Food & Drink

Why all your mates are turning veggie - and why you will too

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The eye-opening truth about a lifestyle trend that’s taking over the mainstream, by Joe Madden

The scene: one of north England’s most prolific slaughterhouses. A cow – let’s call her Sharon – faces down her predetermined doom. She’s being arse-barged into a stunning pen; an avuncular man named David loads his captive-bolt pistol, aims between Sharon’s eyes, and ka-chung, she’s on her side, still alive but with surprised-stiff limbs.

Hoisted up by a rear leg, Sharon’s now shunted around the corner to have her neck slashed; it’s the starvation of blood to the brain that’ll do her in. She flails as the blade enters; an involuntary twitch, apparently, rather than an indication of panicked agony. The blood-gush is fierce, noisy, metal-scented. It’s redolent of the lift doors opening in The Shining.

From there, Sharon journeys around the corner where her hide is roughly yanked off and her belly sliced open, end to end. Her red, white and purple innards tumble forth, caught by a worker who commences hacking and divvying them into the sellable and the inedible. You can make out Sharon’s lungs, but the rest is a mess of gory viscera, and by now I’m struggling to maintain my gaze.

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Sharon’s carcass – now red-raw, hoofless, hollowed – is tagged and shifted into a vast refrigerator unit to be hung, improving her flavour, before she’s sent out to a butcher. She’s no longer Sharon, of course, or even a she – it’s a selection of meals. That’s all it ever was, really, its entire existence. Chances are, you’re fine with that – but there’s a surprisingly strong possibility that, come the end of 2018, you won’t be.

Later that same day, on the other side of the city, it’s elbow-to-elbow along the canteen-style benches of Bundobust. A queue snakes out the door into the frosty Manchester air. The ambience in here is pointedly hipstery, with five-quid IPAs on draught, neck tattoos on the staff and esoteric tunes on the PA. The menu itself is Indian street food – cheap, speedy, entirely meat-free.

Launched in December 2016, Bundobust isn’t some cultish, out-of-the-way hole-in-the-wall: it’s on Piccadilly Gardens – the city centre’s centre – and bigger than many of its neighbours: there’s a Subway, McDonald’s, Nando’s, Pret, Pizza Express and Burger King all within line-of-sight.

A decade ago it would’ve been laughable to imagine a veggie restaurant not only annexing such a prime location, but also thriving in it. But vegetarianism and veganism are undeniably having a moment, moving from marginal to mainstream; 2018’s answer to athleisure, vinyl or craft beer. And the dramatic boom in meat-free eating isn’t solely down to swelling ranks of veggies and vegans. Yes, the UK has 1.2 million vegetarians and counting, while vegan numbers have exploded by 350% over the past 10 years to reach 542,000 – but the biggest change has been in the number of people casually going meat-free without fully committing to it.

A recent YouGov survey found that 25% of Britons can now be classed as ‘reducetarians’ – a clunky name for people actively reducing their meat intake – and there’s an ongoing surge in the number of ‘flexitarians’: crap vegetarians, basically, who eschew meat unless they’re hungover and their flatmate has some bacon on.

“The majority of our customers are meat-eaters,” says Bundobust founder Marko Husak. “I’m a meat-eater myself – but we are hopefully making them realise that you don’t need to eat meat as part of every meal.”

Veggie Pret in Exmouth Market

Bundobust’s neighbours are among those scrabbling to adjust. McDonald’s just did the unthinkable and launched the soy-based McVegan burger in Finland and Sweden, with a global rollout expected within months. Pret a Manger, meanwhile, is rethinking its strategy in the wake of sub-brand Veggie Pret’s surprise success.

“In 2015 we noticed sales of vegetarian products climbing,” says Hannah Dolan, Pret’s head of food development. “Our beets, squash and feta SuperBowl, for example, was outselling the chicken and salmon versions. So we opened a veggie pop-up shop in Soho the following June; it was only supposed to last a month, but it was so popular we kept it open for the summer, then made it permanent. A second Veggie Pret opened in April 2017, a third in October 2017. To meet demand, we’ve also introduced more veggie and vegan options to our regular shops – in fact, they now make up 51% of our menu.”

Even if you’re not already a veggie, vegan, reducetarian or flexitarian, you’ve doubtless noticed increasing numbers of your mates making the switch, whether half-arsedly or with righteous militancy. But why the hell is this happening now? And is it all just a passing trend, or are we in the midst of a permanent move towards meatlessness?

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For the sake of getting to the bottom of this, let’s assume that you and most of your mates are, on some level, cold-hearted bastards. You’ve cultivated a certain ‘moral flexibility’ that allows you to navigate modern life without being constantly hampered by guilt: you’ll buy Nike, use Amazon, scroll Facebook, despite knowing you probably shouldn’t, because you’re contributing to something bad, somewhere, but it feels abstract and insurmountable and so – sigh, shrug, pffft – sod it.

Likewise, most of us are happy to consume steak and chicken while being fully aware that the meat industry is bad for the environment, bad for public health and existentially bad for animals. None of these truths are revelatory news to anybody, and so it’d be daft to attribute the current boom in veggie-ism to a sudden, widespread moral outrage. (“So all those burgers I ate – they were made of cow?!”)

The following five factors, though? There’s probably something in these.

Illustration: Hanoch Piven

Wrestlers and rappers

Once unthinkable, there now exists an aura of coolness around vegetarianism and, in particular, veganism. Asked to picture a vegan 10 years ago, you’d conjure a frail yoghurt-knitter sporting clogs, harem pants and an air of pious superiority. Now, however, the lifestyle is imbued with a newfound sexiness by red-carpet types – yer Brad Pitts, yer Beyoncés – while becoming notably popular among the great thought leaders of our age: wrestlers and rappers.

“For me, it was about food quality,” says WWE star Trent Seven, joined on a conference call by his British Strong Style teammates – and fellow vegans – Pete Dunn and Tyler Bate. “When our grandparents had a Sunday roast, the meat had probably died one, two days earlier; but with supermarket meat now, you have no idea when, where or how it was killed. We just ram it down without even questioning it.”

Charismatic hunks-in-trunks, Seven, Bate and Dunn are shifting the public perception of what a vegan looks like. “I’ve no idea why there’s this image of the malnourished vegan,” says Pete Dunn. “But then people also think they’ll get fat from eating too many carbs – the cornerstone of a vegan diet – so they basically don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Rappers such as Jay Z, YG and A$AP Rocky, meanwhile, are also supplying veganism a much-needed image makeover.

“Countless hip-hoppers have come out as plant-based diet influencers,” says Tara Kriese, head of marketing at Impossible Foods, ‘the Tesla of fake meat companies’. “In inner-city environments there’s a backlash against quick-service restaurants, which are seen as targeting specific communities and causing health issues within them. You’re seeing increasing grassroots demand for alternative food options for those communities. There’s going to be fundamental change.”

And what inner-cities do today, the suburbs co-opt tomorrow. Dairy-free is the new dabbing.

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WWE’s Tyler Bate eats a vegan diet

“I watched this thing on Netflix last night, right…”

Once, The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder was the meat-free movement’s sole pop-culture propaganda – and it wasn’t even one of Moz and co’s best. Now, however, the movement spreads through word-of-mouth tips of documentaries aglow with celebrity stardust, including the DiCaprio-funded Cowspiracy, the Joaquin Phoenix-narrated Earthlings, and Simon Amstell’s sci-fi mockumentary Carnage, starring Martin Freeman, Joanna Lumley and grime legend Jme.

“Watching something like Cowspiracy or What The Health, you get the implications of meat and dairy, laid out in layman’s terms,” says Trent Seven. “For me, these documentaries were more convincing than seeing a cow being shot in the head or whatever, because they focus on the logical arguments for veganism, not the emotive ones.”

Freely accessible on YouTube, Netflix and iPlayer, these docs are, obviously, engineered to be as ruthlessly convincing as possible. If you can watch, say, Earthlings and scoff down a Whopper immediately afterwards then congratulations, you have ice-cold ninja blood in your veins.

Cowspiracy

Eating out as a veggie is no longer bleak AF

It was only a few years ago that most restaurants’ veggie options were reliably crap to the point of hostility. Bone-dry beanburgers abounded, and if you didn’t like it then tough. It was easy to dissuade yourself from going veggie when faced with the prospect of becoming an eating-out pariah.

Now that veggie and vegan options are plentiful and appealing, however, the transition from carnivore to herbivore is less of a masochistic slog. Newbies no longer even need bid farewell to greasy decadence, thanks to eateries such as Hackney’s fried-faux-chicken joint Temple Of Seitan, and companies such as Silicon Valley’s Impossible Foods, creators of the Impossible Burger – so loopily indistinguishable from the real thing, it even ‘bleeds’.

“Our team spent five years analysing every aspect of what people love about burgers,” says Impossible Foods’ Tara Kriese. “The look, smell, sizzle, texture, juiciness, the overall decadence. Our scientists then exactly recreated these experiences, using only ingredients derived from plants.

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“There’s always this frozen-in-time moment when people take their first bite, like, ‘I swear that’s animal!’

“Our sales sweet-spot right now isn’t vegetarians and vegans, it’s carnivores. It’s about putting the Impossible Burger in front of them and making it a very compelling choice. Here in the US, you can currently order one in 352 restaurants, and nearly all of them are meat-lover havens.”

When meat-free becomes identical to meat, people are forced to question why they’d opt for the latter. And as increasing numbers switch to fake meat, marketplace competition hots up, resulting in evermore ingenious foodstuffs and falling price points, creating yet more converts. Turns out capitalism was veganism’s secret weapon all along.

Alt-righters love steak

In the hyper-partisan horrorscape that is Politics 2018, adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle puts you satisfyingly at odds with alt-right ‘personalities’ such as Paul Joseph Watson and Infowars’ Alex Jones. For them, unthinking meat consumption is to be proudly worn as a badge of honour, and ‘soy boy’ is a cutting insult to be flung at libtard snowflakes.

Adopting a veggie lifestyle, then, is a way of indicating which side you’re on – ‘virtue-signalling’, alt-righters would call it. You’d feel derpy rocking a ‘Boo to Trump!’ T-shirt; dropping meat and dairy from your diet allows you to ‘say’ the same thing in a far subtler way.

“Vegetarianism and veganism is never just about diet,” says Dr Rob Lowe, lecturer in social psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. “People express their identities through food, whether it’s their ethnic identity, class identity or whatever. You’re expressing your internal values and linking yourself to people you regard as peers.”

And when you can get on Paul Joseph Watson’s tits simply by having lunch, veganism starts to seem pretty appealing.

You meet someone new, they de-meat you

It’s seldom acknowledged as a factor in the spread of meat-free lifestyles, but a sizable proportion of converts have been seduced/strong-armed into it by their other halves. Not every couple aligns their diets, but, when they do, it’s a one-way street: meat-eaters rarely manage to re-carnivorise veggies.

“Meat-eating causes cognitive dissonance,” says Dr Nicola Ray, lecturer in neuroscience at Manchester Metropolitan University. “People generally think of themselves as being ‘nice’, and the inherent cruelty of eating animals clashes with this, so they perform mental gymnastics to continue eating meat. But if they’re romantically involved with a vegetarian or vegan, they’re forced to repeatedly confront this contradiction, and the cognitive dissonance can become so unbearable that they cave and join their partner in abandoning meat.”

(Full disclosure, trusted reader: I’m a meat-eater living with a woman who switched to vegetarianism two years ago, and while I still make the odd feverish visit to Five Guys, I’ve found my diet steadily shifting through the gears from reducetarian to flexitarian, and I now stand on the brink of fully meat-free. It’s a war of attrition, and she’ll probably win in the end.)

But OK, let’s say you’ve thus far resisted going meat-free (or semi-meat-free), despite the vegan wrestlers, emotive documentaries, hyperreal faux-meat, goading alt-righters and annoyingly ethical lovers – how long would you hold out if meat-eating became outright socially unacceptable? What if scarfing down a sausage roll resulted in the same disdainful looks that a smoking pregnant woman invites?

It’s not going to happen anytime soon, but it’s not exactly science-fiction, either. Consider veganism, the most hardcore of meat-free lifestyles: if its growth continues at its current rate then by 2028 one-in-35 Britons will be vegan; by 2038, virtually all |of us will be. Imagine how outré flesh-eating would seem then.

There’s certainly no lack of ambition within the meat-free movement. “Our mission is to completely transform the global food system by 2050,” says Kriese. “By then, we’d like to see no more animal-based food production on this planet. That’s going to take a lot of innovation, so we’re working on chicken, pork, fish and dairy products.

“We’ve had the digital revolution; the food industry is the next sector to watch. Half of all land mass is now taken up by food production, and even that’s not meeting the planet’s needs. The population is growing dramatically, so a global shift to meat-free is a foregone conclusion. It has to happen. It is a requirement.”

She sounds far more motivated about this than you are about eating Greggs steak bakes. It’s a war of attrition, and she’ll probably win in the end.  

(Main image: Sun Lee)