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Going green: why you've been hearing more about veganism

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

By NZ Herald, Jamie Morton

Anthony Bourdain once described vegetarians as the "enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit".

But for vegans, the late, great chef reserved the deepest contempt.

He called the movement a "Hezbollah-like splinter faction" and "a first-world phenomenon, completely self-indulgent".

His celebrity contemporary Gordon Ramsay similarly quipped he had an "allergy" to vegans – and that he was a member of "PETA" – that being "People Eating Tasty Animals".

In hindsight, it might seem odd that Ramsay eventually embraced a plant-based diet himself.

Or maybe not, so current trends tell us.

Dedicated vegan eateries and products appear to be popping up everywhere, in what influential magazine The Economist predicted would be the year of the vegan.

You can now walk into a shop and buy a vegan icecream. At your local supermarket, you'll find vegan chewing gum, vegan bacon and vegan fried eggs.

Countdown is reporting a surge in vegan customers and one Pak'nSave branch in Auckland is putting on regular vegan weeks.

New Zealand – whose biggest exports are still dairy, eggs, honey and meat – recently ranked as one of the most popular countries for veganism.

This year, Gareth Hughes became our first vegan MP.

In 2019, you can be the bassist of Black Sabbath, the director of Terminator, a three-time super heavyweight boxing champion, a race car driver, a pro cricketer, an NFL star, or even the head of Israel's armed forces, and be proudly vegan.

Documentaries like What the Health, Cowspiracy and James Cameron's just-released The Game Changers have added to the vegan buzz.

Is what Bourdain dismissed as a movement for spinach-munching militants shifting to the mainstream?

The rise of veganism

By this time next year, veganism will have been about 75 years old.

Its origin was indeed as a splinter faction, forming when members of the Vegetarian Society requested a section of its newsletter to be dedicated to non-dairy vegetarianism.

When turned down, one local branch secretary named Donald Watson founded The Vegan News, his coined term having borrowed the first three and last two letters of the word vegetarian.

It rolled off the tongue a little easier than some of the other suggestions: "allvega", "beaumangeur" and even "dairyban".

But veganism, of course, goes beyond just being a type of diet.

It was defined at its outset as more of a philosophy or way of life opposed to animals being exploited for food, clothing or any other purpose.

While there aren't many figures that give us a precise picture of veganism in New Zealand, surveys and feedback from food suppliers point to a growing trend toward plant-based diets, at least.

One 2016 poll found the proportion of Kiwis who stated that all – or almost all – the food they ate was vegetarian had grown by nearly a third from four years before, with the sharpest rises coming among 14- to 34-year-olds, North Islanders, and men, although women were still more likely to take up the diet.

According to the Roy Morgan research, at that point, about one in 10 Kiwis were largely shunning meat.

The poll found the rate of vegetarianism tended to drop away among 35- to 49-year-olds, perhaps because with kids to feed it got tougher to stay meat-free.

Another more recent Colmar Brunton poll found the rate of Kiwis mostly avoiding meat had risen steadily this decade, from 4 per cent in 2014 to 10 per cent last year.

And, in January, Chef's Pencil released a study on the most popular countries and cities for veganism, finding that New Zealand claimed third spot worldwide – up from fourth place in 2017.

The online cookbook used Google Trends to analyse the search interest level – trawling for terms like "veganism" and "vegan restaurants" - across the world.

The popularity of vegan-related searches turned out to be 11 per cent higher than 2017 - and 35 per cent higher compared to 2016.

Supermarket chains have certainly noticed.

Countdown's dietician, Deb Sue, tells the Herald on Sunday that the percentage of vegan customers in stores have doubled over the past year, and the company has responded accordingly.

"We've already seen a 30 per cent growth in demand for vegan and vegetarian chilled foods, and predictions suggest this is set to increase even more this year," Sue says.

"We're certainly not saying that all New Zealanders are turning into vegetarians or vegans by any stretch, but we're seeing a huge increase in the demand for more plant-based meal solutions such as veggie burgers, 'mince' made from plants, and other proteins like falafel."

Even icecream is going vegan.

"We already have eight different vegan icecream products in the range and we've also stocked Magnum and Cornetto icecreams which are made from soy and pea protein."

The bigger trend tended to be more of a "flexitarian" one, in which consumers were actively choosing to have meat-free days, or incorporating more plant-based meals into their diet while still eating meat a few days a week.

"We think that type of diet will continue to increase in popularity, especially as more products start to appear on our shelves such as flexitarian sausages and burger patties which incorporate veggies and meat together, as well as mince made from natural products."

This week, the NZ Vegetarian Society reported it had now certified well over 100 products as vegan under its Vegan Certified trademark scheme.

Pak'nSave has similarly seen "extraordinary growth" in demand for these types of items.

The chain's Royal Oak branch now uses purple tickets to tell shoppers what products on the shelf are vegan.

The last time it put on one of its six-monthly vegan weeks, it recorded a huge increase in sales of vegan items – among them vegan mozzarella (up 4400 per cent), vegan Thai curry (up 1400 per cent) and vegan nuggets (up 4700 per cent).

"The ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat meals help families get dinner sorted in record time, and meatless 'meat', is the perfect solution for vegans, but also for shoppers who look to have a flexitarian diet," the store's joint operator and store manager Michael Vanbrink says.

Back in March, the Restaurant Association surveyed members on what they thought the biggest hospitality business food trends would be.

The move to plant-based food came through as the stand-out, with one third of the respondents forecasting its growth.

The association's chief executive Marisa Bidois couldn't say precisely how many businesses had changed their offerings, but is confident most have.

"The challenges for the industry are finding new and exciting recipes to fit the brand of the business, potentially chef training in this area as well."

All the while, the Vegan Society of Aotearoa New Zealand has been seeing soaring uptake in its membership, website visits, magazine subscriptions and Facebook and Instagram likes.

"We are getting more queries from people and we are finding that media come to us asking questions and for comment on events," its spokeswoman Claire Insley says.

Green growth

The NZ Vegetarian Society's trademark manager, Philip McKibbin, says the emergence of alternative proteins is having a big impact on pushing more consumers toward plant-based diets.

And this business is booming – it's been projected that the world's alternative-meat industry could be worth $212 billion at the close of this decade – and that 10 per cent of the $2.1 trillion global meat industry could soon be wrestled away.

Dieticians NZ's Kath Fouhy says there has already been a noticeable reduction in people eating animal proteins.

She cites Beef + Lamb NZ data showing how the consumption of red meat in New Zealand, per capita, has fallen by 42 per cent over the past decade.

Consumption of mutton, once a staple of Kiwi dinner tables, has plunged by nearly three quarters over that time.

Big brands have jumped on the bandwagon, if not just for quick PR value.

Last year, Air New Zealand got roasted by the meat industry for serving up the Impossible Burger – boasting a sizzling, bleeding but completely cow-free patty created by vegan and Stanford University chemist Patrick O Brown.

Burger King has since rolled out the Impossible Whopper and KFC has dabbled with vegan, chicken-like nuggets made by Beyond Meat.

Hell Pizza also tricked customers into trying that company's fake meat – potentially in breach of food and trading laws – by selling a Burger Pizza with no mention of what was really on the topping.

McKibbin pointed out that even Lone Star – probably better known for its 300g ribeye – is trialling a vegetarian burger with an option to make it vegan.

"As veganism becomes increasingly popular, plant-based alternatives will become cheaper, and consumers are going to have a lot more choice," he says.

"We're fast approaching the point where it's going to be as easy to be vegan as it is to be a meat-eater."

So what's behind it?

While veganism has always been rooted in concerns over animal rights, that now isn't the only motivating factor.

Nutrition writer Niki Bezzant singles out a big one: "People feel eating less meat and dairy in particular, and more plants, is better for their personal health."

And then there's a new wave of "environmental vegans", who, in a warming world, believe the industrial farming of animals is environmentally damaging and unsustainable.

McKibbin suspects it's this group driving the current shift.

"A few years ago, if you'd asked a vegan why they were vegan, the first thing they probably would have said is 'animal welfare'. These days, you're as likely - if not more likely - to hear them talking about the environment."

He notes the world's best-known climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, was vegan.

According to the journal Science, animal farming provides just 18 per cent of our calories, yet 83 per cent of agricultural land is dedicated to it, while greenhouse gas emissions, water and over-zealous antibiotic use pose further problems.

Insley argues the planet simply can't continue to support the current level of animal consumption.

"When you then look at how much water goes into animal production, again you have to decide that it is not sustainable in the long term."

But Beef + Lamb NZ's head of nutrition, Fiona Windle, takes issue with this view.

"To put the true impact of turning vegan into perspective, as an example, modelling undertaken in the US shows that if the entire population of the United States turned vegan, it would result in a reduction of only 2.6 per cent of greenhouse gases," she says.

"Many of the environmental concerns and statistics that are used for a basis of going vegan are often based on intensive and grain-fed systems which are different to how we produce beef and lamb in New Zealand, which is a low-input, pasture-raised system."

Bezzant echoes her point.

"And we don't really grow much in the way of plant protein, so much of that food has to be imported, which would impact its environmental footprint," she said.

"We have to question whether buying a meat substitute patty from the US containing 22 ingredients is better, in fact, for the planet or our health than a small amount of a whole natural food such as New Zealand-grown meat."

Professor Alistair Woodward, a University of Auckland epidemiologist who specialises in climate issues, says the effects of an individual's dietary change on sustainability were complicated.

Some plants, like imported fruit or nuts from water-heavy trees, come at a high carbon cost.

Woodward considers that a shift toward the EAT-Lancet planetary diet – that's half fruits, vegetables and nuts, and the other whole grains, plant proteins, unsaturated plant oils, modest amounts of meat and dairy, and some added sugars and starchy vegetables – to be one in the right direction.

The same diet can also be modified for vegans.

Diet myths

Meanwhile, vegans say they still face the perception that their diet is lacking nutritionally.

"You can get all of the nutrients you need from a plant-based diet, except vitamin B12," McKibbin says.

"But luckily, many plant-based milks, like soy milk, are fortified with it, and so are a lot of plant-based 'meats'."

He gets most of his from the B12 soy milk he pours on his Weet-Bix; his colleague sources her's from Marmite on toast.

The Ministry of Health's own eating and activity guidelines, or EAGs, have put an increasing focus on plant-based foods.

The meat and plant protein food group, for instance, has renamed to put more emphasis on plant- and seafood-based proteins.

"The group is now 'legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, egg, poultry or red meat', which is a re-ordering of the original list," the ministry's deputy director of public health, Harriette Carr, says.

"This change reflects the stronger evidence for eating plant and seafood-based proteins, while decreasing red meat intake."

Yet Windle stresses that plant-only diets typically require people to eat more food energy overall, to get the nutrients they need: to get 25g of protein, it can take up to four times the calories of a plant food to get the same from a moderate serving of beef.

A recent observational study also flagged some other potential concerns.

Drawing on an analysis of more than 48,000 people over 18 years old, it found that, while vegans and vegetarians had a 22 per cent lower risk of heart disease compared with meat eaters, they also had a 20 per cent higher risk of stroke.

"We are not completely sure why, but it could be because the vegetarians and particularly the vegans in our study had very low blood levels of vitamin B12 – around half of the vegans were considered deficient," says study co-author Dr Kathryn Bradbury, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Auckland.

"They all should have been taking vitamin B12 supplements, but only 20 per cent were. It is also possible that there is something else that explains the higher risk of stroke that we saw in vegetarians and vegans, and more work needs to be done to understand this."

And there are other issues that researchers like Bradbury want to understand about veganism.

"So far, we know that vegans tend to have lower body weight, lower blood pressure and lower blood cholesterol.

"In terms of actual diseases we have only really been able to look at fairly common diseases, such as heart disease. We need more data for other important diseases."

Bezzant figures it's just as easy to have an unhealthy vegan diet as it is to have an unhealthy meat-based diet.

"If you're just eating vegan junk food and processed stuff, you're probably not going to be any healthier than you were before," she says.

"On the other hand you can have a really healthy vegan diet, but it needs careful planning and thought, and, I'd suggest, not too much reliance on the vegan meat substitutes like the patties and burgers.

"Many of those are just processed foods and not particularly great, health-wise. It still needs to be mostly whole, fresh foods."

Are vegans really preachy?

So what do the meat-eating majority think of vegans?

A recent New Zealand study looked a little closer at our views, finding that attitudes towards vegetarians were less positive than those toward meat-eaters, while vegans are regarded worse than vegetarians.

Those who lean left are more likely to look upon vegans favourably or neutrally, while those who lean right – and males especially – view them more negatively.

The study found that, where people viewed the world as a dangerous place, this was increasingly linked to poor attitudes toward vegans – something they put down to a "perceived symbolic threat" to New Zealand's social and cultural norms.

Negative perceptions were also linked to a view of the world as a competitive, dog-eat-dog jungle, and the idea of human dominance over other animals.

One of the study authors, Victoria University psychology researcher Professor Marc Wilson, says people still seem to unfairly stereotype vegans as "fun-killing" and "moralistic".

"We often see this preachy characterisation coming through in our research."

Insley also suspects that many people thought of vegans as annoying, and don't want to be told how to live, or what to eat.

"However, we are getting to a point where what you eat affects the entire planet," she says.

"People cannot continue in the selfishness that currently exists."

Whether that conviction ought to be taken as far as confrontational public protests remains a subject of "huge debate" among the vegan community, she says.

In New Zealand, those moves have notably included members of the group Direct Action Everywhere lining up in front of meat chillers at St Lukes Countdown – which drew an angry response from some customers – along with anti-animal product stickers being placed on meat packaging.

In Australia, lawmakers recently created new offences soon after a map identifying the locations of farms deemed to exploit animals popped up on the internet.

Insley says many saw this kind of direct action as being counter-productive, "especially when you see so many negative comments from meat eaters regarding it".

"These kinds of actions are not really helping to promote veganism, but they may help to force conversations that need to happen.

"There are some who feel it is an appropriate way to get the message across though and for that reason I would say that you will see more of them."

The Countdown protest's organisers, Anna Rippon and Deno Stock, tell the Herald on Sunday they're going to carry on, "because we believe it works".

Asked if that may instead turn people away from veganism, they said: "We're not out to try to push a dietary choice on to people, we are trying to get people to stop hurting animals."

They see themselves locked in a David and Goliath battle, with "non-violent direct action" often being the best tool they have.

"The point of these types of activism is to get our message out in such a way that people cannot ignore us. People are busy, people are focused. They may know there is something morally wrong with killing animals for food but because our history has normalised it they may not feel an urgency to investigate," they said.

"Women fighting for their right to vote didn't get those rights by standing quietly on the footpath making sure no one got offended. Their direct actions stirred the pot in spite of any backlash, and they persevered."

Despite the growing trend, Marc Wilson doesn't see a future where the majority of Kiwis turned vegan.

"Yet, I think we are seeing a reduction in the amount of meat that New Zealanders are eating – and I think there probably is a slow increase in the number of people who identify as vegetarians or vegans.

"That's going to continue."

'Selling the message'

While 2019 is being hailed the year of the vegan, for Mila Arena it was last year that things really took flight.

It was then that the Argentinian-born chef's vegan food delivery service, V on Wheels, bloomed from a small Tauranga operation to one dispatching meals across the North Island.

"Even though the Veganism was born in the 50s, I feel 2017 was the time when people really started talking about it. 2018 was definitely the vegan-booming year," she says.

"Slowly, restaurants and cafes started adding vegan meal options to their menus; veganism on social media became a strong trend; organisations like 'Veganuary' or 'Meat-free Monday" contributed massively, and everyday people and celebrities started joining the movement."

Her business started out as a service just for her group of friends in Tauranga; she'd prepare the meals in a tiny kitchen and then drop them off herself.

She's since hired a chef, and uses a food technologist, a business adviser and couriers to send out anywhere up to 300 orders each week.

Arena offers different meal plans each week and says her clients include a wide range from families, busy mums, busy workers, midwives on the go, and people after a "detox" diet.

As the meals are frozen, they can store them in the freezer so they can eat them when they want or need them.

Her next move will be into the South Island market.

"Not long ago, I read: 'where millennials lead, businesses and governments will follow', and that's already a fact. Veganism was a minority until 2018."

Social media also played a big part, she says.

"The easy access to information about the animal industry and animal activism around the world have made veganism go mainstream.

"Nowadays, health organisations, doctors, documentaries about sustainability, environment specialists, are all recommending to follow plant-based diets.

"I see myself as not just selling the product – but selling the message as well."

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