Vegan is the new vegetarian—why supermarkets need to go 'plant-based' to help save the planet

Vegan is the new vegetarian - why supermarkets need to go 'plant-based' to help save the planet
Credit: Shutterstock

Veganism is arguably the biggest food trend of the moment. This has led to a massive expansion of meat-free brands and own-label offerings. In fact, the UK is now the nation with the highest number of vegan food products launched. And with major news outlets such as The Economist and Forbes declaring 2019 the "year of the vegan", the trend promises to continue—a third of people in the UK have already stopped or reduced eating meat.

Long-established brands tend to receive great publicity for reformulating their products to be and newly launched meat-free products prove to be incredibly popular and fast selling. This is great news, considering that a decrease in animal product consumption constitutes the "single biggest way" to respond to such as the climate crisis, soil degradation and biodiversity loss.

Providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories, meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use 83% of the world's farmland and make up 57% of all food emissions. A shift from animal to plant-based food production would help to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions. It would also help to tackle some of the major health issues facing society, while still meeting protein and calorie requirements.

Meat-free vs vegan

But despite this trend for plant-based food, not all meat-free innovations sold in the shops are free from ingredients of animal origin. While "vegan" implies that products are fully plant-based and free from animal produce, "meat-free" or "vegetarian" products may still contain milk, dairy or other animal-based ingredients.

Alongside the emergence of plant-based newcomer brands, in recent years, established meat-alternative companies such as the meat-free giant Quorn and the traditionally vegetarian brand Linda McCartney have started to reformulate their products to offer a bigger range of vegan options.

Vegan is the new vegetarian - why supermarkets need to go 'plant-based' to help save the planet
The number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018. Credit: Shutterstock

But many other producers of "meat alternatives" still rely on animal-based substances such as eggs and dairy. That said, many established and new product ranges that are labelled and promoted as vegetarian are, in fact, vegan, so what's going on here?

It may well be that manufacturers still hesitate to market their products in the vegan category—vegetarian feels like a safer alternative. Indeed, it's estimated that 92% of plant-based meals were eaten by non-vegans in 2018. Vegans make up only a small minority of consumers buying meat-free meals.

But it seems that when it comes to what people actually want to buy, vegan products are in high demand. Nestle's meat-free range, which was meant to "revolutionise the vegetarian category", was withdrawn from British supermarket shelves after just a few months. Also, Linda McCartney's pizzas topped with "fake-meat" alongside dairy-based cheese proved unsuccessful.

Environmental impact

Looking at the numbers, the production of dairy and eggs might not be as harmful as the production of meat, but it still has a significant impact on the environment. And more importantly, it is built on the same unsustainable farming practices as meat production.

It's not just products marketed as meat-free that might contain ingredients of animal origin either. In the demand for more wellness products, recent innovations have led to a number of items using by-products of animal origin. These may be milk powder or fat, but can also be products or by-products of slaughter—such as animal fats, rennet or collagen. Marks and Spencer, for example, sells a "Super Water" which uses beef collagen to boost protein content – much to the outcry of shoppers.

Vegan is the new vegetarian - why supermarkets need to go 'plant-based' to help save the planet
Major supermarkets have added multiple vegan products to their shelves this year in a bid to meet growing demand. Credit: Shutterstock

So given the severe impact animal-based food production has on the environment, and the trend for vegan products, wouldn't it make sense for all new vegetarian product ranges simply be made vegan?

The problem with 'vegetarian'

Traditional vegetarianism rejects meat as unethical for taking the life of an animal, whereas eggs and dairy are seen as staples and essentials for good health. This understanding goes back to the post-World War II context when factory farming was still in its infancy and milk surpluses were pushed through public health and school milk campaigns. But in today's age of factory farming, meat and dairy are two sides of the same coin.

Even if vegans currently only make up 3% of the UK population, there is a clear consumer push for plant-based produce. Awareness of the environmental and ethical impacts of our food system is growing and "veganism" provides a context to view the problem in its entirety. Shoppers are also keen to vary their proteins and explore plant-based milks. Vegetarians are comfortable with vegan products and products such as meat-free sausages—and crisps or chocolate chip cookies work without milk and eggs as additives.

So with the food industry continuously innovating in this market, it would make more sense for the label "vegetarian" to become redundant and to be instead replaced by "vegan". This is important because a "vegan" approach goes beyond the environmental aspects to shed light on factory farming and how it is not just cruel, but a threat to all life on the planet. And in this sense vegetarian product launches and meat-free product innovations that rely on animal-derived substances are quite clearly a step backwards.

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User comments

Jun 12, 2019
The issue with meat substitutes is that plants are still a poor source of protein. The best plant based sources contain around 25% of protein, so to get the proper amount of proteins you should be eating just those foods and very little else, but that's not a healthy.

If you get less than 10% of your calories from proteins, you become deficient and ill. Ideally you would get about 1/4 to 1/3 of your calories from proteins. Simply replacing meat with things like legumes causes protein deficiency, which is an epidemic in countries like India where approximately 91% among those who are vegetarian are suffering from some level of protein deficiency.


The solution to the problem is to concentrate the proteins in the plant matter by essentially removing the other calories by processing, but this means these meat substitutes aren't actually as environmentally efficient as advertised.

Jun 12, 2019
For example, a high protein food such as tofu can contain up to 47% (g/g) protein, but it's made by coagulating soy milk. It's essentially soy bean cheese. Raw soybeans however contain just 13% protein (g/g). When the soybeans are processed to tofu, most of the original foodstuff is thrown away. The leftover liquidy pulp is called "Okara" - it's largely indigestible and mostly fed to animals or used as fertilizer.

To get a serving of tofu, you need to process at least 4 servings of raw soybeans, and you need the energy to process it. This isn't much more efficient than feeding the soybeans to chickens and then eating the meat - you still need vastly more farming land, water, and energy to have a concentrated source of proteins.

This is rarely discussed when talking about vegetarian diets. The reason why foodstuffs like tofu were invented is not by efficiency, but because you simply don't get enough proteins from the plain plant matter and meat was not available.

Jun 12, 2019
In comparison:

In animal husbandry, feed conversion ratio (FCR) or feed conversion rate is a ratio or rate measuring of the efficiency with which the bodies of livestock convert animal feed into the desired output. (...)Feed conversion ratio (FCR) is the ratio of inputs to outputs

As of 2011 in the US, broiler chickens has an FCR of 1.6 based on body weight gain

That means you need 1.6 units of feed to gain 1 unit of chicken. This is much more efficient than making tofu out of soybeans. Most of the high protein meat substitutes require similar extensive processing which actually makes them MORE WASTEFUL. Turns out you're not saving the planet by eating "Beyond meat".

So why do people advertise vegetarianism as a planet-saving remedy? Because by the raw numbers it works as long as you don't look what's really going on in the food processing chain.

Jun 12, 2019
Another example: seitan - traditionally it's made by rinsing the starch out of a dough made from water and wheat flour. Essentially, you wash away most of the carbohydrates until you're left with the stringy bits of gluten - this also removes most of the calorie content of the original material. Industrially made seitan is made directly from separated gluten powder.

What happens to the byproduct starch is anyone's guess. If it's not thrown away or fed to animals again, it's probably made into chips, cakes, and other highly processed junk food. One niche application for wheat starch appears to be bookbinding glue and wallpaper paste.

Since wheat flour contains only 9-10% protein, and seitan is almost all protein (gluten), the conversion ratio from wheat to seitan is around 8:1 which is worse even compared to feeding the wheat to cows to make beef (6:1).

This also shows up in the high price of seitan, which is about twice as expensive per pound compared to beef.

Jun 12, 2019
All in all, there's nothing particularly wrong with the meat substitutes - their biggest flaw is that they're all highly processed foodstuffs that tend to come in the form of "McNuggets" - you can't really cook with them.

But to pretend and advertise that you're saving the environment by eating tofu sausages is highly disingenuous. This is again a case of yet another industry hopping on the green wagon, taking a whole bunch of well-meaning people by the nose and making them pay extra for make-belief.

Jun 12, 2019
Shun all processed foods regardless of it being vegan or not. Just eat natural plant-based unprocessed food, and stay healthy and save the nature. But, a lot of people are not yet ready to abandon animal-based diet, unfortunately. Protein myth has grappled most of the world.

Jun 12, 2019
Another load of biased tripe from The Conversation.
Just how great for the environment and consumers, is the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in growing these produce.

Jun 13, 2019
This is really skewed and biased information. Herding animals have been roaming the earth long before we arrived. They have always lived in ecological balance with the varied ecosystems they have inhabited. When domesticated animals are managed sustainably, they do not negatively impact the environment - certainly less than we ourselves do. It is the Big CAFUs that do the damage and negating all animal husbandry because of the horrific conditions which exist in Cafus - horrific for both environment and animal - is unfair to small farmers who work the land sustainably and for the countless nomadic culture which depend on herding animals. A grossly misinformed and un-researched article. Disappointing but not surprising

Jun 13, 2019
I wouldn't take the Indian research sereiously, Eikka - paid for by Nutricia, a company selling protein substitutes...

Jun 13, 2019
I think it's OK to just reduce the amount of meat and meat products - I'm not sure going for the full 'zero percent' is an absolute necessity. Reduce it to once a week, go for higher quality products and check whether this stuff comes from an 'animal factory' or a regional bio provider.

Just for a lark I'm trying to go a year without meat (with one "cheat-day" a month) and it's easier going than I had expected. Gives you also a chance to try out all these vegetarian/vegan products (though, truth be told, there's a LOT of garbage among the stuff on offer...offset by some surprisingly tasty alternatives). I may not continue it this stringently beyond the year but will definitely reduce to once a week at most.

Jun 13, 2019
I wouldn't take the Indian research sereiously, Eikka - paid for by Nutricia, a company selling protein substitutes...

Still, there's a point. You can calculate the percentages from eating various foods, and unless you gorge up with nuts and beans and mushrooms, it is actually difficult to maintain proper protein intake. Rice, potato, wheat, etc., all the cheap staple foods give you so little protein that unless you have a concentrated protein rich side to your diet, you're in trouble.

Just eat natural plant-based unprocessed food

If you do that, you get quite windy - especially with legumes. The high-protein plant foods typically contain lectins that are actually harmful for you - they irritate the gut and harm the absorption of other nutrients, which is why you soak and boil your beans to get rid of most of it.

Still, you tend to toot a lot eating these foods, whereas with the processed versions like tofu the lectins are almost completely removed.

Jun 13, 2019
I think it's OK to just reduce the amount of meat and meat products - I'm not sure going for the full 'zero percent' is an absolute necessity.

That's what I'm thinking, but apparently this isn't enough.

Gives you also a chance to try out all these vegetarian/vegan products (though, truth be told, there's a LOT of garbage among the stuff

Most of the vegetarian/vegan stuff is just rip-off. They're selling you bits of rinsed off bread dough at twice the price of meat, or hydrogenated vegetable oil with butyric acid sprinkled on top as "cheese".

If you want vegetarian, just do it yourself. It's quite easy, though it involves soaking a lot of stuffs in water overnight.

Jun 13, 2019
One excellent trick is to use nutritional yeast. Basically, you take something that's sugary and starchy, and let your normal baker's yeast eat it up until you have a mass of yeast. That partially converts the foodstuff into more protein, because the yeast is a fungus of sorts. It's better if you also have enzymes to convert starches to simpler sugars so the yeast can actually eat it - such as from germinated barley.

When your starches and sugars are consumed by yeast, what's left over is dried and roasted lightly on a pan, and you get this flaky substance that's about 50% protein and tastes kinda like cheese or meat. You can use it in a broth, put it on pasta etc. or mix it with your "meat substitutes" to give them some actual flavor.

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