With the BBC recently reporting that around 3 per cent of the UK population identifies as vegan – a figure that has tripled in as many years – veganism looks to be a lifestyle that is here to stay. Chain restaurants, food retailers and supermarkets have leapt on the vegan bandwagon, creating new menus and releasing new and improved “Free From” and “plant-based” alternatives to meat, eggs and dairy, to cater to growing consumer demand for animal-free products.
Critics of veganism claim it is a health fad adopted by the young and trendy, yet increasing evidence about the health-related and environmental benefits of plant-based lifestyles makes it harder to argue this claim. True, veganism may appear to be favoured by the likes of the rich and famous – from Ellie Goulding to Brad Pitt – but it is being adopted by an increasing number of people for a wide variety of reasons. All the while people try to shoehorn veganism into this or that stereotype, more and more unexpected heroes come along and prove us all wrong.
At this point, it is probably worth mentioning that I myself am vegan. Having made the change just over a year ago (though not through taking part in Veganuary), I have been overwhelmed by the vast growth in awareness, understanding and tolerance towards plant-based diets. Yet the breakneck speed at which brands have responded to the growing demand for vegan products does make me wonder. Undoubtedly, for any restaurant chain or supermarket, catering to customer choices is a logical move – but are these changes here to stay? And with growing numbers of people choosing to go plant-based, will this increase resentment from those who oppose veganism?
Unlike the number of people who will inevitably return to drinking alcohol after a “dry January”, veganism is set to last beyond the month
For those who are not aware, Veganuary is a campaign that began in the UK in 2014, founded by husband and wife Jane and Matthew Land. The initiative involves taking a pledge not to eat any animal products for the entire month of January, and while there is no requirement to stay vegan after the challenge, the assumption is that many will be swayed, or will at least reduce their consumption of animal products. Veganuary has quickly spread on a global level, and the Veganuary website will soon be translated into all major worldwide languages. This year, a record number of over 100 000 people took the pledge.
Going vegan in the New Year might be part of your new year’s resolutions, motivated by the abundance of health benefits and possibility of weight loss. Yet unlike the mountain of optimistically-purchased gym memberships that will be tossed aside come 1 February, or the number of people who will inevitably return to drinking alcohol after a “dry January”, veganism is set to last beyond the month. In a survey by the Vegan Society last year, over two thirds of those who took part in Veganuary 2017 intended to stay vegan, while the majority of those remaining aimed to at least reduce consumption of animal products.
I decided to speak to some members of the University of York’s VegSoc, who are currently taking part in the challenge. Elsa Robinson, a third-year History student, is trying Veganuary this year, having been a vegetarian for three years. I asked her, what were the main reasons behind her decision to take part?
“Veganism has been a goal for me for a long time, but I was putting it off while at university as I figured I was already stressed enough with everything going on, and I didn’t need the additional bother of worrying too much about my diet! But over the Christmas period I came to the realisation that I would probably always be finding excuses, and that if I really did believe in animal rights and fighting climate change, I might as well start trying to make a positive difference now.”
I was curious to know what had been the hardest aspect about taking part in Veganuary. “Social situations can sometimes be challenging, for instance not being able to have a takeaway pizza with friends anymore, or having to remind myself that coffee shops won’t necessarily have vegan options, although most places are quite good now. Other than that, I find meal planning slightly harder than before, perhaps due to the fact that I can’t just put cheese on everything anymore!”
Indeed, for many people, cheese certainly seems to be a big obstacle. Along with chocolate, bacon, and cake, it seems to be generally conceived as one of the hardest foods to give up. But with vegan alternatives springing up everywhere, traditional products might see declining popularity. In a recent report by Rabobank, the world’s leading financial services provider for the food and agribusiness sector, the vegan protein market was “estimated to reach $16.3bn within the next decade.” The report also found that the growth of veganism has stimulated “increases in other market areas, including a $1.15bn value for vegan eggs, $2.5bn estimate for vegan ice cream, and an impressive $28bn for vegan milk in the next four years.”
Increased exposure and choices in supermarkets means people are encouraged to make vegan choices
When I asked Elsa whether she plans to stay vegan, she responded, “I hope so!” adding, “I think that veganism is an incredibly important movement. I know that it tends to have a negative reputation, especially online, but in the real world veganism can be a huge force for good. So much is coming to light about the role of animal agriculture in climate change, deforestation and species extinction, as well as the health advantages of going vegan. I predict that many more people will turn to veganism very soon.”
I also spoke to Izzy Moore, another member of VegSoc (and of course, our lovely Muse Deputy Editor!) She told me she had not taken part in Veganuary, but had gone vegan in the summer, when she was “mainly inspired by people discussing it over social media and watching documentaries.” Referring to Kip Andersen’s Cowspiracy (2014), which under-lines the far-reaching environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture, and What the Health (2017), which details the meat and dairy industry’s influence on government health guidelines, Izzy tells me these “probably accelerated the transition the most”. As is the case for many people, there are multiple reasons for which she has made the change, falling into the umbrella categories of health, animals and the environment. “I believe veganism is an achievable way to produce significant change for the planet, animals and yourself. [Since going vegan] I feel like an active participant rather than a bystander to these injustices. Even if it involves being slightly awkward ordering at restaurants.”
Indeed, although the world is changing rapidly and awareness towards veganism increasing, there is a long way to go before being vegan is a total piece of cake. “I’ve been in the position before where I’ve had to tell friends that I can’t go to a certain restaurant because they don’t have any options. It’s not the worst problem in the world, but it contributes to the notion that veganism is difficult and restrictive, and I suspect puts people off the whole concept of it.”
I ask her whether she thinks that veganism, for all its rapid popularity, could be seen as something of a trend. She cannot help but partly agree. “But, I think the fact that being vegan is a bit of a trend at the moment is only a positive thing. Increased exposure and choices in supermarkets and restaurants means people are encouraged to make vegan choices and hopefully they’ll be motivated too by the benefits for animals and the planet, but if they don’t and they simply fancy a falafel burger – well that’s fine too”.
In an effort to understand veganism from a business standpoint and find out more about consumer attitudes, I speak to Magdalena Chavez, manager of El Piano, a fully-vegan restaurant in York whose menu is also free from nuts, gluten, refined sugar and palm oil. Since opening their doors 21 years ago, they have won countless awards such as the York Café of the Year award, as well as being finalists for several national awards including the Free From award and Best Family Restaurant. Evidently, El Piano is something of a jewel in the crown of York’s plant-based food scene.
I ask Magdalena what being vegan means to her. She is keen to differentiate between the terms “plant-based” and “vegan”, stating, “I prefer to say ‘I eat a plant-based diet’, which gives the listener information about me rather than ‘I am vegan’, which is a statement of identity and, by definition, excludes the identities of those who are not. I’m an older person, so I’ve recognised over the years that when people figuratively jump up and down and say ‘I’m a feminist’ or ‘I’m a Labour Party supporter’, or whatever, what that’s also saying is, ‘If you’re not, then we’re separated’.”
This question of inclusivity, of connectedness, is clearly central to El Piano’s ethos. It is reflected in the choice to not use refined sugar, gluten, nuts and palm oil in any of their food, in order to meet the needs of an array of dietary requirements. Magdalena says, “There’s a social – and maybe even spiritual – interaction when you break bread with people, and if everybody can eat everything on the table, how nice is that? The exception to that might be the palm oil, which has come out of an awareness of the environmental damage that the palm oil harvesting does. That one’s a bit of a stand-alone, it’s really about ‘hmm, let’s just get rid of that’. And that was exciting because that has meant that we don’t use any solid fats. And to make cakes and pastries without using solid fats has been an interesting challenge – but we’ve managed it!”
But what, I am keen to know, are the implications on her business? Surely, when the restaurant opened 21 years ago and there was far less awareness about veganism, there was less of a demand for this type of food?
Magdalena admits, “In the beginning I was the business. What was important to me had to be reflected in a business I was operating. The case for opening a vegan business twenty years ago was zilch, commercial suicide. The word vegan [at that time] was as likely to be associated with Star Trek as with the kitchen. But a family business can ride the storms.” And ride the storms it has done, rising up as a leading local business while staying true to its founding ethical and sustainable ethos.
I ask her if she thinks that veganism, at the moment, can be seen as a faddy lifestyle choice. She is hesitant, agreeing that, “at the moment, it is a trend. Some of those who have chosen it today will not be choosing it tomorrow. The wider point is that a plant-based diet will increasingly become attractive because environmental considerations will require it, thus it will be more economical to eat less animal products. Ultimately it will not be just a trend, but very likely a necessity.”
But surely, as an all-vegan restaurant, they have received negative comments from people? “This is just a joke really, but sometimes people come in and say things like (groans) “Oh, are you vegan” or, “God I never eat any vegan food” (laughs)… And the thought in my head is, “Hmm… so you’ve never eaten an apple?” If we’re talking about just getting rid of animal products, which are more generally costly, scores of people have had diets of vegan food without necessarily calling it that. So I wonder if this label of “vegan” is suggesting to people that there’s something weird, wonderful, strange and inaccessible about this diet – when actually, for the vast majority of us, a very high percentage of our diet is vegan anyway.”
And if it is not, perhaps it should be. The health benefits of eating more plant-based food are undeniable, with documentaries such as What the Health and Forks over Knives highlighting the dangers of the typical “American Diet” (which has arguably migrated over to the UK). Even the NHS guidelines about vegan diets are largely positive, with their website stating that, “With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that Magdalena’s own personal ethos is one of straightforwardness and simplicity, which surprisingly, is reflected in the restaurant’s menu. With enticingly named dishes such as “Mayan Medley”, “Sea cakes” and “Mathematical Chips”, it is hard to believe Magdalena when she tells me that, “almost everything we make uses fewer than six ingredients and fewer than four steps – so it’s actually all incredibly quick to make, very simple.”
A plant-based diet will become attractive as environmental considerations require it
The team at El Piano have recently released a vegan cookbook, 21 Years Free… (from animal products, gluten, palm oil, nuts and refined sugar), featuring a selection of the restaurant’s tried and tested favourite recipes. She is keen to talk about it more, beaming, “Gosh… It’s sold like you can’t believe! We’re astonished. It’s sold all over the world. For a small publisher to be selling more than a thousand copies in a few weeks, is just unheard of. It’s a hardback book, which we’ve not done before – we’ve done quite a few paperback books, but this has more than twice as many pages as our previous books.”
But, I ask, surely there are some recipes that the restaurant wish to keep secret? “No, no… bollocks to that. We have told people [our recipes] right from the get-go… you know, we’re not born knowing how to make vegan mayonnaise. If we wished the world well, we would pass that on – would we not?”
It comes back to the same ethos that seems to mark out everything about El Piano – one centred on sharing, caring and harmony. Yet I cannot help but think that El Piano are the exception, not the rule – that many businesses are latching onto the popularity of plant-based food for purely commercial gain, rather than a genuine interest in stimulating change. Indeed, expensive free-from products might market it as a “luxury” lifestyle, pricing out potential consumers, while those which use palm oil or are covered in plastic packaging detract from the movement’s environmental benefits.
Nonetheless, it is evident that Veganuary is part of a huge conversation, which encompasses too many valid arguments to be dismissed as just a trend. Even though going fully vegan is clearly not for everyone, many people are becoming aware of the health benefits of eating this way, choosing to be flexitarian or reduce their consumption of meat, dairy and eggs. Similarly, the movement has increased awareness of the environmental implications of our eating habits, and those who go vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian are naturally likely to think about reducing their carbon foot-print in other ways.
Ultimately, it seems inevitable that the world will be forced to shift towards a more plant-based outlook in the coming years, if we have any hope of producing food in a more sustainable way. As for the numerous studies linking vegan and vegetarian diets to longer lives – in spite of anyone’s pained cries of “but what about bacon?” – it seems that by saving theirs, we might just be saving our own. M