YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
BIG BUSINESS HAS CALLED IT – VEGANISM IS GOING MAINSTREAM, BUT BEWARE THE MEAT-MIMIC MINEFIELD
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.
PHOTO: GLENN HAMPSON