The rise in veganism in the past few years is huge, and if you asked for vegan food 10 or even 5 years ago, you’d be met with surprise or a sigh as ‘it’s complicated and different’. But being a vegan now does not mean you ‘eat lettuce and love life’ but rather it has grown into a lifestyle; one primarily driven by health, the environment or ethical factors. People haven’t suddenly become more radical in their views, but merely they are open to change and have a greater awareness of the meat industry. The range of alternatives on offer is also significantly larger and more appealing than it is has ever been before, meaning to become a flexitarian or vegan is now not an impossible task.
To follow a flexitarian lifestyle means to reduce – but not completely eliminate- your intake of animal products. Instead of the traditional meat and two veg, people are opting for more plant-based foods and occasionally having meat, maybe at the weekends. In the UK, a recent study by supermarket Sainsbury’s, revealed that 91% of Brits now identify as flexitarian. So, with this increasing demand, how has our food industry and culture changed?
Being vegan is not all about just tofu and broccoli anymore – there is an ever-growing range of vegan options from Beyond Meat, Quorn and Moving Mountains. Made from ingredients such as soy, pea or mycoprotein – they’re the closest to the real thing we’ve ever had; so much so that many consumers are unable to tell the difference between a real chicken nugget and a plant-based one. Innovation isn’t purely limited to burgers, Gregg’s vegan sausage roll became the chain’s best-selling new menu item, helping to push sales above £1bn.
Aside from innovation, another fundamental reason behind the growth of the vegan food market is rising consumer awareness of the health consequences of eating animal products, as well as the ethical and environmental impact of animal agriculture.
Vegan for health
The reliance on other foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and seeds means that you will have more amount of specific nutrients. Vegan diets tend to provide more fibre, antioxidants and beneficial plant compounds. However, not all vegan diets are created equally however as poorly planned vegan diets may provide insufficient amounts of essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron etc.
Yet as British Dietetic Association spokeswoman Linia Patel says, “it’s so faddy, and there are Instagram influencers who are becoming vegan. The key point is always individualisation and research – to know why you’re doing it and how to do it properly, rather than just jumping on a trend.”
Yet I don’t think the large visual presence of veganism on social media is necessarily a bad thing. The vegan community are incredibly active online, and this is likely because their dietary choices are driven by their fundamental beliefs, so they are keen to share their passion for veganism with the world. Instagram is the major platform for the vegan community due to its visual nature – if you want to spread a message, such as your personal reasons for being vegan, showing people is always going to be far more powerful than just telling them. It’s the go-to place for food inspiration, lots of vegan dishes look very appealing as they are colourful and well-balanced making the images very popular. I think a key part of what makes vegan content so stimulating is the growing community of social media influencers advocating the lifestyle as part of their brand, alongside the interest of people towards a different lifestyle, one that is more conscious of the world around them.
Vegan for the environment
The world’s biggest-ever food production analysis announced that following a vegan diet is “the single biggest way an individual can reduce their impact on the planet”. Lead researcher of Oxford university Joseph Poore also said “it is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car. Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems.”
The impact that animal products have on the environment doesn’t just effect greenhouse gas emissions, but it also uses excessive amounts of land, water, and contributes to global acidification and eutrophication. It isn’t just the food industry however, those in the clothing industry, such as leather, fur and wool, also have an impact. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, after the oil industry. One example is the production of cotton – cotton needs a LOT of water to grow. Up to 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton, and this generates immense pressure on this already scarce resource. It also has dramatic ecological consequences such as the desertification of the Aral Sea, where cotton production has entirely drained the water. After reading these facts, it is clear why some people decide to change their diet and lifestyle due to the environmental impacts.
3. Vegan for ethics
There are an increasing number of ‘ethical vegans’, those less concerned with the health consequences, who would still prefer chocolate cake over lentils, but instead are realising the impacts and brutality of the meat industry. The 2005 film ‘Earthlings’ contains harrowing, hidden-camera footage of animal suffering within the meat, dairy and egg industries; and these kinds of documentaries are enough to make anyone reconsider their choices. In 2018 it was revealed that the top reason people ditched meat, dairy and eggs for ‘Veganuary’ was due to animal welfare-related reasons. But perhaps the even more telling fact is in another study- half of all meat eaters would rather turn vegetarian than kill an animal themselves for dinner.
So why go vegan? The elevator pitch for the reasons to choose a vegan diet crams several compelling points into just a few seconds, it goes something like:
“A vegan lifestyle prevents a tremendous amount of animal slaughter and suffering. It offers a potent way to shrink our environmental footprint, especially in regard to climate change. And a well-planned vegan diet can fuel the highest levels of fitness, while reducing our risk of various chronic diseases. Plus, the food is insanely delicious, and it becomes more widely available every year.”
This short paragraph is nice, but many vegans would argue it doesn’t do their lifestyle justice, for many it is more about a greater social awareness and understanding of our changing world and how we can do our part to minimise our ecological impact and boost our health.
So, we can see there are at least three clear reasons why people decide to live a vegan lifestyle or follow a vegan diet, yet each person is able to make their own choices, whether you eat meat, are flexitarian or vegan. But having an awareness of the world and your impact is important, especially in an everchanging, ecologically fragile and varied world. Whether you choose to be vegan for the environment or you enjoy your steak nights – there is no one right answer.