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How veganism went from a fringe food cult to a multibillion-pound industry

Once considered faddish, plant-based eating is now a huge movement. But has it drifted too far from its ethical roots?

When 19-year-old Olivia arrived for her 10:30am shift at the bakery chain Greggs on 3 January 2019, she walked into a “bomb site”. Her colleagues on the early-morning shift hadn’t taken the breakfast menu down and the drinks fridge lay empty. There were so many customers, Olivia says, that some cashiers had been unable to take their morning breaks. That day Greggs had launched its first vegan sausage roll in 950 of its 1,950 shops – Olivia’s Yorkshire bus station branch just happened to be one of them.

“It was manic,” says Olivia (a pseudonym). “The shop opened at half six in the morning and the demand didn’t go down until half five at night… We were all completely drained.”

The Greggs vegan sausage roll – made in collaboration with 34-year-old meat-substitute company Quorn – is the bakery’s fastest-selling new product in six years. Less than a week after the trial, Greggs updated its 2019 profit forecast from £86m to £88m and the company’s shares rose by 7.7 per cent. 

Over the past few years, vegan food has become extraordinarily popular. In 2018, the Vegan Society registered 9,590 new products as vegan – a 52 per cent increase on products that carried the society’s official trademark in 2017. In September 2018 alone, Iceland launched its No Bull frozen vegan range; Magnum released two pea-protein ice creams; Hellman’s started selling vegan mayonnaise; Pizza Express introduced a new vegan pizza; and Costa Coffee launched a vegan cookie. Every major British supermarket announced or expanded a vegan range in 2018. A day before Greggs released its sausage roll, Marks & Spencer launched its 60-dish Plant Kitchen range.

“The development process was really, really quick,” says Claire Richardson, the lead product developer for Plant Kitchen. “It was under four months – that’s probably less than half the time we usually take to
develop a range.”

We are in the middle of a vegan arms race. A once-fringe food fad has been consumed by capitalism – but how, and why? While a record-breaking 250,000 people took part in Veganuary 2019 – a month-long charity initiative in which people follow a plant-based diet – the Vegan Society says that overall, vegans make up just 1 per cent of the UK population. Why are businesses falling over themselves to cater for a marginal market?

“The food industry is ruthless and laser-like in keeping its attention on trends and changes,” says Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London and author of Food Wars: The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets. “They’ll take things from the utter fringe and slightly normalise them – indeed they’ll help hype them up, happily – so they’re seen to be riding those streams.” While veganism is still marginal, Waitrose’s 2018 food and drink report found a third of Britons now deliberately reduce their meat-intake, while grocery analysts IGD report that 52 per cent of British shoppers either are, or are interested in becoming, vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian.

Flexitarians are people who try to reduce their meat consumption but aren’t militant about it. Lang says that widely available scientific research about how the meat and dairy industry harms our planet, animals and bodies means consumers are now making more informed choices. Yet at present, the appetite for vegan foods is far larger than the appetite for veganism.

“Internally we were really clear that this is not a range for vegans,” says Marks & Spencer’s Claire Richardson. “This is a range for everybody.” Richardson says the supermarket tested different brand names on customers before deciding on Plant Kitchen.

“The word ‘vegan’ is actually quite off-putting for customers and ‘plant-based’ is something that even meat-eaters can get on board with,” she says. “I think the term ‘vegan’ has some connotations around animal rights and other issues that people might not necessarily be on board with.”

With Defra reporting in 2017 that the sale of meat products had declined by 7 per cent since 2012, supermarkets are turning to “plant-based” products to boost profits. “The Frankfurt School [Marxist social theorists] started talking about this in the 1930s and 1940s,” Lang says. “It’s the capacity of capitalism to incorporate its enemies and ameliorate them.”

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Arthur Ling decided to go vegan in 1926 – 18 years before there was a word for it – motivated by ethics and a concern for the environment. Ling chaired the newly formed Plantmilk Society in 1956, helping to popularise soy milk in the West. More than 60 years later, Plantmilk has become Plamil Foods, a Kent-based manufacturer of soy milk, egg-free mayonnaise and dairy-free chocolate.

“From there being tens of vegans around the country there are now millions and millions,” says Adrian Ling, Arthur’s son and the managing director of Plamil Foods. Ling says the company has experienced “exponential growth” in the past year (it is doubling production on most of its products in 2019), yet he is keen not to stray from the principles that motivated his late father.

“We produce everything as ethically as we can – we use renewable energy,” he says. The company has an “ethical policy” on its website, where it commits to recycling waste, forgoing tax havens and only using Fairtrade cocoa in its chocolate bars.

When the newly founded Vegan Society outlined its principles in 1951, it defined veganism simply as “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals”. For 70 years, veganism has principally been driven by ethics. Yet just as modern hyper-capitalised feminism strays from the movement’s more revolutionary roots (in 2014, the Mail on Sunday reported that Whistles’ £45 “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts were made in a Mauritian sweatshop by women earning 62p an hour), commercialised veganism is causing concerns. What’s lost when the animals gaining the most from veganism are fat cats?

“Vegan products have been in health-food stores for many years and they’re in supermarkets now because big companies have come in and they have the economic force to get them on to the shelf,” Ling says. “Which is great for veganism, but where does the money go?”

In January 2018, Ethical Consumer magazine warned its readers about vegan brands owned by meat and dairy parent companies. Alpro, one of the largest vegan milk alternatives, is owned by Danone – a French multinational company with a 24.4 per cent share in the global fresh dairy product market. “On social media, people are starting to ask where their money is going,” Ling says. “Is it just going into a pot of profits that’s ploughed back into the meat or dairy industry?”

Concerns have already arisen about Marks & Spencer’s range. On 7 January, the supermarket came under fire when consumers noticed some of its Plant Kitchen products were labelled “not suitable for milk or egg allergy sufferers”. The company explained on Twitter that cross-contamination in factories means that the range may not be entirely free from eggs and dairy.

“I think that’s wrong,” says Ling. Plamil manufactures dairy-free chocolate for a variety of other UK brands (none of which Ling will disclose), because industrial chocolate machines are difficult to clean, meaning dairy chocolate factories can’t rule out cross-contamination between batches.

“I think manufacturers should be encouraged to follow a completely ‘free from’ [eggs and dairy] approach,” Ling says. He disagrees with the Vegan Society’s decision to award its trademark to products, provided cross-contamination is kept to a minimum, because he believes this allows companies to be lax for the sake of profits.

Peter Link, founder of the world’s first vegan business magazine, Vegconomist (launched in 2017), says as in all markets, veganism has good and bad players. “We see a younger generation of managers who implement sustainability and ethical aspects in their vegan business. Others just get in for profit margins,” he says. He calls these profit margins “attractive”.

“Companies can charge the same or more for vegan alternatives as for meat, milk and cheese, but they can produce them cheaper,” Link says. After a backlash in January 2018, Marks & Spencer withdrew its “cauliflower steak” – two slices of cauliflower sold with a herb drizzle for £2 (a whole cauliflower costs £1 in its stores). That same month, Hannah Ewens, who is a vegan, complained in a Vice article that Sainsbury’s was selling “mushroom mince”, which was “£1.50 for straight-up chopped mushrooms in plastic packaging – not a true mince substitute by any stretch of the imagination”.

Does it matters where the so-called vegan pound ends up? The Vegan Society is pragmatic. “We’re not fooling ourselves that businesses are [releasing vegan ranges] for reasons of compassion,” says Dominika Piasecka, the society’s media officer. Instead, Piasecka is pleased that veganism is now more convenient. “Wherever you go, there are vegan options. It can only be a good thing.”

Remarkably, when Sainsbury’s began to place plant-based products in the meat aisle (next to their meat equivalents) in 2018, a quarter of the people who bought them were not customers who purchased from the usual meat-free section of the supermarket. “It increased our customer reach and helped customers who were looking to make a simple swap,” says James Hamilton, a plant-based buyer at Sainsbury’s. Arguably, the commodification of veganism already means fewer animals are being eaten.

 “The vegan lifestyle has started to significantly change consumer behaviour in a very short time like with no other trend before,” says Link, who also provides consultations for companies hoping to enter the vegan market. “Vegan business is here to stay.”

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For years, soy dominated vegan diets. Because of its high-protein content, the East Asian legume was made into milk, pressed into tofu and eaten in curries, stir-fries and salads. Now the pea is having its moment. Extracted pea protein is used to produce everything from ice cream to chicken nuggets to the world’s first “bleeding” vegan burger.

Creating vegan products is “real science,” says Heather Mills, the former model and founder of vegan food manufacturer VBites, whose meat, fish and dairy alternatives are made with pea protein, chickpeas and mushrooms. “Because we’ve done it for such a long time, we worked out how we could use natural ingredients to make things that tasted the same.”

Yet despite the increased appetite for pea protein – its largest American producer made over £76m in sales in 2018 – health-orientated veganism is not at the centre of the current boom.

“We wanted to hone in on something a little bit dirtier and make our niche,” says Sarah Augustine, a brand manager for Surrey-based food suppliers Winterbotham Darby, which launched its Squeaky Bean vegan range in January 2019. Augustine says the company noticed “really dirty, indulgent-style” vegan foods were becoming popular, so created “fishless fingers” and no-meat nuggets.

“Dirty” isn’t a word marketers traditionally like to be associated with their food products. For the past four years, 29-year-old Londoner Lucie Johnson has been documenting unhealthy vegan food on her Instagram account “Ugly Vegan”. She says veganism was originally sold as “elaborate salads” and “Buddha bowls” (protein-heavy bowls of grains and vegetables) but this didn’t tally with real vegan experiences.

“I went vegan because I care about the environment and animals – my health or the fact it was trendy never played a part in my decision,” she says. Her followers enjoy her “tragic ugly meals” and send her pictures of their “beige” dinners – one recent shot is of some instant noodles inside a panini. It seems the internet allowed companies a window into vegans’ true desires (Greggs’ roll was made after an online petition hit 20,000 signatures, and Squeaky Bean’s Augustine says the brand consulted with influential vegan Instagrammers). Dirty veganism sells.

Yet the so-called “crumbed and coated” market has its detractors. Ling believes there “can tend to be a rush to the bottom in nutritional profiles” with new vegan foods, while Mills brands Quorn “that awful, genetically modified mycoprotein”. (Quorn is quick to point out that mycoprotein is not in fact genetically modified.) Nellie Nichols, a food consultant who has helped brands develop recipes and source ingredients for more than 15 years, says dirty veganism makes her “nervous”.

Yet many vegans object to these criticisms, arguing that processed meat and dairy products aren’t renowned for their health benefits (in 2015, the World Health Organization reported that eating 50g of processed meat a day raises the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent). Nichols also notes that processed vegan foods can be healthy (pea protein milk contains 40 per cent less sugar than cow’s milk) and says increased competition means companies are now becoming more innovative with their meat alternatives.

 “I’m now doing more Willy Wonka stuff because that’s what’s being asked of me,” she says. She is currently helping a supplier make smoked salmon from carrots.

“There are so many processes to put that carrot through that it ends up being insanely expensive,” she says (the carrot is wrapped in seaweed, sliced thinly, smoked and re-smoked). Yet if veganism remains popular, Nichols says meat alternatives will only become more innovative. “It’s on point, it’s on trend, and consumers will now pay for it.”


Greggs' shares rose by 7.7 per cent after the launch of its vegan sausage roll in January

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On 3 January, the world’s largest fast food brands engaged in a desperate race to annoy Britain’s most infamous TV personality, Piers Morgan. After Greggs announced its new vegan roll on social media, Morgan tweeted his thoughts. “Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns,” he wrote. Greggs’ sassy response (“Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you”) went viral, and McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday’s quickly began tweeting to Morgan about their own vegan ranges in an effort to benefit from the publicity.

Veganism is embroiled in a culture war. It’s nothing new: in 2016, Sainsbury’s temporarily renamed its vegan cheese “Gary” after an irate internet commenter reacted to their dairy-free cheese with the words, “Call it Gary or something just don’t call it cheese because it’s not cheese!” But meat-lovers are increasingly angered by veganism. In January, the Spectator branded veganism a “war on meat”. In October 2018, the editor of Waitrose Food magazine, William Sitwell, rejected a pitch from a vegan freelance journalist by suggesting she instead write an article about “killing vegans, one by one”. The journalist tweeted the email, and Sitwell resigned after a furore, apologising to “any food- and life-loving vegan who was genuinely offended” by his “ill-judged joke”.

How exactly could a vegan sausage roll be perceived as “political correctness”? City University’s professor of food policy Tim Lang says the decline of conventional politics and the stagnation of wages means traditional tribal allegiances have been broken. “Lifestyle affiliations have become much more important. The new class configurations are much more about how you live, where you live, what your aspirations are. Veganism fits into that culture change.”

Whether you’re a carnivore or a vegan, diet is increasingly bound up with identity issues – making it extremely marketable. In February 2019, a Hyundai car commercial mocked vegan food by making an actor retch at the sight of a meatloaf substitute made of beetroot. The advert angered animal rights organisation Peta, who said the company had “outdated ideas”. The commercial ran  during the Super Bowl; adverts aired during the sporting event are so profitable that a 30-second clip can cost $4m. And being anti-vegan is now arguably just as profitable as being vegan: Sitwell has since become a Daily Telegraph restaurant critic.

Yet while multinational companies and angry middle-aged men alike profit from veganism, so too do ordinary young vegan women (perhaps illustrating how meat is tied to identity, only 37 per cent of the UK’s vegans are men). Like Ugly Vegan’s Johnson, a new breed of Instagram-famous vegan has arisen.

“You get paid to eat, I mean what could be better?” says 21-year-old Leeds University student Gemma Charman, who has more than 7,000 followers on her Instagramaccount “Addicted to Beans”. In exchange for a fee (Charman won’t disclose how much, but says it’s in the “hundreds”), the student posts adverts for vegan products on Instagram; she recently worked with Squeaky Bean.

“It’s such an amazing opportunity to be able to have as a bit of work on the side of uni,” Charman says. Tsouni Cooper, a 33-year-old Londoner with 35,000 Instagram followers, says teenage girls frequently message her asking for advice on how to become a famous Instagram vegan.

“They ask if they can pay me to give them a shout-out on my page,” Cooper says. “I do worry a bit about that.” She has done only a “handful” of paid posts on her account and has turned down opportunities with brands, but says young vegans increasingly want to make a career out of their lifestyle choices. Other young Instagrammers she knows have been paid up to £600 for a single post.

If an ordinary student can earn money posting pictures of nuggets and beans on social media, there is arguably an upside to the marriage of capitalism and veganism. While Johnson and Cooper have turned down offers from brands (Johnson says her “fuck the system” veganism means she prioritises independent vegan business), all three believe corporate veganism is beneficial to the movement.

“Ten years ago there was one vegan café in London,” says Cooper. “I’d get really excited if I found a burger that could be made vegan at a pub. Now I can’t keep up with all the new dishes, restaurants, supermarket products… I don’t have a problem with big companies jumping on the bandwagon, because my goal is to try to get fewer people eating animals.”

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Tim Lang has studied food for nearly 50 years and believes it is a fool who dismisses veganism as a fad. “Veganism is the consequences of Western food capitalism coming back to haunt us,” he says. “The world cannot go on producing meat at the rate it’s doing without destroying ecosystems. Something has to break – at the moment, it’s the planet.”

With vegan manufacturing booming in the UK, vegan diets could help the country reduce environmentally unfriendly imports and aid the economy in the face of Brexit. “What we’re trying to do in the north-east is make it the ‘Plant-Based Valley’, a bit like Silicon Valley in LA,” says VBites’ Mills; the brand purchased factories in Newcastle and Peterlee last year. Mills reveals she now manufactures products for European companies that fear it will be too expensive to sell into the UK after Brexit. “We need everyone to support and buy British products and make us a strong manufacturing country again,” she says.

The Plant-Based Valley may or may not catch on, but it’s clear the veganism boom is far from over.

“We have regulars, and I’ve noticed a couple of the regulars are going for the vegan sausage rolls rather than the normal ones,” says Greggs employee Olivia. “We aren’t as busy as the day of the launch, but we still do have plenty of customers that come in for vegan sausage rolls.” When asked if new vegan products are in the works, a Greggs spokesperson said “watch this space”.

The rise of veganism has created lots of winners. Marks & Spencer is profiting, but so is Adrian Ling. VBites will expand, and Vegconomist’s Link will undoubtedly find new readers for his magazine. Nellie Nichols can continue to innovate, and anyone clever enough to smoke a carrot has undoubtedly made a tidy sum. Vegans themselves now have a more varied diet, plus the occasional paycheck from companies seeking Instagram advertising. Somewhere along the line, it’s hoped, animals are benefiting too. 

Amelia Tait is a New Statesman contributing writer

Update: this article was amended on 22 March to reflect the fact that mycoprotein is not genetically modified.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency