredients, not the flavor."

Taking advantage of this demand, some local restaurants are incorporating vegan options — and in some cases becoming strictly vegan. Pizza Plaza in Oakland started off as a typical meat-and-cheese operation, until, in 2006, Hall's vegan friend Aaron Zellhoefer asked the owner if he would make his pizza without cheese. He did.

Zellhoefer and the shop's owner, Armin Ahmed, who was a vegetarian at the time, started an in-depth discussion about veganism. "I didn't realize it in the beginning," Ahmed said, "but I found out there are a huge number of vegans in the East Bay."

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