The number of vegans is rising rapidly across Europe. But is the food industry meeting demand? Chris Evans speaks to experts to find out
The Vegan Society in the UK has launched an ambitious campaign to get all public sector menus offering good, nutritious vegan food. At the moment, some hospitals, schools and prisons are distinctly lacking.
Social media is awash with stories of vegans being supplied with inadequate food. There’s even a special group called Vegan Hospital Food Hits and Misses, where vegans share photos and stories, like being served just a slice of toast or a pile of green beans.
“Many standard vegan options currently provided by public sector caterers are nutritionally inadequate,” believes Dominika Piasecka, a spokesperson at The Vegan Society. “This is due to a number of reasons, such as lack of knowledge of vegan nutrition or simply a lack of imagination.”
This ignorance or apathy may not have been such a concern a few years ago, but with up to 8% of European consumers now vegan, this is becoming a sustainable business issue for the public and private sector.
The general consensus is that this vegan trend has taken the entire food industry a little by surprise. “This trend almost came from nowhere,” says Chris Stern FCSI, managing director of Stern Consultancy in the UK. “There’s inevitably a nervousness that it may just be a fad, but businesses are catching up.”
Much like with the vegetarian explosion, it’s a case of restaurants and food suppliers getting their heads around what’s required to meet demand. “Retailers need to be working more closely with their suppliers to ensure an ample provision of plant-based options is available, as well as looking at consumer and market trends so they can provide what is currently in demand,” insists Robert Rona, a food expert and director of new products and services at Light Bites, a subsidiary of Triangle Nutrition.
This need to meet demand is widespread across Europe. In Germany, for example, vegan soy bratwursts are proving a popular alternative to the standard sausage. Indeed, Germany launched more vegan food products than any other country in 2016.
“The demand for vegan products and dishes in Germany is rising substantially,” agrees Tim Oberstebrink, vice chairman of FCSI EAME and editor of Foodservice Equipment News, based in Dusseldorf, Germany. “In my experience, there is in fact a disparity towards demand over supply, especially in rural areas, as far as food outlets are concerned.”
Oberstebrink believes increased competition to attract the growing number of vegan customers should drive a change in menus. Already, we are seeing specialist vegan restaurants opening up across Europe.
“If you walk down Brick Lane in London there are an abundance of vegan only restaurants,” says Rona. “But here lies the problem. A vegan shouldn’t have to hunt down diet-specific places to eat.”
But he doesn’t believe the answer is Vegan specific menus at mainstream restaurants: at least not yet. “For years, vegetarians have come to recognise symbols or menu areas that cater to them, and restaurants are gradually following that trend with vegans – usually relying on the ‘leaf’ symbol,” he explains.
In Italy, there is a growing acceptance that veganism is here to stay. Italian consultant Piero Ferrari FCSI, has even decided to move into this specialist field by working for a vegan company, La Casara Veg.
“The number and quality of vegan products is increasing,” he insists. “There are now ‘alternative’ cheeses, salamis and burgers. It’s not just about providing carrots or lettuce.”
This is one of the driving forces of The Vegan Society campaign in the UK. Their website provides plenty of useful advice on the kinds of meals that can be prepared.
“A strong vegetarian offering should promote inclusivity, sustainability and good nutrition, and can be a very cost-effective option due to the cheapest foods on the market – beans, pulses, rice, vegetables, etc – being suitable for vegans,” says Piasecka.
The more inventive outlets don’t make a fuss and simply produce something delicious that also happens to be vegan, which is the ideal virtuous circle, insists Stern.
Governments also need to play their part. “They should be doing more to push this issue up their agenda,” Rona believes. “By taking the matter public and making a big deal of it, through their support and awareness raising, the food industry is much more likely to take substantial steps to meeting the increasing needs of the vegan consumer.”
Technically, being a vegan is a human rights and equality matter. They should have the option of non-meat food at an outlet where they are paying for food.
But Stern is not convinced by the human rights argument. “Unless someone is somewhere where they have no choice but to eat there, then I personally find it absurd that failing to offer a vegan choice is an infringement of human rights.
“The far greater imperative in virtually every catering outlet is a commercial one. Luckily, this means meeting the needs of your customers and if vegans are such a tiny minority among a customer base that it’s impossible to do so profitably, then welcome to capitalism!”
Oberstebrink also doesn’t think it’s a political issue. “It’s a good trend and way of living. Vegans are a minority, but they don’t need political assistance. The market will decide – when the demand for good vegan food rises, the caterers will satisfy it.”
Farm to plate
For those wishing to specifically cater for vegans, the process is certainly not straightforward. “It’s much easier to bulk produce something that either has meat in or doesn’t. For veganism, you’ve got to take out all other animal products, including dairy, as well as moving production locations to a factory that has no contaminants,” explains Rona. “They’ve also got to cater for vegans using more limited ingredients and adapting their practices in the kitchen.”
It is therefore vital that going down that route is a viable commercial venture. “Let’s allow caterers to catch up, especially when they are operating in an area they’re not used to,” says Stern. “They need to establish what vegans eat, then re-set their imagination when it comes to preparing compliant dishes. I have no doubt that in a short time vegan needs will be much better met.”
Roundup: The health debate
Robert Rona: The wider public health debate is another impact to those who are debating becoming vegan or not. As the jury is still out, people are waiting to be told whether it is, or isn’t, good for you. Again, it comes down to the knowledge of food, and it needs addressing regarding good nutrition. Veganism should not be singled-out as an unhealthy diet to follow, all people should ensure that they’re getting all key nutrients irrespective of their lifestyle choice.
Piero Ferari: Doctors don’t support vegans in Italy. They say vegan food is not sufficient for children.
Chris Stern: I’m not alone in making comments like “you’re looking well – are you truly a vegan?” Of course it can be dangerous as can any restrictive diet. It requires devotees to be sensible about ensuring they get all the correct nutrients, which can be especially challenging when eating out, where the choice may be severely limited. It surely must be a parental responsibility to ensure children eat a balanced and healthy diet, whether or not it’s vegan.
Tim Oberstebrink: We shouldn’t take everything too seriously. Veganism is a mega trend and data is far too recent to deliver long-term studies. The debate is the same as for all diets.
Dominika Piasecka: All parents need to ensure that their children’s diet is nutritious, and vegans are no exception. A well-planned vegan diet will provide a child with all the essential nutrients needed for growth and development.