How and why vegan products are on the rise

By Susannah Sudborough
BU News Service

BOSTON – In the last few years, new lines of products in the meat, dairy and frozen food aisles have surfaced with a twist: they are part of the rise in vegan alternatives. Brands such as Beyond Meat, Gardein, Field Roast, Daiya, Tofurkey, Lightlife, Just Mayo and Earth Balance are showing up in more and more grocery stores around the country. 

Last year marked the beginning of a continuing wave of meat and dairy companies adding vegan products and product lines, investing in or buying vegan food companies and investing in lab-grown meat.

Kenny Torella, the Communications Director for Mercy for Animals, said that while a shift towards vegan eating has gradually increased for a long time, in the last two years, more food companies than ever started responding to the growing market of plant-based eaters, as food companies realized that these were desirable products.

Most notably, in 2017, Cargill, the U.S.’s third-largest meat producer, invested in a lab-grown meat company. Nestle acquired a plant-based food company. Canada’s largest meat distributor bought vegan meat companies Lightlife Foods and Field Roast, and Dean Foods, the largest dairy producer in the U.S., invested in and signed onto a distribution agreement with a plant-based dairy startup.

This trend continued in 2018, with even more companies investing in and buying plant-based or cruelty-free foods. Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest processor and marketer of chicken, pork and beef, came out with its own line of vegan protein products and invested in two vegan meat companies. Goldman Sachs invested $65 million in a non-dairy milk company.

According to Gallup research, the number of vegans in the U.S. has increased by only one percent since 2012. But, many vegans say their friends have become more open to vegan ideals and trying vegan food. Reducing meat consumption and eating a more plant-based diet has also become trendy in recent years, with fads like “veganuary” and “meatless Mondays.” This may account for an increase in the market for vegan products despite the stable number of vegans.

David Sowsy, a software developer who has been vegan for over a year, likened veganism to disruptive technology. “I kinda view it the same way people used to talk about plastics and computers,” said Sowsy. “Veganism is the next big thing.”  

Those in the meat and dairy industry would seem to agree with Sowsy. Chuck Jolley, the president of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, named plant-based meat substitutes as one of the biggest challenges for the agricultural industry in 2018. A survey of meat industry professionals said that pressure to reduce meat consumption had the biggest impact on the industry in 2016. In 2017, Walmart urged its suppliers to offer more plant-based products.

The demand for vegan food is also affecting the restaurant industry. In 2017, online food-ordering company GrubHub said that vegan foods were one of the most trendy dishes in the first half of the year. Baum and Whiteman, an international group of restaurant and food consultants, recently named plant-based foods the “Trend of the Year.” In 2018, White Castle began selling the plant-based “Impossible Burger.”

Sarah Wade, the general manager and executive chef of LuLu’s, a trendy bar and restaurant in Boston’s Allston Village, said that more and more people have been ordering her vegan menu items in the past couple of years and that she has had to teach her staff how to make other items vegan.

Michael Bissanti, the general manager of Veggie Galaxy, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Cambridge, said that their business has grown dramatically over the last two years and that more than half of the meals they serve are vegan. Bissanti also said he has seen other vegan restaurants in the Boston area open new locations in the last two years, to serve a growing market for vegan food.

The vegan market is also making an impact outside food industries. Some of the biggest brands at makeup retailer Sephora are cruelty-free, meaning they do not test products on animals and do not contain animal products. In 2018, makeup giant Covergirl also went cruelty-free.

Krissi Vandenberg, executive director of Vegan Action, a third-party organization that certifies products as vegan (you may have seen their V symbol on product labels), said that they have seen a huge increase in the number of companies looking to certify products as vegan in the last two years.

Vandenberg said the company has had to increase staff to accommodate the influx. It now receives one or two new requests for a product, product line, or company to be certified as vegan every day.

In the past, Vandenberg said, the majority of products they received requests for were food products. But In the last two years, they have seen an increase in personal care, fitness and clothing products. Vandenberg believes companies are certifying products as vegan primarily for marketing purposes, as they realize non-vegans may be more comfortable with plant-based products as long as they are priced similarly to non-vegan products.

Anecdotally, vegan food retailers and vegan activists say that vegans tend to be younger and female, and are often college students or live in urban areas. According to research by Gallup, the highest concentration of vegans is among those making under $30,000 a year, those under 50 years of age, and those who identify as liberal.

According to vegan activists and conversations with vegans themselves, there are three main reasons people are going vegan or plant-based. The first is to minimize the harm done to animals.

“The vast majority of animals who are killed for food here in the U.S. are kept on filthy and overcrowded factory farms where there’s just rampant animal abuse,” said Jennifer Behr, the  Corporate Liaison for PETA. “And people are becoming more aware of that and deciding to adopt vegan eating.”

Valerie Bardascino, a small business owner and activist for Mercy for Animals, who became vegan in January 2018, said that over time she and her family could not stand to eat animals anymore.

“We all just became very aware of the fact that we loved animals, but we ate them,” said Bardascino. “So there became a conflict, I think, in all of our lives.”

Many people also go vegan to improve their health. According to studies, despite the risk of nutrient deficiencies that can result from a poorly planned vegan diet, becoming vegan can have many health benefits. Studies show that going vegan can help people lose weight, improve blood sugar levels and kidney function, reduce risk of developing certain cancers and heart disease, and reduce pain from arthritis.

Michael Trigiano, a chef who has been vegan for eight years, said that going vegan vastly improved his quality of life. Trigiano said he lost almost 100 pounds over the course of several years, stopped having high cholesterol and blood pressure, was able to go off many prescription medications and had much more energy.

More recently, people are adopting a more plant-based diet because of the impact factory farming has on the environment and climate change.

In May 2018, scientists behind the most in-depth study on the environmental impact of factory farming said that the biggest way in which people can reduce their negative impact on the environment is by avoiding meat and dairy. The study showed that despite taking up 83 percent of farmland, meat and dairy production provides only 18 percent of calories and produces approximately 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and water and air pollution.

The increase in vegan options in grocery stores and restaurants may also be influencing people to eat vegan more often. Behr said that having more vegan options available creates a positive feedback loop between the market for vegan products and the companies providing them. As more vegan options appear, people find it easier to go vegan, which increases the demand for vegan products, and companies respond by creating more vegan options.

Behr also said that the more consumers see vegan options available, the more veganism becomes seen as normal, and the more people become aware of animal rights issues.

Torella added that the quality of vegan food has also increased in the last several years. He said that the vegan food available today does not compare to the options he had when he went vegan 11 years ago.

“Veggie burgers ten, fifteen years ago tasted a lot more like vegetables,” said Torella. “Whereas now you have veggie burgers that taste a lot more like meat.”

Animal rights activists said the internet and social media have made it easier to spread their message, allowing for more videos of factory farming to be spread, more educational materials on veganism to be shared, and easy vegan recipes to be found by those looking to cook vegan.

“The internet – it totally opened up the world to see the realities of factory farming, to see hens crammed in cages for eggs, to see pigs on slaughterhouse lines,” said Torella.

“It’s almost like once you see it and once you make that connection, you can’t unsee it,” said Behr.

Torella said that previously, activists would have to make 100 VHS tapes of undercover investigations of factory farms to give out at events.

“Nowadays, we can do an undercover investigation or create a new video, put it on social media, and have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of people view that footage immediately,” said Torella.

Behr also said that increased visibility through celebrities and positive press coverage in recent years has contributed to elevating animal rights issues and normalizing veganism.

Many vegans mentioned the role that documentaries played in their decision to go vegan. Documentaries such as “Cowspiracy,” “What the Health,” and “Earthlings” have gained notoriety in the past decade.

Still, according to Gallup, vegans make up only three percent of the population. Vegans said that they believe this to be due to lasting stigmas against them, fears that one will not enjoy vegan diet, and the cultural and social norms of consuming meat and dairy.

Regardless, even non-vegans in the food industry think that veganism is not going away. Wade said that she does not view veganism as just a trend.

“I feel like [veganism] is something that is here to stay,” said Wade. “And as a chef and restaurateur, I’d rather be on the forefront of it.”

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