Veganism on the rise due to health and environmental concerns

3 July 2017

First there was the meteoric rise of the paleo diet: lean proteins, fruit and vegetables, healthy fats from nuts, seeds and avocados – no dairy, grains, legumes or sugars.

Now, there's another eating regime that is gaining ground – veganism, and it's unlikely to make a compatible dining companion to paleo.

That's not to say the two may never meet over a salad or stir-fry. But veganism is all about consuming zero animal protein – including eggs – and it's not shy of a little chickpea (read legume) or two.

Suzanne Palmer-Holton, founder of The Vegan Society, believes interest in veganism has increased "astronomically" because of concerns about the environment and animal welfare, as well as for health reasons.

She says vegans shun all animal products, including leather, honey or even wine that might contain gelatin from fish (and, yes, there are vegan-friendly alcoholic beverages).

"It's a rare high-end restaurant these days that doesn't have a vegan and vegetarian tasting menu on offer," says AFR Magazine food editor Jill Dupleix, director of Australia's Top Restaurants Awards.

"It's something fine dining chefs get quite excited by, because it offers them a whole new arena for creativity. We're noticing a much more vegetable-led cuisine in top restaurants, without it necessarily being vegan.

"Further down the food chain, there's a younger market emerging that loves going out somewhere casual for a drink and a vegan snack, hence the rise of vegan burgers in which jackfruit replaces pulled pork."

Veges only

Last year, award-winning chef Brent Savage and sommelier Nick Hildebrandt relaunched the dinner menu at Yellow, in Sydney's Potts Point, to be 100 per cent vegetarian.

Savage has long been renowned for his inventive vegetable-based options at Yellow as well as at sister restaurants Bentley and Monopole and believes people are becoming more conscious of what they are eating. He says the fashionable eatery attracts both vegan and vegetarian diners.

Ben Devlin, award-winning chef of the two-hatted Paper Daisy in Cabarita, NSW, says: "The idea of veganism, from a sustainability point of view, is a very positive trend. I have started to keep the amount of beef I cook with, or consume, to a minimum, because it seems cattle farming is environmentally demanding."

Vegan dishes on the menu include fresh ricotta with radish, watermelon and olive, glazed carrot with roasted kelp, jackfruit and macadamia miso and butternut pumpkin with persimmon and shiso. The restaurant sometimes writes extended menus for vegan guests.

"It can be very easy to cook vegan foods. Once you start to think about all of the things that are vegan-friendly, you see there is a wide range of options," says Devlin.

In Melbourne, those who prefer to let someone else cook the lentils or chargrill the carrots have long frequented Shakahari, where vegan dishes are centred around Japanese and Indian cuisine. In Fitzroy there is vegan Latino restaurant Smith & Daughters.

If you'd prefer to cook yourself, and dine on something that tastes like meat – but isn't – you can find a range of "meat cuts" without any animal products at Suzy Spoon's in Sydney's St Peters.

"Everything we make is vegan," says Spoon, who started the business five years ago because she found the vegan products available in supermarkets "tasteless, rubbery and highly processed".

"I'd been making lovely handmade vegan smallgoods for friends and family for years so I wondered if I could turn it into a business," she says.

Not close enough to call in for a vegan roast? Her products range from vegan bolognese to smokey rashers and are sold in health food stores and small supermarkets across Australia as well as online at suzyspoonsvegetarianbutcher.com

Spoon says she has been surprised by the exponential growth in the vegan market, something she believes is fuelled by social media postings about animal rights and environmental issues.

Health pros and cons

But what of the health benefits of vegan eating? An article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found vegetarian and vegan diets were associated with many health benefits because of high levels of fibre, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and many phytochemicals. A fat content that is less saturated is another benefit.

Vegans tended to be thinner and to have lower serum cholesterol and blood pressure, reducing their risk of heart disease. However, researchers added that eliminating all animal products from the diet increased the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies, among them vitamins B12 and D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. The study noted that in some cases, supplements may be needed.

Naturopath Genna Pyewacket was a vegetarian for 14 years, six of those eating a vegan diet. "I love a plant-based diet but one that also has good-quality primary protein," she says. "Veganism can be excellent for some bodies, some of the time."

Her concern is that vegans may not get all the minerals and vitamins they need without careful supplementation. She advises "you listen to your body" and work out which diet works best for you.

The obvious potential deficiency is vitamin B-12, Pyewacket says, as well as minerals such as iron and zinc. The Dieticians Association of Australia confirms the bio-availability of these is higher in meats than vegetarian sources and more easily absorbed. For essential vitamin B12 it is important for vegans to eat fortified soy products, the DAA says. Legumes and whole grains also contain phylates that bind zinc and inhibit absorption, so it is recommended vegetarians eat 50 per cent more zinc each day to ensure proper levels, especially if they consume alcohol.

Pyewacket says the question "should I or shouldn't I eat meat" is still contentious, with heated opinions on both sides of the debate about animal welfare and environmental issues, as well as health benefits.

But whether you choose to go paleo, vegan, pescatarian or vegetarian, she says, the future of all food needs to be more hands-on and increasingly small-scale if it is to be ethical, sustainable and healthy.

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