Don't use the 'V' word: Why veganism is becoming more mainstream

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Changing attitudes towards veganism are seeing fast food chains and even pubs introduce more plant-based food options, as more Australians — particularly millennials — turn away from meat.

About 11 per cent of Australians don’t eat meat, for environmental, health and animal welfare reasons.

However there are many Australians who are opting to reduce their meat intake, even if they’re not strictly vegan or vegetarian.

Amanda Walker, the co-founder of Lord of the Fries, the largest vegan food chain in the southern hemisphere, said consumers were becoming more ethical about what they put in their mouths.

“There is activism but it’s more subversive, it’s in the background — activism through the stomach,” she said.

“We wanted to make an impact in the area of animal rights but we weren’t into animal activism, we were into food, so we opened a vegetarian restaurant.”

The business, which sells burgers with patties that look like traditional beef and chicken but are made from plants, grew from a single food truck in 2005, to 24 franchises across Australia and New Zealand.

The word vegan can ‘isolate consumers’

A key to that success, was not using the word ‘vegan’, which Ms Walker said was a word that deterred meat eaters.

“For vegans it is one of the most beautiful words you can hear, but for other people it can cause guilt, confusion, discomfort and a bit of self-blame,” she said.

“We experienced at different family events the sort of controversy that comes up when you are vegetarian or vegan, and we wanted to avoid that in our business.

“So we decided we wanted to carry that vibe through our business by being a vegetarian business but without having the vegan or vegetarian political stance.”

Lord of the Fries is just one of many fast food companies and food manufactures who are opting to play down vegan branding on their products.

Last year, supermarket giant Woolworths placed a plant-based mince in the red meat isle of the supermarket, among beef and pork mince, rather than in the vegetarian section.

Thomas King is the CEO of Food Frontier, a not-for-profit that helps food manufacturers and entrepreneurs get into the business of making plant-based meat alternatives.

He said one of the first things he told fake meat makers was to avoid the term “vegan” on their labelling, because it can isolate consumers.

“Veganism is breaking outside of that very neat and old-school box where it’s been labelled as sort of an extremist choice to something that everyday consumers want,” he said.

So called-militant vegans — who damage farm properties to make a statement against livestock production — were also causing reputation damage to the word vegan.

“A lot of these food companies are avoiding using terms like vegetarian and vegan because it is restricting, it can come with certain connotations, so by dropping it they are opening up their products to the mainstream market,” Mr King said.

A study in the United Kingdom last year from 30,000 households found that 29 per cent of household dinners in Britain were now vegetarian — up from 27 per cent in 2014, and 28 per cent in 2016.

There is no similar study in Australia, but a trend of major food producers introducing plant-based alternatives to popular products shows at least anecdotally that tastes are changing fast.

Hungry Jacks, Nandos, Schnitz, Grill’d and TGI Fridays now all have plant-based and vegan burgers, while vegan cheese can now be found at Zambrero, Mad Mex, Dominos and Crust.

Some ice-cream brands, like cornetto and magnum, have recently introduced vegan lines as well, made without milk.

“We’re seeing a whole range of well-known foods now coming out as plant-based options, whether it’s sausages or burgers or yoghurt or cheese or ice cream,” Mr King said.

“There are multiple big market research agencies and news sites that have dubbed 2019 the year of plant-based foods and I think that’s certainly the case for Australia.

“I think we’ll continue to see considerable growth in this space, more new product launches, than any year previously.

“I can’t name names at the moment but there’s a couple of meat companies we’re working with who are developing plant-based products — because if they’re in the business of producing sausages already, then why wouldn’t they respond to the growing market demand for plant-based sausages?”

‘Not just for hippies’

Saverio Catanzariti is the head chef at the Alma Tavern, a pub in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs, that has recently joined the chorus of pubs across Australian cities who have introduced extensive vegan menus.

“I did a vegan menu just naturally, because of the demand for it from people coming in. It’s not just the hippy down the road anymore who is asking for this,” he said.

Mr Catanzariti said around 15 to 25 per cent of the meals he now made were vegetarian or vegan.

“About 11 per cent of Australians are already vegan or vegetarian in their diet, but I’d say that percentage would have to have increased by now,” he said.

“The demand isn’t just coming from vegans, it’s also coming from the general public who are becoming interested in vegan food, even if they still like meat.

“Definitely people still want chicken parmigiana, steaks and burgers, but it’s a new millennium and people want that variety.”

While veganism and vegetarianism is not a new concept, Mr Catanzariti said the difference now was that the trend was being fuelled by issues beyond just animal welfare concerns.

“I’m not saying vegans or vegetarians are a new thing — it’s always been out there,” he said.

“It’s just in the forefront of everyone’s mind now, whether for health or environmental ones, as well as animal welfare concerns.”

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