The ideas of veganism and plant-based diets are at the forefront of what we eat like never before. We’ve become more aware about our health and the environment, and about how an increased demand in meat is affecting them both. With this in mind, would the introduction of a meat-free, plant-based diet be feasible, to improve both our health and that of the planet?
UnSUBURBIA has looked at the impact plant-based diets have had on society, and how they can improve our health as well as safeguard the environment.
Meat-free goes mainstream
Veganism is no longer a fringe movement. It’s at the centre of society and, if the growth over recent years is anything to go by, the plant-based diet charge shows no signs of slowing down.
In 2018, there were said to be 600,000 vegans in the UK – equating to 1.16 per cent of the population. Yet year-on-year, the figures are growing at a rapid pace – there has been a 400 per cent increase in the number of vegans in the UK since 2014, when there was just 150,000 people practicing the diet. According to reports in November 2018, almost half (42 per cent) of vegans in the UK had made the dietary change over the previous 12 months, highlighting how veganism is an exponentially growing trend.
The annual ‘Veganuary’ initiative – encouraging people to live a vegan lifestyle throughout January – recorded its highest participation rate in 2019, with 250,000 people worldwide trying the challenge, making it the most successful campaign to date. Veganuary’s organisers believe that 60 per cent of those who go meat and dairy-free for the month intend to permanently stick to a vegan diet.
Tim Barford, manager of Europe’s largest vegan events company, VegfestUK, points to the deeper roots of this recent explosion of interest: “There is a big plant-based shift culturally…a systemic change in the way that we’re approaching food and the way that we feed ourselves.”
And this movement is supported further by the polemical documentaries, cookbooks and YouTube channels advocating a plant-based lifestyle. It’s in the mainstream and doesn’t look set to leave anytime soon.
Veganism hits the high street
Alongside this burgeoning vegan market is another movement aimed at introducing more plant-based alternatives – flexitarianism. Although this diet allows for the occasional intake of meat and dairy, it highlights the want to reduce the amount we are eating and looks more towards adopting a plant-based diet.
The change in dietary trends has led to the high street adapting its offering too, making it more accessible for those choosing a plant-based diet. Eateries such as Pret a Manger and Wagamama now offer vegan menus, as do more mainstream chains such as Zizzi and Pizza Express. Supermarkets too are joining the movement, with Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer introducing and extending their plant-based ranges. Tesco has even hired a director of plant-based innovation to build on its vegan offering.
After a successful trial in Sweden and Finland, fast food giant McDonald’s is also getting involved with promoting a meat-free diet through the McVegan – a soy-based patty with a gluten-free bun. Although it isn’t available in the UK as of it, this burger is revolutionising convenience food for those practicing a plant-based diet overseas. Greggs too has got in on the act, with it’s very own vegan sausage roll – the launch of which coincided with the bakery chain’s “exceptionally strong start to 2019” in terms of sales figures.
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Iconic brewhouse Guinness too has adapted its recipe to cut out the use of fish stomachs in its brewing process – after two and a half centuries of production. To make such a change now highlights how this isn’t just a fad; it’s a whole new movement in the food and drink industry.
These aren’t your small hipster Shoreditch market stalls – although the ‘dirty vegan junk food’ idea may be a big plus for pro-plant diets. These are huge players in the UK’s consumer shopping industry.
Plant-based diets can save our planet – and our health
People predominately cite one or more of three key reasons for switching to a plant-based diet – health implications, climate change or animal welfare. And although the reasoning for the latter is relatively obvious, it’s the former two citations which have driven the most interest, and perhaps influence, in adopting veganism.
We’ve become more aware of how opting for a plant-based diet can actually help improve our health. There’s always been the presumptions that we need the likes of eggs, meat and milk for key nutrients, yet these can be sourced in more ethical ways to boost our wellbeing. Plus, these products contain saturated fat which you can avoid consuming through practising a vegan diet.
Not only that, plant-based diets are said to reduce our blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Research has also found that a ‘pro-vegetarian’ diet can help slash the chances of obesity by half too. It’s these health facts that are turning our heads away from meats and dairy. We’re becoming proactive when it comes to protecting our health, and a natural diet can be a contributing factor.
Yet it’s just not just our own health which a plant-based diet is said to protect. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations predicts that global meat production will have almost doubled by 2050 – an increase in meat means an increase in animals, which leads to an increase in the number of crops needs to feed the animals. This, in return, will contribute to global warming, widespread pollution, deforestation, land degradation, water scarcity and species extinction.
Created by 30 world-leading scientists, the “planetary health diet” seeks to create a blueprint that will allow for world’s fast-growing population to access nutritious food. But the diet also addresses the impact that farming is having on the environment – such as destroying wildlife, polluting rivers and oceans, and instigating climate change. This isn’t a fully vegan diet, it’s largely plant-based with allowances for small servings of fish, meat and dairy once a week.
However, the introduction of this diet would require monumental changes on a global scale. Red meat and sugar consumption would need to be cut by half, whilst eating fruit, nuts, vegetables and pulses would need to double. Scientists believe this form of diet would be a win-win; saving approximately 11 million lives a year through eating healthier, whilst preventing further adverse impacts on the planet. In short, the move towards a plant-based diet will keep us and the planet healthier.
With climate change, food shortages and an intensifying growth in population, Oxford academic Dr Marco Springmann discussed at length what a vegan planet would look like. He suggested that if we adopted a worldwide vegan diet by 2050, there would be a “healthcare cost savings of $1.1tn, environmental savings of $0.5tn, and a cut in greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds”.
The “fake meat” alternatives
With the rise of the plant-based diet comes the need to find new and innovative ways to serve up vegan offerings that will appeal to those who enjoy the taste and texture of meat.
One of the biggest players in this field is Impossible Foods – creator of the much-discussed Impossible™ Burger. The company used science at a molecular level to calculate how to create an alternative meat using plants and discovered that heme, a molecule that is an essential part of every living thing on our planet, was the answer. Impossible took a heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants (called soy leghemoglobin) and inserted the DNA into a genetically-engineered yeast.
Impossible Foods uses the phrase “no animals, no compromise”, and claim every Impossible™ Burger saves 75 square foot of land, half a tub of bathwater and 18 miles of car missions. Tastes good, saves the environment and contains no meat – it’s a piece of pioneering scientific discovery. So much so, Impossible Foods was one of the bigger winners at CES 2019 thanks to its commitment to innovation.
Supermarkets are taking note of the rise of ‘fake meats’ too. Sainsbury’s recently started selling fake meat next to the real thing, after a successful trial last year of its new range of plant-based burgers and mince.
A plant-based future
The research speaks for itself – adopting a plant-based diet can not only improve our health and reduce the risk of common illnesses and conditions, but also help safeguard the future of our planet. However, the challenges will arise when it comes to encouraging more people to practice a plant-based, vegetarian or even flexitarian diet. People who have lived a life of consuming meat and dairy may not be easily persuaded to make a change to a vegan diet.
But overcome this hurdle, and the once fringe movement will become the mainstay of society’s eating habits.