Is veganism the new normal?

Greggs’ quorn ‘sausage’ roll may have offended Piers Morgan, but for others it signalled a new era. The Vegan Society reports a fourfold increase in the number of UK vegans since 2014, from 150,000 to 600,000. 42% of those switched in 2018. In November, Waitrose analysed millions of its own customer transactions, and polled 2,000 adults who shop across a range of supermarkets. It found that about 60% of current vegans had converted in the last five years, with the 18-to-34 age group significantly more likely to switch.

Farming animals is CO2-intensive. Several influential reports have suggested avoiding meat and dairy as the biggest way to reduce your environmental impact. A huge study published by Science last year found that ending meat and dairy consumption would allow us to reduce global farmland use by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, the EU and Australia combined – while still feeding the world.

In 2017, 59,500 people joined the UK Vegan Society’s ‘Veganuary’ – where people eat vegan for the month. This more than doubled to 168,500 in 2018. A December survey for VoucherCode found 2,662,900 planning to take part in 2019.

In January 2019, Unilever announced plans to acquire Dutch company The Vegetarian Butcher, after working with them for two years. The purchase, for an undisclosed sum, comes as supermarkets scramble to tap into a burgeoning vegan market, and manufacturers vie to create the most convincing new meat substitute.

Tesco began stocking the UK’s first plant-based steak, made by Dutch manufacturer Vivera, in May. Gert Jan Gombert of Vivera says: “The smell, taste and bite can hardly be distinguished from real steak”. 40,000 had been sold within a week. Tesco’s own-brand Wicked Kitchen line of vegan meals, also launched in 2018, sold more than 2.5 million units in its first 20-week period.

Sainsbury began stocking Danish brand Naturli Foods’ burgers and mince alternatives in June after seeing sales of its meat-free products grow by 20% a week. Naturli say they do not taste like beef, but have an underlying “meatiness” thanks to the umami flavour of almonds, tomatoes and porcini mushrooms. Beetroot contributes the colour of raw, medium or well-done beef and adds a red “juice” to a ‘rare’ burger.

Both Vivera and Naturli are displayed next to real beef equivalents, a trend set by US fake-meat pioneers Beyond Meat. (Plans to introduce Beyond Meat’s products to the UK had to be put on hold after greater-than-anticipated US sales.) The aim is to appeal to the UK’s 22 million “flexitarians” – who enjoy meat but are cutting down for health or ethical reasons. Henrik Lund, CEO of Naturli says: “Many people want to eat plants instead of animals, but are afraid of compromising on flavour.” This way they can be won over meal by meal. A spokeswoman for the Vegan Society said of the new-style products: “Having vegan alternatives to animal products gives vegans yet another argument as to why there really is no excuse not to be vegan.”

Unilever already sells 700 vegan or vegetarian products via brands like Knorr, Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s. The food giant cites a strategy of moving into healthier foods with a lower environmental impact. Former cattle farmer Jaap Korteweg, who set up The Vegetarian Butcher in 2007 after converting to vegetarianism, sees a “big transition from animal to vegetable meat” and aims to “make plant-based meat the standard.” The acquisition potentially takes his products into 190 countries. Unilever’s Nitin Paranjpe says they are “better positioned to meet the needs of consumers”.

In May 2018, Waitrose was the first UK supermarket to install dedicated vegan sections. It’s current range features more than 40 vegan or vegetarian ready meals, many featuring jackfruit, a surprisingly connvincing alternative to pulled pork. Frozen-food specialist Iceland followed suit in September, after noticing its own-brand No Bull burger was outselling the Wagyu beef equivalent. Head chef Neil Nugent, observing “we’ve not advertised it, it’s all been social media” suggests “it’s not necessarily about vegans. It’s about people flexing the diet and just choosing meat-free options a bit more”.

Supermarkets are also starting to label their own-brand products with vegans in mind. While one in six new UK products launched last year carried a vegan claim, when animal protection organisation Animal Aid lauched its 2016 #MarkItVegan campaign, only Sainsbury’s and the Co-op were highlighting them consistently. Asda, Morrisons, Aldi, M&S and Iceland have since committed to using either the legend ‘suitable for vegans’ or an appropriate a logo, with only Lidl, very vegan friendly in other ways, lagging behind. Campaigners point out that clear labelling not only helps vegans but shows non-vegans how many delicious options they would still have if they made the switch.

Vegan eating out is booming. The Good Food Guide began highlighting restaurants with dedicated vegan menus last year, and in September, pub chain Marstons announced plans to start selling the B12, British company Moving Mountains’s version of the vegan ‘bleeding burger’,  in 413 gastro-pubs.

In 2016, the  New York Times reported the closure of Elmhurst Dairy in Queens, because – in the words of CEO Henry Schwartz – “milk has sort of gone out of style”. He now runs a start-up making plant-based alternatives. A report by BB Foodservice wholesalers showed 33% growth in the number of people buying plant ‘milks’ in the last three years, to one-in-three households, and noted a growing preference for coffee shops offering a range of non-dairy ‘milks’.

Waitrose’s executive chef, Jonathan Moore, says: “There was a time when choosing a plant-based diet was about taking an ethical stand based on unwavering principles. For many, this distinction between vegetarians and meat-eaters still exists but for others the lines have blurred.”

In late 2017 Tesco’s Mike Sarno said: “There is a lot of stuff coming – it’s super exciting. It’s unavoidable, it’s just going to happen – whether you’re in the way and get run over, or are part of the ride.”

“We’ve seen vegan food go mainstream” confirms Natalie Mitchell, Waitrose’s head of brand development. “Whether cooking at home, buying prepared food or trying the newly vegan-friendly restaurants, people are discovering that it tastes amazing.”

Download the new VeGuide vegan app at which is available in UK and US versions.

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