Is this the end of veganism?
In August the news broke that Beyond Meat, the company behind the Beyond Burger, reported a 30% loss in sales in the second quarter of 2023. Is this the beginning of the end of veganism?
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Looking back to 2019 there seemed to be something inexorable, inevitable accompanying the rise of veganism. It was the year that Greggs came out with a vegan sausage roll, and Pret a Manger revealed that one in ten hot drinks sold were made using non-dairy milks. Culturally there was a growing discussion about the impact of our food choices on the planet, triggered by the Extinction Rebellion protests of that summer, and everyone was talking about Cowspiracy (a documentary released back in 2014 which castigated the meat and dairy industries as leading contributors towards climate change).
Surveying these shifting currents, The Economist declared 2019 to be the ‘year of the Vegan.’ They might have instead opted to use the phrase ‘plant-based’ – a more neutral euphemism embraced by food companies and health-conscious consumers to distance themselves from the stereotype of the militant vegan.
Recently, the fortunes of some of the biggest retailers in the vegan food industry have started to turn. Beyond Meat, the company behind the ubiquitous Beyond Burger, announced a 30% reduction in sales in the first quarter of 2023. Other recent casualties in the plant-based industry include Oatly, which earlier this year recalled its ice cream range from UK supermarkets, and Meatless Farm, formerly the supplier of Itsu and Pret, which went bust in June.
While market forecasts still predict strong growth for the vegan food industry, expected to be worth 61 billion dollars by 2028, the news has triggered speculation that veganism has passed its heyday.
At a time when many households are having to adjust their spending in response to rising prices, the high price tag attached to many vegan products can be difficult to justify. In Tesco, a litre of Oat Milk costs £2.10, while the same amount of Semi-Skimmed cow’s milk costs almost half that. A customer can get four of Tesco’s Finest Beef burger patties for the same price that it costs to buy a pack of two Beyond Burger patties.
The popularity of the discussion about ultra processed foods which has taken off in the UK in the last twelve months also hasn’t helped the industry. New books – including the bestsellers Ultra-Processed People by Chris van Tulleken and Ravenous by Henry Dimbleby – have warned of the science linking the consumption of such foods to diseases like obesity and type-2 diabetes. Adjacent voices in nutrition circles have begun stressing the link between consumption of ‘whole’ foods – nuts, seeds and legumes – to enhanced gut microbial health. Professor Tim Spector, founder of ZOE, a self-testing kit which allows participants to measure the effects of different foods on blood sugar spikes, recommends eating a diet high in a diverse range of plants for optimal gut health. These experts tend to eschew dietary labels (such as vegan) in favour of more general descriptors like ‘unprocessed’ and ‘whole’, and are even more sceptical of plant-based meat alternatives which are one of the foremost examples of ultra-processing used in food. On TikTok, there is a trend of young people making the switch back to cow’s milk, with users pointing out the seed oils and regulators used in the manufacturing of Oatly oat milk, while Beyond Burgers are made using all sorts of ultra processed ingredients with names most people can’t pronounce, like methylcellulose and maltodextrin. As one health-conscious friend put it to me recently: "I’d rather eat the real (burger) instead of the plastic."
Are the days of pea-protein burgers and oat-milk ice cream behind us? Maybe. But we should not conclude that people are turning away from veganism – that the vegan bubble, ascendant in 2019, has now burst. First, it's easy to forget just how much plant based eating has become a part of the fabric of our nutritional landscape in a way that would have been inconceivable even five years ago. Today, you’re just as likely to find a café serving an oat flat white in North Berwick as in north London. Most restaurant menus contain at least one, if not multiple, vegan options, which is a far cry from the days when the sole vegan choice was a butterhead lettuce salad. And it’s now considered standard form in many circles when inviting a guest for dinner to double check their ‘dietary preferences’.
Second is the misguided tendency to conflate the performance of ‘free-from’ products with the salience of meat-free eating. Surveys continue to produce robust evidence that the number of adults consciously reducing their meat intake is rising, driven by concerns such as health and the environment. Some predictions have held that the cost of living crisis could actually lead to a growth in the number of people choosing to follow a vegan diet, which can be one of the most affordable ways of eating. For many people, eating a partly or predominantly plant-based diet continues to provide many of the answers to financial, health and ethical concerns.