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Twenty years ago few people had even heard of the vegan diet, let alone knew what it actually meant. Ten years ago, quite a few people had heard of it, but it was still laughed at, mocked as a pseudo-anorexic diet for hippies and swimsuit models. But today, things are radically different.
You can hardly turn on the news these days, or even visit a restaurant, without hearing about vegan food and the merits of this diet and lifestyle choice. Once seen as something rather untenable, it now has the unlikeliest of spokespeople including Mike Tyson, Beyoncé, Al Gore, and Jared Leto, all showing great commitments to a plant-based cruelty-free diet.
At the recent Natural Products Expo West held last March in Anaheim, Calif., Eric Pierce, director of strategy and insights at New Hope Natural Media, the event’s producer, talked to Food Navigator about the growth of the vegan diet in the U.S.
According to Pierce, 36 percent of American consumers regularly purchase milk or meat alternatives. The segment known as “flexitarians,” those individuals who have greatly reduced their meat consumption, is now as high as 41 percent of the population. “The reason for the expansion appears to be the mitigation of the perception of vegan beyond its typical stereotype of being all about animal welfare,” Pierce said.
And while animal welfare is still a driving concern for many people who adopt a vegan diet, the health benefits of cutting out meat and dairy are now the most compelling reason for about 35 percent of people in the U.S. identifying as vegan or vegetarian. At a time when obesity and diet-related illnesses are out of control, the vegan diet isn’t just appealing for its health benefits, it’s proving to be necessary for many people to take back control of their health. Sometimes that leads to a greater inquiry about where food comes from, spurring on the ethical commitment to avoid animal products, even if that wasn’t what led them to it in the first place.
Experts predict over the next several decades, alternative meat products (which includes insects) will make up about one-third of all protein on American plates. Beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and even some fruits and vegetables are abundant protein sources. They also offer other benefits including important fiber, vitamins and minerals and potent plant antioxidants not found in animal products. That’s where the flexitarian movement finds itself now—not necessarily willing to give up animal products entirely, but not willing to skimp on fruits and veggies either, because the benefits are simply too great. Australia is receiving heat for recently adding tofu to its dietary pyramid alongside animal proteins, a healthy plant protein that could be key to relieving at least some of the country’s drought issues.
Meat’s impact on the long-term sustainability for the global climate has been questioned by leading scientists around the world. It was a driving force in Al Gore’s recent decision to give up meat after years of pressure from animal rights groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which claim you can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist considering how much methane livestock animals contribute to the environment.
There’s also the issue of consumption of resources including land and water, of which the animal industry uses a tremendous amount, putting pressure on an already pressured planet. In California where the drought is now entering its fourth year, raising livestock is still among the state’s most water intensive industries, but the industry is barely being asked to make cut-backs. A number of data show we can grow more food by farming plants than we can by raising livestock.
“[V]egan and Coca-Cola are competing for space for who is getting the most social media messages and marketing,” Pierce told Food Navigator. While more Americans are finally opting not to drink as much soda as in previous decades, even despite the soft drink brands’ social media efforts, social media has become the vegan diet’s greatest ally (besides its delicious food). Not only are there cooking apps and restaurant directories, but consumers today now have more information to help them make educated decisions about their diet and, ultimately, their health. And who hasn’t lost their appetite for meat (or anything) after seeing footage of what goes on inside a factory farm?
We’re also seeing a rise in plant-meats, those once- (and often still) mocked mock meats. While Tofurky may be the poster faux meat product for making fun of vegans, it’s just one brand among dozens of plant-meat makers, committed to creating ethical, healthy, sustainable—and totally delicious—cruelty-free meats. While the meat industry has criticized this industry as ersatz replacement for the real thing, plant-meat makers are of another opinion. People want a hearty and filling “meaty” tasting food, but without all the baggage that comes with it–even meat eaters.
“Tofurky gets about 20 percent of its business from vegans and vegetarians and 80 percent from meat reducers,” Tofurky founder Seth Tibbott told Organic Authority in a recent interview.
And if you think products like Tofurky, Gardein or Beyond Meat are just processed foodstuffs, consider the unnaturalness of conventional animal products. Most animals raised for food are fed unnatural diets of grains and beans, even though they prefer grass and hay. This new livestock feeding protocol increases animal weight, but it also contributes to health issues, allergic reactions and supports the highly controversial biotech industry, as most of these grains are genetically modified.
Add to that the conditions most animals endure in factory farms, and “natural” doesn’t exactly come to mind. If mock meats are whole foods that get processed into something else, animal meat is a highly processed and unnatural practice that gets turned into steaks. Taking a few soybeans and mixing them with wheat to make a meat is a lot less messy, and a lot more healthy, than a steak that was fed drugs, GMOs and lived life in the dark.
“We have a very inefficient system of growing protein,” Tibbott said. “And it’s a question of how long the world can take it. It’s only a matter of time before meat protein is forced into a smaller position because of land use and greenhouse gas emissions.”
While twenty years ago it made sense that not too many people had heard of the vegan diet, today we don’t have that excuse—particularly if we’re tethered to a mobile device or computer for any period of time. It’s just too common now. And while extreme diets are still popular, like Paleo and Weight Watchers, there’s one intersection, one place where all diet programs meet in agreement: and that’s in the increased consumption of more fresh vegetables and fruits.
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