Pass the tofu: How eating vegan became a billion-dollar business

Why We Wrote This

Meat consumption continues to grow worldwide, but so does the number of people considering, carefully, the ethics of eating any product derived from animals.

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
Chef Dyllan Armenta prepares a vegan oat and chickpea hamburger at the Tasty Beet Juicy and Healthy Food restaurant in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Jan. 29, 2018.

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Geordie Brown, a 27-year-old Canadian actor, adopted a vegan lifestyle after his annual January health kick. For Mr. Brown, it started as a two-week challenge. Then it turned into four weeks, and now it’s been two years.

“I can’t really justify a reason to go back,” he says. “I have tons of energy. There has been no food that I was missing, so I have never turned back.”

Veganism is more mainstream than it ever has been, with more people, particularly millennials, adopting a vegan lifestyle for their own wellness, the wellness of the environment, and the wellness of animals.

You don’t need to store your grill in the garage just yet. Meat consumption continues to grow – especially in emerging economies like China. And strict vegans still comprise a fraction of the population in rich countries: just 2.3 percent in Canada, and 3 percent in the United States. But the fundamentals of plant-based eating have been promoted by everyone from Beyoncé to Bill Clinton. The past five years has ushered in a new era for the legume, tofu, and tempeh.

“Veganism has transformed from this more fringe and rights movement into a more mainstream lifestyle,” says Nina Gheihman, a Canadian sociologist. “Instead of it being seen as a marginal thing, where people eat alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast ... it’s seen as aspirational.”

Sam Turnbull is what you might call an accidental vegan.

From a family of chefs and hunters in Sunderland, Ontario, she grew up in a house decorated with animal heads, where the eggs they ate came from their own chickens. She says she’s the last person who thought she’d give up meat or cheese to embrace a 100 percent animal-free diet.

But one day in 2012, right before Christmas, she wasn’t feeling her best and turned on a documentary called “Vegucated,” which she thought was going to inspire her to eat more vegetables. Instead it was about veganism – and she says it dispelled all the ideas she held until then that vegans were, as she puts it, “weird and crazy – and lacking in protein.”

Driven by equal parts ethics, health, and environmental concerns, she got up from the screen, cleared her kitchen of animal food products, and adopted a new lifestyle cold turkey (no pun intended). “I realized that I basically couldn’t not be vegan if I wanted to live my life according to my own values,” she says.

Today Ms. Turnbull has made it her goal to bring veganism to the masses – to those who might associate the extreme form of vegetarianism that eschews not just the flesh of animals but all foods they produce, like eggs, milk, and even honey, with radical, angry, activism. Instead she creates recipes she shares on a blog she named “It doesn’t taste like chicken,” posts her meals on Instagram, and uploads cooking shows to YouTube.

“Hi friends, it’s Sam!” she opens her most recent video on how to make vegan cinnamon buns, with a characteristic huge smile and wave. She keeps things light as she sets out to replicate the comfort foods she craves – chocolate cake, (tofu) bolognese, and vegan fried “eggs.” It’s the opposite of what she found seven years ago, when she went searching for new ways of cooking. “Everything was like green bowls, and Buddha this and that, and power smoothies and green smoothies and chia balls,” she says.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
Josefine Maran, one of the owners, scans products at Maran Vegan, Austria’s first vegan supermarket, in Vienna Jan. 31, 2018.

Today her visibility over social media is part of the reason why veganism is more mainstream than it ever has been, with more people, particularly millennials, adopting a vegan lifestyle for their own wellness, the wellness of the environment, and the wellness of animals.

You don’t need to store your grill in the garage just yet. Meat consumption continues to grow worldwide – especially in emerging economies like China. And strict vegans still comprise a fraction of the population in rich countries: just 2.3 percent in Canada, and 3 percent in the United States. But the fundamentals of veganism, centered around plant-based eating, have been promoted by everyone from Beyoncé and Bill Clinton, to environmentalists, doctors, and government officials. The past five years have ushered in a new era for the legume, the pulse, tofu, and tempeh.

“Veganism has transformed from this more fringe and rights movement into a more mainstream lifestyle,” says Nina Gheihman, a Canadian sociologist pursuing a Ph.D. in the social aspects of veganism at Harvard University. “Instead of it being seen as a marginal thing, where people eat alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast as Woody Allen said in the ‘Annie Hall’ film in the ’70s, it’s seen as aspirational.” That runs the gamut from athletes focused on performance, to those who are seeking glowing skin, to environmental scientists warning the world it must reduce consumption of animal products to be able to feed the planet in the future.

Booming plant business

While abstaining from animal products was practiced in ancient societies such as Greece and India, the word vegan is traced to 1944, when the U.K. Vegan Society was founded. This year it celebrates its 75th anniversary – and what was once a rights-based or hippy movement has become decisively fashionable.

One British survey this summer counted 3.5 million British vegans, or 7 percent of the population, up from half a million people in 2016 (although many claim that increase must be exaggerated, reflecting respondents’ aspirations more than what is on their plates). 

If the real numbers are smaller, the plant business is booming nevertheless. According to market research in June 2018 by Nielsen, in the U.S. the plant-based food industry saw dollar sales growth of 20 percent from the year before, worth more than $3.3 billion. A telling moment came in 2016, when Tyson Foods, the biggest meat processor in the U.S., bought a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, maker of alternative vegan proteins. In Toronto, like many urban metropolises, new vegan restaurants seem to pop up monthly, while chefs ignore vegan options at their own peril.

And while rich countries have adopted veganism with voguish zeal, vegans point out that it’s a democratic movement for all – that a bowl of rice and beans costs much less than oven-baked chicken breasts. Ms. Turnbull intentionally uses ingredients in her recipes from her local Loblaws supermarket – not high-priced products only available in urban specialty stores.

And despite the stereotype, it’s not just a rich, white movement. Vegetarian dishes, many of them vegan, are the staples in many societies from India to the Middle East. There is a thriving black vegan movement, from the U.S. to South Africa. The website “Black Vegans Rock” points out that “saying that veganism is white erases all of these incredible diverse Black voices and contributions.”

No group is driving the changing diet more than the young. According to a survey from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canadian consumers under 35 are three times more likely than those 49 or older to consider themselves vegetarian or vegan.

Geordie Brown, a 27-year-old Canadian actor, adopted a vegan lifestyle after his annual January health kick. Like Ms. Turnbull, he turned on a series of documentaries on Netflix. For Mr. Brown, it started as a two-week challenge, and then it turned into four weeks, and now it’s been two years.

“I can’t really justify a reason to go back,” he says. “I feel healthier. My skin feels clearer. I am going to the gym six times a week, I have tons of energy. There has been no food that I was missing, so I have never turned back.”

In Vegandale

The movement can feel both faddish and cultish. Mr. Brown is lunching at a vegan cafe in a community in the west end of Toronto that’s been dubbed “Vegandale.” It is a play on the neighborhood’s real name, “Parkdale,” with an onslaught of restaurants, cafes, a brewery, and stores that only sell vegan products. One T-shirt reads “Kale is the new beef”; hipster caps have the word “vegan” stitched on them. Behind the cashier is a wall mural depicting “Vegandale,” with the message, “The world is vegan if you want it.” The artist painted cows, pigs, goats, and cats walking down a stretch of this community.

His friend Michelle Bohn, with whom he is lunching, lives in this neighborhood – an old immigrant enclave that is quickly gentrifying – and says that the rebranding of the community has irked some locals. “It is a little evangelical,” says Ms. Bohn, who tends to eat vegetarian. “There are a lot of vegans who have just switched into the lifestyle that tend to broadcast it and convert people when they’ve made that decision. I’m not sure if it’s because they’ve realized how unsustainable our way of living is, or if they need reassurance they made the right decision.”

Vince Talotta/The Toronto Star via ZUMA/Newscom
A mural in The Imperative shop in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood locally known as ‘Vegandale,’ because of all the vegan restaurants and stores that have opened in the rapidly gentrifying immigrant enclave.

And vegans can also still be seen as hardliners. Marni Ugar leads noisy protests outside of nonvegan restaurants in Toronto whose policies she objects to. One chef was so fed up with them that he carved a deer leg in his restaurant’s front window, and she has received angry messages from pro-hunting groups. She doesn’t flinch.

“This is a social justice movement. There is sexism, there is racism, there is speciesism. They are next to each other, they are all the same,” says Ms. Ugar, who was a longtime vegetarian but switched to veganism, giving up the yogurt she once devoured, after learning about inhumane practices in milk production. “You cannot be a feminist, from my perspective, and support dairy.”

Still, many of today’s vegans don’t identify with some of that militancy. Says Mr. Brown: “I take it as a compliment when people find out and are surprised. Whatever I am, I’m breaking the stereotype of whatever that person thought a vegan was.”

Growth of the ‘flexitarian’

If health fads are drawing converts, concerns about the carbon footprint could inspire the longest-lasting changes in eating habits, producing more “flexitarians,” or those who reduce meat consumption in favor of more plants. A report in the British journal The Lancet this year said that the world will only be able to feed an estimated 10 billion people by 2050 if citizens don’t adopt a largely plant-based diet. It was signed by 30 scientists from around the globe. “Even small increases in the consumption of red meat or dairy foods would make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve,” the summary reads.

While strict veganism remains a fraction of Canadian society, the Dalhousie survey shows that 6.4 million Canadians already follow a diet that restricts meat partially or completely. Just over half of respondents said they are willing to reduce their meat consumption, and one-third are willing to do it in the next six months.

A symbol of how popular plant-based eating has become emerged this winter when Health Canada, the country’s federal health department, unveiled the 2019 food guidelines.

The first overhaul since 2007, the new guide gives new prominence to “plant-based eating” – like chickpeas or nuts, for example – and less to meat or milk.

It has largely been commended by groups like Dietitians of Canada. But some industry groups, from the Dairy Farmers of Canada to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, issued press releases reminding Canadians of the importance of meat and milk as part of a healthy diet. Some critics have scoffed that it, while not technically but in principle, jumps on a vegan bandwagon.

Andrew Samis, a surgeon from Kingston, Ontario, questions whether there was a “vegan agenda” behind the guidelines. He says plant-based eating – the parlance itself problematic to him because he says it’s ideological – is the answer for some Canadians but not for all for a multitude of health reasons. Many worry about getting enough nutrients, like B12, which many vegans take as a supplement.

“I don’t think that the vegan diet is necessarily unhealthy for all people,” he says. “But this is Health Canada saying it and proposing it as a diet for all Canadians.... I think it’s reasonable to ask: Is this a vegan ideological agenda overlaid on Canada’s food guide?”

Chicken at a church fair

David Jenkins, a father of the glycemic index and professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, hopes so. He once, unwittingly, was part of the trend toward more carnivorous habits. His relative ranking of carbohydrates in foods gave rise to diets like Atkins that eschew carbohydrates for protein, which he says was never his intention. He’s been a vegetarian since he was a child, after winning a Bantam chicken at a church fair whose offspring was served for Christmas lunch, which he refused to eat.

Today he is a strict vegan, and says he sees it as the only sustainable path forward, an ethos that is growing in strength in younger generations looking at planetary wellness.

“You begin to realize that perhaps you should be looking at sustainable humane diets,” he says. “It’s not just what does the best for humans, period, but what does the best for the environment and other species that works well for humans.”

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