Not so long ago, vegan eaters were far and few between. Figures show there were 250,000 vegans in 2006 – just 0.25% of the UK population at the time. And it seems like just yesterday when vegan menu options were fittingly scarce: with meat-free diners often left with only plain pasta, chips or a side salad to choose from when eating out, and just a fraction of a percentage of the population identifying with the lifestyle choice.
Now, the landscape has changed drastically, and seemingly overnight. In just a four year period, the number of vegans in the UK has increased fourfold, quadrupling from 150,000 vegans (0.25% of the population) in 2014 to 600,000 (1.16%) in 2018.
Eateries which may once have posed a problem for vegan eaters, such as burger chain McDonalds and pub franchise Wetherspoons (celebrated for its hearty meat pies and bangers n’ mash) now have specific vegan options on their menus. The Economist dubbed 2019 ‘The Year of the Vegan’.
Business are cashing in on the increased demand for vegan options; earlier this year, Greggs saw a spike in interest on Freetrade, a free stock trading startup popular with millennials. Meanwhile, shares in Beyond Meat — a company which creates meat-free patties — have surged by more than 150% since the company first traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange in May this year.
Others are less enthused by the shift. Earlier this year, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) released a statement accusing Tesco of “demonising farmers”, after the supermarket giant circulated an advert featuring a father who reformulated his sausage casserole recipe after his young daughter turned vegan. The dairy industry has also suffered as vegan milk sales soar.
But what’s behind the cataclysmic shift in favour of veganism, turning it from a niche and little-celebrated lifestyle choice to a buzzword and macro-trend which only seems to be gaining momentum?
The ethical vegan
Ethical considerations remain the biggest motivation for those deciding to go vegan – this is according to a 2016 survey which found these grounds motivate 80% of vegans, compared to sustainability (12%) and health (14%). However, it’s worth considering this may have shifted with our growing awareness of climate change.
Tom Ough, 26, went vegan on 1 January this year, and he hasn’t looked back. Like many vegans, he started off as a vegetarian – swearing off meat five years ago, aged 21, when he moved out of his parents’ house.
“This was quite a surprise to my friends, who'd been appalled by the amount of fried chicken I'd eaten as a student,” he tells Yahoo UK.
However, his choice was motivated by a growing unease with the treatment of animals by the food industry – and once he sought out facts to back his feelings, he found it impossible to go back.
“The truth was that I'd gradually become uncomfortable with the veiled hideousness of animal agriculture, and it didn't take much Googling for me to learn about the horrible stuff that happens to cows, pigs and chickens en route to our plates,” says Ough, citing controversial practices such as beak trimming – where hens have part or all of their beaks removed – as well as the treatment of pigs and cows in the UK meat and dairy industries.
“I don't know how much suffering you're willing to justify for you to have meat in your sandwich or an egg on your plate, but I can guarantee the pleasure of eating it isn't worth it,” he adds.
While Ough wouldn’t actively preach his vegan status at the pub, he says he would certainly encourage anyone who expresses an interest in taking up the lifestyle.
He says: “If you turn vegan, you've found a very easy way of making the world a bit more humane. And it's enjoyable, too – my diet has become much more fresh and colourful since I cut out animal products, and I've started cooking new things and trying new products.”
Saving the world
Everyone from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to Jane Fonda is talking about how to reduce their carbon footprint – and veganism can be a simple and effective way of doing this. Oxford Martin School researchers found, if everyone in the world went vegan, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds and avoid climate damages of $1.5 trillion in US dollars.
For Augustine Cerf, 24, veganism is “something I can do every day within the current circumstances to reduce my footprint”. Cerf has been vegan ever since participating in the first Global Climate Change Strike in March this year. “I never expected to go vegan. And then I realised there was no justification for not being vegan. I left the climate strike, went for some falafel, and became a vegan. It’s that simple,” she says. “I can’t single-handedly save the world, but.”
While Cerf believes “systemic change which starts with governments and big businesses” is necessary to tackle the dangers of climate change, she says her vegan diet “makes me feel a bit more in control of a terrifying situation that is far bigger than me”.
Would she eat meat again? Yes – but only if the world caught up, first. “If there was global systemic change, and we rethought the way we do everything to make it sustainable and within that limit, we could eat a little bit of meat then, yeah, that would be great,” she says, adding: “Maybe we should go back to rations. Everyone gets one steak a year, and it’s a really special occasion.”
The jury’s still out on whether veganism is healthier than a vegetarian or meat-containing diet – but there is a growing amount of evidence in favour. Research has also found eating vegan can help individuals lose body fat with restricting calories, through increasing healthy bacteria in the digestive system. Yet, findings are mixed – with a study earlier this year finding being vegetarian or vegan lowers heart disease risk but increases chance of stroke.
The World Health Organisation doesn’t recommend abstaining from eating meat altogether, it recommends a healthy diet based on “a variety of foods originating mainly from plants, rather than animals", while the NHS claims vegans can get “most of the nutrients they need from a varied and balanced diet”.
Lee Jarvis, 27, has been vegan for a year – and says it’s been made easier by the increase in supermarket and restaurant options. Jarvis, who has a family history of high cholesterol, was motivated to turn vegan after learning of its link to lowering cholesterol and cancer risk.
While his veganism is primarily a choice motivated by long-term health benefits, Jarvis – a marathon runner – said it has also had a significant effect on reducing his running times. “I definitely enjoy more fresh vegetables and my diet is healthier on a day to day basis now,” he says.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that simply swearing off meat products is by no means a fast-track to enjoying the particular health benefits associated with veganism. First there’s the rise of the so-called McVegan, with a multitude of vegan fast food options launching in recent years.
Then, there’s the potential deficiencies vegans leave themselves open to: B12 is a common deficiency for vegans, as meat and salmon is the richest source of this nutrient. Jarvis says he sprinkles nutritional yeast on a lot of his meals in order to counteract this, and takes daily vitamin supplements. Vegans may also be at a raised risk for anaemia and vitamin D deficiency.
While increasing numbers of people turning vegan, it’s not necessarily a lifelong decision – indeed, one US study found 84% of people who have adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet at some point in their lives go back to eating meat. For others, veganism is not currently a full-time lifestyle but something they explore for a set time period or as part of an annual initiative. Ian Davey, 29, was one of 250,000 Brits signing up to Veganuary this year – an annual challenge whereby participants swear off all animal-based products for a full 31 days of January.
While he went back to following a usual, carnivore diet past January, he says he found it “fun trying new recipes” and now eats many more vegetarian meals as a result. “I’ll definitely be doing it again in 2020, he says, adding it’s likely he’ll become a full-time vegan “at some point in the future”.
If you’re interested in learning more about veganism, head to the Vegan Society website to learn more.