Mention the word vegan these days and you instantly find yourself in a battleground: evangelical devotees extolling its virtues one side; eye rolls, tuts and ugh’s, the other. “Vegans are so boring!” “I don’t understand why they choose to eat cardboard!” “You can’t be healthy living as a vegan, isn’t it nutritionally-deficient?”
There’s no doubt that it's a contentious subject, but however divisive it is, you may also be surprised to learn that veganism – the basis of which is plant-based eating – is tipped to be one of the biggest trends in food in the next few years. Rather than it being just a flash-in-the-pan fad that will die a death along with rainbow bagels and cloud eggs, it’s actually something that the food industry is starting to take very seriously. And, dear reader, I am too.
A few weeks ago I was invited on a trend hunting trip to New York with the innovation team at M&S Food – a lucky bunch of people who, basically, get paid to eat. Each year they cross the pond and spend a few days literally “consuming the city”, pounding sidewalks, scouring markets, food halls and eateries in search of the next big things. Some of it will be brought back and introduced onto the shelves here in a few months time.
New York is one of their favourite hunting grounds. The city is still the top of its game; a diverse hotpotch of influences that drives innovation, experimentation and a constantly-shifting food scene. As a result its residents are staggeringly-conversant in the latest ingredients and flavour combinations. Compared to their less-adventurous UK cousins, nothing phases them.
Right now vegan food is big news. You see it everywhere, in all permutations (Korean vegan anyone?), from street-food stalls to hip “vegan junk food” joints such as By Chloe which has Manhattan hipsters queuing round the block for their tempeh, lentil and walnut burgers and my favourite, a deliciously-moreish mac and cheese with sweet-potato and cashew nuts.
Perhaps the biggest misconception is not making the distinction between vegan food and veganism and lumping the two together
What is interesting is how commonplace it is over there. It’s so integrated into the way people eat that it doesn’t come with any big fanfare or labels.
This is all light years ahead of the UK, where it still comes with pre-judgements and misconceptions. There is a belief that anything vegan tastes terrible, it doesn’t. Also that it’s plain – it isn’t. Look closely at the dishes and you start to realise the lengths chefs go just to find the right flavour and texture combinations to create something like that cashew nut cheese.
Many people also think that it is the healthiest option – it isn’t. While there is evidence that eating less red meat is better for us, vegan food isn’t always the lightest dish on the menu. Also, when calorie restriction comes into play vegan food becomes problematic. I will stress, there’s a definite arms-length to be had over any of the movement’s bolder health claims. If we’ve learnt anything from the clean eating backlash it is to take any big claim about any “wonder ingredient” or “clean lifestyle” with an equally-big pinch of (sodium-free) salt.
Perhaps the biggest misconception, however, is not making the distinction between vegan food and veganism and lumping the two together. In New York, vegan food is treated more like a cuisine. People will choose a vegan dish over a non-vegan one on a menu simply because they like the taste. They will go out for a vegan like they would go out for a pizza. But they don’t necessarily all follow a vegan lifestyle and philosophy (eliminating all animal products from their lives).
Many eat meat and dairy, they just choose to eat less of it, and increasingly for environmental reasons. And here is where the evidence stacks up in vegan and plant-based food’s favour. Meat and dairy production is one of the biggest contributors to global warming (more than transportation) and accounts for 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Looking closely at the stats, the case for protein alternatives becomes more urgent. It’s why science is getting in on the act, with food tech rapidly losing its Frankenstein rep'. Perhaps the famous example of this is the much-hyped “Impossible Burger", a 100 percent plant-based burger which not only tastes great and has texture of beef, it literally “bleeds”, like beef – all thanks to an ingredient called “heme", a molecule found in the lab that gives blood its red colour which is also found in plants. Eco-entrepreneur Bill Gates is one the main backers.
There are signs that the tide may be starting to turn here although there’s some way to go. By Chloe is opening in London in the next few weeks and M&S report that customer demand is significantly up, with1 in 5 M&S customers cooking for flexitarian/vegetarian options. They have recently launched a range of vegan and veggie food for Christmas, and plan to expand the range in the new year.
It will take a while for vegan food to shed its fusty image entirely, but there’s a place for it, and we all need to start by becoming more open-minded. Live your life meat and dairy-free If you want. If, like me, you decide you want to eat a little less of them, that’s fine too. It’s about balance, not taking sides. Let’s cut everyone some slack, because like it not, vegan food is here to stay.