You know when Mcdon­ald’s starts sell­ing Mcve­gan burg­ers in the US that some­thing is afoot. Sales of ve­gan food has soared 10 times faster in Amer­ica than food sales as a whole and the pat­tern is con­sis­tent across the West­ern world.

Here in Aus­tralia, ve­gan food lines are by far the fastest grow­ing su­per­mar­ket sec­tor with de­mand hit­ting dou­ble-digit growth last year alone.

The big two, Wool­worths and Coles, now of­fer meat al­ter­na­tives in their meat aisles.

Chain out­lets such as Hun­gry Jacks, Nando’s and Grill’d have all added plant-based burg­ers to their menus.

Global mar­ket re­searcher Euromon­i­tor has ranked Aus­tralia the third fastest grow­ing ve­gan mar­ket in the world.

Cer­tainly, so­cial me­dia trends in­di­cate ve­g­an­ism is on the rise, par­tic­u­larly among young women, but there are no of­fi­cial fig­ures.

A 2016 Roy Mor­gan poll found 2.1 mil­lion Aus­tralians, about 11 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, iden­ti­fied as veg­e­tar­ian but it’s un­clear how many are choos­ing to es­chew an­i­mal prod­ucts al­to­gether, in­clud­ing dairy, eggs and honey.

But it seems it’s not the rapid rise in ve­gan purists who’re driv­ing the cur­rent boom.

Mar­ket re­searchers are at­tribut­ing the growth to so-called “flex­i­tar­i­ans” – those who aren’t ve­gan, or even veg­e­tar­ian, but are opt­ing to eat that way more of­ten. Their mo­ti­va­tors, it seems, are over­whelm­ing health con­cerns and the en­vi­ron­ment.

Cer­tainly, in nutrition cir­cles, it’s strongly held that mainly plant-based di­ets are associated with lower risk of heart disease, can­cer, di­a­betes, choles­terol and de­men­tia.

Nutritioni­sts ev­ery­where are urg­ing us to eat more veg­eta­bles, but that’s not to say there are no ben­e­fits from eating meat. Apart from be­ing a good source of pro­tein, stud­ies have shown meat eaters have a bet­ter take-up of cer­tain nu­tri­ents in­clud­ing iron, vi­ta­mins B12 and D, cal­cium and zinc.

And that’s all many meat lovers need to hear to keep them reach­ing for their steaks.

But, it seems, Aus­tralians are eating way too much meat; in fact, more per head than al­most any other coun­try in the world, caus­ing its own slew of health and, it seems, en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences.

A Univer­sity of Ox­ford study sug­gested go­ing ve­gan can re­duce an in­di­vid­ual’s car­bon foot­print from food by 73 per cent, free up about 75 per cent of global farm­land and re­quire just 5 per cent of the wa­ter needed to sus­tain some forms of an­i­mal-based agri­cul­ture

Throw in an­i­mal wel­fare con­cerns and, more prac­ti­cally, the cost of eating meat ev­ery day and it’s lit­tle won­der the once rad­i­cal fringe of di­etary prac­tices has gained a toe­hold.

Queensland di­eti­tian-nu­tri­tion­ist Kel­ley Bright has no doubt ve­g­an­ism is a grow­ing trend. She’s seen a marked in­crease in the num­ber of ve­g­ans – and as­pir­ing ve­g­ans – pre­sent­ing at her prac­tice over the past two years, mainly girls and young women whose par­ents are con­cerned they’re not get­ting ad­e­quate nutrition.

“The first thing I say to any­one is that you can’t be a lazy ve­gan,” she says. “It takes a lot of time, ef­fort and ed­u­ca­tion to make sure

you’re meet­ing the nu­tri­tional needs for your body.

“If you’re re­ly­ing on pack­aged and pro­cessed prod­ucts to do that for you on a day-to-day ba­sis, I would have con­cerns.

“They’re fine as a back-up and to have some­times, but you can’t rely on them daily to have all the nu­tri­ents your body needs.”

Ms Bright is scep­ti­cal of big busi­ness jump­ing on the band­wagon with its plant-based “al­ter­na­tive” prod­ucts.

Glob­ally, the fake meat mar­ket is in over­drive, pre­dicted to hit more than $6 bil­lion in sales in the next five years.

It was al­ready on the move when chair­man of Google’s par­ent com­pany Al­pha­bet, Eric Sch­midt, pre­dicted three years ago the move away from an­i­mal prod­ucts and to­wards plant-based pro­tein would be “the num­ber one game-chang­ing trend of the fu­ture”.

Cer­tainly there are some heavy hit­ters in the game. Mi­crosoft founder Bill Gates has in­vested in many Sil­i­con Val­ley-based veg­e­tar­ian food com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Im­pos­si­ble Foods that makes “meat” from plants. Richard Bran­son has a stake in Mem­phis Meats and Hol­ly­wood ac­tor Leonardo Di Caprio is back­ing Be­yond Meat whose burg­ers are now stocked in Coles.

Not to miss out, ex­ist­ing food multi­na­tion­als are jump­ing on board.

Unilever has taken over The Nether­lands-based The Veg­e­tar­ian Butcher, famed for con­vinc­ing the world’s lead­ing chefs from Spain’s el Bulli restau­rant that they were eating top-grade chicken when they tucked into a soy-based im­pos­tor.

Nes­tle too has launched its own In­cred­i­ble Burger made from soy pro­tein and wheat, coloured with plant ex­tracts: beet­root, car­rot and cap­sicum, so that it even gives the ap­pear­ance of “bleed­ing”.

But is cre­at­ing fake meat some­how miss­ing the point?

“There’s some­thing about all the ef­fort that’s go­ing into repli­cat­ing meat,” Ms Bright says. “Why are you eating some­thing that looked and tasted like ba­con if you’re choos­ing not to eat ba­con?

“You need to turn the packet over and read the list of in­gre­di­ents. If you were not go­ing to put those in­gre­di­ents: the binders, the thick­en­ers, the flavour en­hancers and the chem­i­cal num­bers, into what you were go­ing to pre­pare at home, then it’s best not to buy it. If big busi­ness is in­volved, make no mis­take, it’s all about mak­ing money.”

She says peo­ple can be healthy on ve­gan di­ets but they need to be care­ful they’re get­ting enough of cer­tain nu­tri­ents – zinc, iron, vi­ta­min B12, cal­cium and Omega 3 fats.

“A pesc­etar­ian diet (eating fish and seafood) can be a bet­ter op­tion to make sure you’re not miss­ing out on as many nu­tri­ents,” she says.

“If you are ve­gan, that can be a very healthy choice but there are many things you have to think about.

“Are you get­ting enough daily pro­tein?

You can get this from legumes and chick­peas but they’re still car­bo­hy­drates.

“You also need to make sure you don’t have low­ered iron lev­els that can leave you feel­ing fa­tigued, zinc that helps with wound heal­ing and, with­out dairy, you need to en­sure you’re get­ting enough cal­cium for bone den­sity.

“If you’re un­sure, I rec­om­mend see­ing a qual­i­fied di­eti­tian or nu­tri­tion­ist.

“In my ex­pe­ri­ence, with the younger girls I see, they’re more con­cerned with what to ex­clude from their di­ets, not what to in­clude.”

Ms Bright has no doubt so­cial me­dia is play­ing a huge part in driv­ing the ve­gan take-up among the young women she’s see­ing in her prac­tice.

“For a lot of food trends, whether it be ve­gan or pa­leo or what­ever, it can al­most be like a new re­li­gion, like find­ing your tribe.

“It can be­come part of their cul­ture, so of­ten there can be a lot more to it than just food.”

So­cial me­dia plant-based ad­vo­cate Loni Jane is aware of the re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with doc­u­ment­ing her own di­etary con­ver­sion over the past eight years.

She has amassed more than 400,000 fol­low­ers world­wide to her Feel the Lean guide to a plant-based, or­ganic life­style.

Ms Jane, a mother of two, doesn’t iden­tify as a ve­gan – she eats honey – and ded­i­cates her­self to shar­ing her plant-based recipes and life­style tips to who­ever can take some­thing from them.

She’s keen to take the “them and us men­tal­ity” out of what peo­ple eat.

“I don’t want to force my val­ues on any­body else,” she says. “That’s what causes hate and anger and war in the world.

“I just try to share what I’ve found out with others be­cause change comes from aware­ness. I try to help other peo­ple bet­ter con­nect with their food. That’s way more in­spir­ing than telling some­one they must change.”

Now 31, Ms Jane was not al­ways a model of di­etary pu­rity. She was raised on meat and pro­cessed foods – she says she didn’t try av­o­cado un­til she was 22 or eat a mango un­til she was 24.

“In my 20s, I was quite un­well. It was an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of things that were hap­pen­ing. I had cour­ses of an­tibi­otics and I was get­ting worse and worse. My sys­tem was shot,” she says.

A visit to a natur­opath put her on a pa­leo diet. The veg­eta­bles and sal­ads were a rev­e­la­tion but she found the amount of meat was too much for her so she started to leave it out and was amazed at the turn­around in her health.

“I had a bit of seafood at the start but gave that up even­tu­ally,” she says. “I was feel­ing bet­ter and bet­ter. I was thriv­ing. I couldn’t be­lieve the clar­ity in my mind and how I would wake up feel­ing vi­brant.

“I felt like I wanted to move my body, my skin cleared, I had no weight prob­lems, no fluc­tu­a­tions, no is­sues with binge eating. I be­gan shar­ing that on­line. What I do is about me, but I just re­ally wanted to spark the flame in some­one else.”

She is an ex­po­nent of a cru­elty-free life­style but doesn’t sup­port the ap­proach of ex­trem­ist an­i­mal rights pro­test­ers.

“When I saw that (re­cent an­i­mal rights protests), I saw peo­ple who had com­pas­sion for an­i­mals but not for hu­man be­ings.

“I don’t sup­port what’s hap­pen­ing in an­i­mal in­dus­tries but I think the an­swer lies in con­nect­ing peo­ple with where their food comes from and get­ting them to ask them­selves whether they’re OK with that, with the waste that comes with that piece of sir­loin steak and the im­pact on the Earth?

“I just try to give them the knowl­edge that I’ve gath­ered my­self.”

Ms Jane is no stranger to bad press. She was the tar­get of a 60 Min­utes am­bush, ac­cus­ing her of con­tribut­ing to dan­ger­ous di­etary prac­tices in young women. But she says de­nial of food is not her mes­sage at all.

“A plant-based life is one of abun­dance – you can eat in abun­dance. The Earth pro­vides every­thing for us. It’s about eating in­tu­itively.

“It’s not about small por­tions or con­trol or weight or binge­ing or feel­ing guilty. There’s no thought about I should eat this or eat that. It’s ac­tu­ally very easy. It makes per­fect sense.”

Plant-based blog­ger and ad­vo­cate Loni Jane with her chil­dren Rowdy, 5, and Polly, 3, hav­ing an af­ter­noon snack at their home.


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