There has been an explosion of interest in all things plant based in recent years. Retailers and restaurateurs have responded with a plethora of new products and menus. We talk to two friends of CADA, Susan and Steven Hargreaves who have been following a vegan diet for 24 years to find out how shopping and eating out has changed.
To hear from Susan:
Or read on for Steve’s view:
1. What prompted you both to start following a vegan diet back in 1996?
Animal rights. The realisation that being vegetarian only removed part of the animal suffering from the picture made it clear that veganism was the right choice.
2. At the time, was this a fairly revolutionary thing to do?
For me it aligned with other ideas I was seeing at university that I hadn’t previously been exposed to for example at the environmental group meetings, health food shop flyers and seemed entirely natural in that context. To 99% of my friends it was a revolutionary choice especially since most people did not know what vegan meant and it was not a choice they would ever take.
3. What daily challenges did you face when you first stopped eating meat, fish and dairy?
Health-wise none. Practically, I was fully supported if challenged by parents when turning vegetarian at 16. Turning vegan, sourcing soya milk was a challenge at times since only health food shops stocked it. I made my own at times. I was amazed one day when round the house of someone from Lancaster Animal Rights Group when they had a whole cupboard of it! They’d mail order direct from a manufacturer. Eating out was restricted to Italian, Indian restaurants. Pub food meant chips. Cafes meant jacket potatoes, beans and black tea or coffee. Pizzas meant no cheese and paying for extra toppings. My university bakery gratefully had a vegan pasty that probably got me through uni. But being vegan in such a non-vegan context never made me want to change back because I was prepared to endure for what I deeply believed.
4. When did things start to change in terms of availability of plant-based food?
It was always available but has multiplied in variety vastly in the last 5 years. You could always get specifically vegan items like sausages, burgers, pies, schnitzels and soya milk in health food stores and Holland & Barrett. I’d say mid 2000s things like soya milk appeared in supermarkets. The Vegan Society accreditation stamp on food has got more widespread in last 10 years. Supermarkets have marked vegan on their vegan products for the last 5 years or so. Plant-based as a term appeared only in last 5 years when people started realising the environmental and health benefits of the plant-based diet but saw the word ‘vegan’ as loaded with extremist views, as if all vegans are members of the Animal Liberation Front or something. People who are vegan for health say plant-based which is perhaps correct since being vegan is more than a diet.
5. Has any single retailer shone in terms of providing for vegans?
Holland & Barrett has always been the saviour for vegans in UK.
6. What about restaurants – where do you feel most welcome and have the most choice?
Chain pubs and restaurants now provide allergen and sometimes vegan menus (Wetherspoons – who would have thought? Gauthier – A Michelin-starred restaurant in Soho). I’d say at least half pizza restaurants offer vegan cheese on pizzas. Pizza Express were one of the first to offer good vegan choices. Italian restaurants have always been most flexible. To be honest these days I am astounded by the options available, outside of major cities too, including independent all-vegan restaurants. I can say vegan now whereas in the past I’d have to say no meat, fish, milk or eggs.
7. How do you feel about veganism going mainstream? What do you see for the future of food more broadly?
Veganism has changed from being something that people see as extreme, unnatural, weird for animal rights ideologists only, to a viable alternative. On the one hand, I was never questioned by health professionals on my choice, but constantly by anyone else. So personally day to day life is easier. I feel vindicated to a degree. I think it’s all a massive positive for sentient animals. For most people it is the future of planet earth which motivates them towards vegan choices and that’s also as important. It means that veganism is not a fad but a mainstream idea to stay. Organisations like WHO back a vegan diet as optimal. Several documentaries streaming on Netflix back the health benefits of veganism. Olympic athletes are becoming vegan. That says a lot. The future of food will be plant-based. Feeding so many humans using animals has not been sustainable for a long time and the world population is only going up. So meat and dairy should be an occasional food. Over-fishing, coral die-off caused by dredging and ocean deadzones will relegate fish eating to an occasional food. The motivation is environmental. I’d like to see a world where the motivation for being vegan as much compassion as environment or health but that is maybe further down the line. By compassion I mean sparing animals mutilation, torture and unnecessary death for a plate of food. That message is not mainstream yet.