On Thursday, vegans around the world commemorated the creation of the “v” word. World Vegan Day was launched on Nov. 1, 1994 to celebrate the 50th birthday of the founding of the UK Vegan Society. The day begins World Vegan Month, and recognition of it has grown exponentially in recent years with the rise of Facebook and other social media sites, where those dedicated to plant-based lifestyles share memes and messages with all the ethical and health-related reasons to go vegan.
This year, the day fell in a week that saw the forced resignation of a high-profile UK magazine editor after his email to a writer who had pitched a plant-based series went public. William Sitwell, the editor of the popular Waitrose Food magazine, responded to the pitch with what he later called a joke.
“How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?” he wrote to the freelancer, who happened to be vegan.
After his words went public, Sitwell called his comments a joke, apologized to those who were offended and stepped down from his job after 20 years.
The comments were extreme, but it’s not unusual for vegans and vegetarians to be the butt of the joke and even to find themselves on the receiving end of vitriol for living by their beliefs, said Rich Landau, a chef and restaurateur whose plant-based eateries include Vedge, V Street and Wiz Kid in Philadelphia. Landau, with his wife and business partner, Kate Jacoby, have also expanded in the past year with the opening of Fancy Radish in Washington, D.C.
People opt to go plant-based for various reasons, but the big three are animals, the planet and personal health. Whatever the causes, challenges come with the decision to trade lifelong traditions for a new way of eating, and negativity from others can make the transition even tougher.
“It’s easy to hate what you don’t understand, it’s easy to make fun of what you don’t understand,” Landau said. “Our culture as a civilization is very young and immature. It’s the classic case of just hating something that’s just not your way.”
Increasingly, though, the rise of the vegan food industry is changing ways for more people.
“If I had a dime for every time someone made fun of what we do, then came into the restaurant and shook my hand at the end of the meal,” Landau said.
People tell him on a regular basis that tasting the vegan food at his restaurants has started them making healthier, more humane changes in their diets, he said.
Others in the industry, including JUST Inc. founder Josh Tetrick, agree that things are changing, and the pace of change is accelerating.
“Plant-based foods used to be for folks eating breakfast at vegan cafes in Northern California, but today plant-based foods are increasingly for folks I was raised with, eating breakfast in diners or at their kitchen tables in Birmingham, Alabama,” he said. “The change is happening in cities, suburbs and in rural areas. It’s happening in red states and in blue states. It’s not a niche food movement.”
The number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan grew from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017, a 600% increase, according to GlobalData. That’s still a pretty small portion of the total, but other data reveal growing interest in plant-based foods by consumers who don’t consider themselves vegetarian or vegan.
Sales of plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods including meat, cheese, milk and eggs grew 17% over the past year, while overall U.S. food sales rose only 2%, according to data from Nielsenand the Good Food Institute. The market for such foods totaled more than $3.7 billion.
Veganism has more role models today who are open about their lifestyles and the reasons behind them, from actors including Natalie Portman and Emily Deschanel to musicians like Moby and Stevie Wonder to politicians such as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. And a slew of recent documentaries including “What the Health” and “Dominion” are gaining wider audiences.
While those who go vegan or vegetarian tend to do so for the animals, the planet, their health or some combination thereof, consumers start out choosing their foods based on different criteria.
Taste, price and convenience are the key factors consumers consider when making food choices, said Caroline Bushnell, senior marketing manager at the Good Food Institute.
“Our goal is to help companies make products that are the most delicious foods and help them make more of them so they can be cost competitive, so it’s an affordable and accessible option and so consumers don’t feel like they’re missing anything,” she said.
There’s evidence that a growing number of companies of all sizes have the same goals.
“We’ve seen a huge spike in demand for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives as more and more consumers look to diversify their diet with plant-based foods or are moving to an entirely plant-based diet,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association.
The trade group representing plant-based food and beverage companies has grown to 118 members, and it’s promoting the industry through partnerships with grocers and foodservice companies, including Lucky Supermarkets which has teamed on a campaign dubbed “Fall in Love with Plant Based.” In fact, 95% of U.S. grocery stores now sell plant-based meat products.
Plant-based foods are getting more notice in the press, as startups and mid-sized brands win bigger backing from venture capital firms and big food players looking for new growth areas.
Almond-based cheese and yogurt maker Kite Hill recently won $40 million in new venture capital funding it will use to expand to meet fast-growing demand and develop new products.
Artisan plant-based cheese and butter brand Miyoko’s Kitchenmoved into a bigger space last year and was recently chosen by Nestléas one of three plant-based brands to partner in the next round of the Terra Accelerator. The other two are Jackson’s Honest and Here Foods.
The accelerator, created by Rabobank and RocketSpace, is just as much about the big companies learning innovation and agility from the smaller ones as it is about helping the startups develop new tools for growth.
JUST, which first made its name with the release several years ago of plant-based JUST Mayo, drew attention this year with the launch of JUST Egg, an egg replacer made with pea protein that’s on the menu in a growing number of restaurants and last month landed for a limited time at Aramark’s corporate, higher education and healthcare company dining halls.
The company has also partnered with an accelerator to help plant-based foods flourish around the world. JUST has teamed with Hong Kong-based Brinc’s Food Technology Accelerator to help other plant-based food businesses bring their products to market.
Catering giant Artisan Restaurant Collection recently worked with the Humane Society of the United States to develop 200 plant-based and plant-forward menu items for its corporate foodservice facilities and campus dining halls.
Some of the fastest growing companies are those that are creating vegan replacements for animal-based products that come as close as possible to the taste and texture of the products people are used to. At Wiz Kid in Philadelphia, Landau and Jacoby created a fast-casual joint selling vegan versions of the iconic Philly cheesesteak.
The city has embraced the concept, said Landau, who sees a time in the future when the entire food system is plant-based, and animal agriculture is a thing of the past.
“Things have moved so fast in such a short amount of time. People are realizing veganism is not a cult or a religion.”
Two main changes have driven the faster acceptance of and interest in veganism, he said. First, the Internet – people can share the message easily and as graphically as they want.
“People have started to embrace the word ‘vegan.’”