As New Year dietary fads go, giving up meat, dairy and fish altogether might seem extreme for the average person looking to shed a few pounds. Yet there are growing signs that 2014 could be the year that veganism – often viewed as the preserve of hippies, animal activists and health obsessives – stops being a niche dietary choice and gains new followers, and not just because of soon-forgotten resolutions.
This year will see the German supermarket chain ‘Veganz – We Love Life’ opening its first branch in the UK, offering over 6,000 vegan products. The store is hoping to take advantage of increasing interest in non-meat, non-dairy food, with celebrities such as Jay Z and Beyoncé among those to have reportedly tried adopting veganism.
Most UK supermarkets already stock vegan products, but Veganz is the first dedicated chain store of its kind in Europe. Set up in 2011, the company hopes to open a total of 21 stores across the continent by 2015 to meet growing demand.
The choice of not consuming any animal products at all is currently being promoted by Mark Bittman’s book VB6, which takes a “flexitarian” approach - advocating eating a vegan diet before 6pm.
“By going 100 per cent vegan I think people are missing the boat,” said Mr Bittman. “The question is not how challenging you can make your diet but how sane you can make it; there’s nothing wrong with animal products in moderation,” he says.
“The problem is huge-scale industrial production of agriculture and, of course, our consumption of junk food – which may or may not be moderated by ‘going vegan’. What we need is for most people to move on the spectrum closer to a diet that includes way more unprocessed plants than we’re used to eating, and correspondingly less animal products and junk. ”
Veganism has long been plagued by stereotypes of it proponents. But what will dedicated full-time proponents of the lifestyle choice – its title officially coined in 1944 by founder of the British Vegan Society Donald Watson – make of the part-timers and the potential for it to become the latest fad diet?
Amanda Baker, senior advocacy and policy officer of the Vegan Society, is not overly concerned, and welcomed the potential for it to grow in popularity. “From our point of view, people are beginning to recognise the arguments that we have been making all along,” she said. “We all teach our children that it’s wrong to harm animals unnecessarily and a plant-based diet can be really healthy.”
The Vegan Society estimates that there are at least 150,000 vegans in the UK. With a population of around 63 million, that’s less than one per cent, but the term “vegan” will soon have legal status. In 2010 the European Parliament adopted UK Food Standards Agency labelling guidelines and, following a five year period for compliance, civil suits may be brought against anyone misusing the term from 2015.
This is yet more welcome news to the Vegan Society. “Veganism is a lifestyle and an ethical way of looking at the world. It is a human right to be vegan and a protected philosophy,” said Ms Baker.
“We enjoy our vegan lives and we want others to share the benefits. It helps to have people talking positively about it, especially high profile figures like Bill Clinton and Al Gore.”
However, there remains a disjunction between the principles of veganism adhered to by devotees like Ms Barker and the standards kept by the more casual believers.
The Vegan Society defines the lifestyle as “a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.” Yet Bill Clinton has admitted to eating fish or eggs once a week and Beyoncé dined at an LA vegan restaurant in none other than a fur coat earlier this month.
And as for her dabble in vegan eating alongside her husband Jay Z, it appears to be at an end. Having announced online that they would try avoiding all animal produce for 22 days, the couple’s experiment now appears to have come to a rather public conclusion, as they were photographed eating seafood at a restaurant over the weekend – reportedly ordering pappardelle, lobster risotto and seafood casserole.
While many more are likely to follow them in lapsing, however, the signs are that more will at least be giving it a try than ever before.