What with their predilection for crunchy food and permanent residency on the moral high ground, vegans have always had something of a reputation. And this, despite their clear ethical superiority, hasn't exactly been trendsetting.
But times are changing fast on Planet Vegan as last week's revelation that none other than Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, contenders for the world's coolest couple, are embracing a plant-based diet shows. Their high-profile conversion, for an initial 22 days, is but the latest in a pattern that is redefining what it means to be vegan.
Evidence of the new trend is in the eating: companies supplying vegan food, such as Fry's Vegetarian are seeing strong sales, and more and more restaurateurs are changing their menus in response to demand, which means vegans are becoming less limited in their choice of dining destination. There are vegan-themed meet-up groups, nationwide fairs and festivals, breweries, and even vegan retailers. Wills Vegan Shoes, run by Will Green, launched last month; demand has been so strong that it is already on its second run.
Bruno Loubet, the feted French chef, says he has been "surprised" by the number of people eating at his north London-based Grain Store restaurant who request something vegan. Loubet recently made one of his brunch options vegan, swapping honey for date syrup, and one of Grain Store's most popular dishes, the Chilli con Veggie, is vegan. Other restaurants to have launched new vegan menus include Sushisamba.
"I've been surprised by how many people tell me that they have or are considering changing their diet to eat less meat and dairy, and even more people are considering having meat-free days of the week," Loubet told The IoS. At home, he opts to eat a vegan diet, alongside his wife who is almost exclusively vegan. "This is partly from a health perspective, but also because I believe that it is the most sustainable way of living and the right approach," he adds.
It's that "almost exclusively" bit that is key: veganism 2.0 is all about being flexible. If this offends purists, then consider that even one person eating fewer fillet steaks is better than everyone eating nothing but meat, from both an ethical and environmental perspective. Indeed, the rise of the flexi-vegan is exemplified by The New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Bittman, who recently published a best-selling book called VB6, which is about sticking to a vegan diet before 6pm. The food writer Alex Renton is another example: his recent book Planet Carnivore explores how growing grain to fatten up cattle for carnivores is unsustainable.
One further example of how plant-based diets are becoming mainstream will arrive in Britain next year, when a German-owned chain of vegan supermarkets opens its first outlet in London. Veganz, which is a European first in offering a full range of vegan grocery products, opened its first store in Berlin in 2011. It is expanding fast and aims to have 21 outlets across Europe by the end of 2015. A spokeswoman said the group was planning to open a London branch next summer; it will stock everything from beauty products and pet food to 80 cheese alternatives and vegan staples such as nuts, seeds and cereals. It will also offer cookery classes and movie nights "as a platform for a vegan diet and lifestyle".
Someone who knows all about helping out wouldbe vegans is Sean O'Callaghan, who blogs at Fat Gay Vegan. He has organised bi-monthly events for curious vegans-in-training for the past two years, and says that around a third of the 100 or so attendees each time are newbies. This week, he will host two vegan Christmas dinners: he had to add an extra date after the first promptly sold out.
"One of the biggest obstacles stopping people from stepping into the vegan world is the fear that they'll be isolated. These events help prevent that," he adds.
Kerem Sezer, business development manager at plant-based food experts Saf Catering, reckons people are changing their diet for a mixture of health and environmental reasons. But he conceded that veganism is "still seen as a little bit out there". The Turkish-owned company is expanding its retail range, and recently took over the catering at a second Virgin Active gym.
For now, only 1 per cent of the UK population exclusively eats plants, according to the latest research from consumer experts Mintel, but that looks set to change. The Vegetarian Society's Cheshire-based Cordon Vert cookery school has seen a sharp increase in professional chefs wanting to learn how to cook vegan dishes, and recently added a vegan party food course. And the London Vegetarian School, which also offers courses, in response to demand, is poised to change its name – to London Vegan and Vegetarian School.