I’m always fascinated when, after the Christmas binge, Veganuary comes around each year. I’m interested in the adverts that offer everyone plant-based favourites such as burgers and sausages; there’s a big push on meat alternatives and, although I’ve never been a great fan of meat substitutes, I can see why they are so popular. They are easy to prepare and they replace a meal that people are used to having with a meat-free copy. Of course, these alternative choices are available all year round, not just in January. People can opt for plant-based food whether they change their eating habits big time or just want to eat less meat because they believe it’s better for long term health or for the planet or simply better for the animals who don’t get eaten. I’m a huge admirer of all these people: to make changes because it’s better for the wider good of others is impressive.
I have a friend I’ve lost touch with – she lives in Yorkshire somewhere now and if you read this, Hilary, give me a shout. She’s been vegan for years and absolutely loves meat. I admire her so much for her stance. It’s easy for me to be vegan – I was brought up with dead animals all around me being prepared for food, so I had to either see it as normal and tasty, or not. I chose the latter: I simply didn’t like meat. It was quite difficult to be vegetarian and vegan when I was a kid though, as there were very few of them about. One person once said to me in all seriousness, ’You’re vegan? I’m so sorry. How long have you got?’
I didn’t eat eggs; I don’t like them – no heroics from me – and I wasn’t too fussed about cheese, so my choices were limited. I remember at eighteen as a student being offered a green pepper stuffed with cooked lentils in the refectory. No flavours, spices, nothing else. I was almost sick on the spot. Vegan food was often worthy, unimaginative or dire!
In those days, the only vegans I knew were me and Benjamin Zephaniah. Now there are lots of us. There are vegetarians, flexitarians, people who decide on a daily basis, and that means great progress in terms of available meals. Nowadays, it’s easier to get plant-based food in restaurants and supermarkets: in the past, lettuce and tomato salad was the best a vegan could hope for. For years, I’ve been inventive in the kitchen, making burgers from sweet potatoes and stuffing tacos with jackfruit, frying banana blossom in batter, using apple cider in pancakes and chia seeds in muffins. It’s great fun, but you don’t have to forage for unusual ingredients now – they are in all the supermarkets, and plant-based food comes in boxes you buy from the local shop. There are viable alternatives to all meats made from everything from mushrooms to vital wheat gluten.
One problem is that it can be expensive; a burger made from mushrooms can be pricier than one made from a cow. Bonkers, isn’t it? It often costs me an extra 50p to have plant milk in coffee when I’m out. But a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s very cheap to cook vegan at home: once you’ve bought a few basics, it can be very economical. All diets can be expensive if you buy expensive stuff. Caviar, lobster, steak, broccoli, lentils. Which are cheapest?
Plant-based choices in many restaurants can be limited; I can think of one place I have been to with my brother where meat and fish eaters get twenty choices and I have to have the sweet potato curry with no other vegetables in it at all, just potatoes in a runny bland sauce and white rice. It is horrible. There’s no reason why vegans should eat tasteless food anymore. Nor should there be meals like one I was recently offered in a pub – ‘quinoa, kale and feta salad – we’ll just leave the feta out, Madam, and charge you the same price.’ Like hell you will! I’ll go to my local Nepalese chef where my choices are endless and delicious!
Health is always a central concern when it comes to food and we all need to eat healthily whether we are plant-based or not. We can avoid the saturated fat that comes with an animal diet by eating less of it: there are healthy alternatives, from chick peas to fish. I take vitamins that include B12 to make sure I’m healthy. It’s really about knowing your onions, and your vitamins.
Protein is very easy to find in meat and fish, and it’s also easy to find if you’re vegan – it abounds in many beans, peas and vegetables, so I don’t worry about getting enough protein although my poor mum did worry when I was a kid, bless her. She’d say ‘can’t you put a bit of gravy on it? What about a cup of nice hot Bovril?’ But I am a bit concerned about the trend that says ‘you can be vegan and eat lots of ‘normal’ things – biscuits, cakes crisps, puddings, processed food.’ Sweet foods aren’t for bingeing, and that seems to be how they are often marketed.
The big food manufacturers have caught on to the chance to profit from the plant-based trend and my concern is that, although once vegan food was seen as a healthy choice, now there’s the opportunity to eat all sorts of unhealthy food and still be vegan. Of course, everyone has freedom of choice about what they consume, but the advertising industry is very shrewd and bad vegan food has become widely available and made to look very attractive. I wonder how many well-meaning people are aware that one particular fast-food plant-based burger contains over 500 calories, it is cooked on the same range as meat and egg products and is made from – take a breath – Water, Pea Protein, Canola Oil, Coconut Oil, Natural Flavours, Rice Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Pomegranate Extract, Potassium Chloride, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Vinegar, Yeast Extract, Carrot Powder, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice (colour), Maltodextrin. I know some of those ingredients are okay and all are plant-sourced, but when I compare it to the cheaper burgers I make at home with six ingredients and half the calories, I know which I’d choose. There are some great recipe books around to support plant-based food too. Have a look at the Bosh! Boys or Gaz, The Avant Garde Vegan. Their websites are impressive too, and they even have videos of them cooking it.
Take-away meals are a big part of our culture and many such meals are high in unsaturated fats or lots of sugar. We know diet and health are inextricably linked, and people of all dietary persuasions are being tempted by less healthy choices. It’s okay to eat a less-healthy meal once in a while or have the odd glass of beer or wine, but not all the time. For me, the 80:20 is a good measure of how to approach the situation. That’s 80 healthy and 20 treats, not the other way round…
I belong to a few vegan groups and most vegans I know are lovely, tolerant and well-informed people but there are still a few individuals who like to make a big noise. I’ve heard a lot of shouting about ethical shopping, clothing and beauty products: the latest discussion point seems to be whether ‘the covid vaccine is vegan.’ I’ve researched it and I’ve found the PETA website really informative, explaining the vaccine composition – the two types I’ve had are fine – and that the problem most vegans may have lies with animal testing, which is a legal requirement apparently. Being a human and making choices is what we have to do, vegan or otherwise, but it isn’t fair to intimidate others. People can always put their points of view across calmly and peacefully, or they can allow others to research and come to their own conclusion. I’ve never paid any attention to anyone who shouted at me, so it clearly doesn’t work.
Being vegan suits me: I’m happy with my lifestyle, the food I eat, the ethical choices I make, the positive effect on the environment. I’m fortunate to be in such a blessed position. As my mum used to say, when she was a kid they ate scraps and bread and dripping and were glad of it. And my dad ate meat and anything else that was available free, from the land. I know it’s a privilege to be able to make choices.
I hope everyone who has tried plant-based food in Veganuary has enjoyed it and that you won’t wait another year before trying it again. But it’s your choice entirely as you weigh up the facts and make up your own minds. The important thing is that you are happy and healthy and that you spare a thought for animals and the environment. There will certainly be no pressure from me.
I wish you all the best, whether you’ve sampled Veganuary or not. May the rest of the year be a healthy and happy one for us all.