Not so long ago, if you were eating out at a restaurant and wanted a vegetarian meal, most eateries offered at least one option. If that veggie option involved cheese, then all the better. If it involved a bean burger, well at least you knew roughly what you were eating.
Today, vegetarians are starting to feel ignored. Their once trusty meat-free options are being replaced by vegan foods. And indeed, the Vegetarian Society has heard rom members who are dissapointed to find veggie dishes containing dairy and eggs are often absent from menus, jettisoned in favour of plant-based vegan burgers or vegan chilli.
And whilst the drive to replicate the meat experience is good and will encourage more people to give up meat, it’s been to the detriment of more traditional vegetarian dishes which seem to be either not on the menu or limited to a cheese pie or a cheese sandwich – and always made with Cheddar.
But the numbers tell a different story: there are 3.3 million vegetarians in the UK today, compared with only 1.6 million vegans. Last year, 130,000 people became vegetarian compared with 52,000 who went vegan.
Yet the word ‘vegan’ has been seized upon by a food industry keen to burnish its ethical credentials and, understandably, cash in on a growing market.
The major food retailers devote whole sections to vegan products. Coffee shop chains have embraced non-dairy milks. In 2012 there were 423 vegetarian restaurants, cafés and foodie pubs around the country, of which about one in eight (54) were vegan. This year, there are 1,600, of which almost half (750) are vegan, according to figures from the Vegetarian Guide.
While an old-fashioned pub might still present a plate of pasta with tomato sauce – and a slightly bewildered shrug – to any non-meat-eating diner, urban hipster cafés proudly offer such delights as ‘nozzarella’ (a mozzarella substitute with a similar-enough sounding name to deceive those not paying attention) and quarter pounders with cheese, which are just like the real thing, except that the burger is plant-based and the chees is ‘cheeze’ – a vegan substitute.
But a growing concern is around the health attributes of the burgeoning faux meats categories which are often high in salt and saturated fats and contain numerous processing aids
But perhaps as irritating for old-school vegetarians as the lack of traditional veggie food on menus is the judgement of some vegans who will claim a moral high ground, and people who’ve been vegetarian for 60 or 70 years are being told their dietary choice is not the true ethical choice.
The Vegetarian Society has members who have been veggie since the 1930s or 1940s, so there’s a feeling of being a bit bruised by the critique from vegans and feeling that the vegan food on menus is coming through to the detriment of the great vegetarian options, rather than alongside.
The Vegan Society, for its part, argues that plant-based products are “not exclusively for vegans and are suitable for most diets and religions, often constituting a safe food option for all.
And restaurateurs who offer a catch-all non-meat option to reduce food waste and cut costs are wrong to think good vegetarian cooking involves buying ingredients that never get used.
Far from it and I predict that there will be a growth in dishes that are plant based using natural, unprocessed ingredients, rather than the ultra-processed foods that are the mainstay of the category now.
And indeed, post-covid there are many consumers who have continued to enjoy cooking foods using short-cut or scratch ingredients who would have previously purchased convenience foods – a trend that I expect to grow.