It's official, veganism has landed. Supermarkets are rushing to bring out vegan ranges. Tesco has really pushed the boat out, enlisting the help of former Global Chef at Whole Foods, Derek Sarno, who has become their Director of Plant Based Innovation. Asda has just announced the launch of their vegan range, so too has Boots, Pret, Sainsbury’s, Wagamama, Carluccio’s, Pizza Express and Aldi. It is hard to keep up at the moment. Big name brands are also racing to veganise their products (Goodfella's, Ben & Jerry's, Baileys, Cornetto) - things have come a long way in recent years.
You may be wondering where and how the Jewish community fits in to all this. If the annual Limmud Festival is anything to go by, we are doing pretty well when it comes to aligning our eating habits with our values. One in five of the 3,000 festival goers opt for a veggie or vegan meal, compared with the 2% of the British population that is vegetarian and the 1% that is vegan. More good news comes from kosher caterers who are at last catching on and providing interesting alternatives to meat main dishes at simchahs and functions. “veggies are not just the understudies. They add colour, texture and flavour to menus and are slowly taking more limelight. Gone are the days of endless stuffed peppers and perplexed faces when asking for a meat-free meal.”
Who do we have to thank for this veggie revolution? Might it be the Ottolenghi effect? Or maybe Simon Amstell's recent BBC mockumentary 'Carnage: Swallowing the past', set in a future Britain, where meat, eggs and dairy are outlawed? Perhaps it's the vegan revolution in Israel, where there are more vegans per capita than anywhere else in the world. Or might it be the growing number of rabbis worldwide from across the religious spectrum holding up plant-based eating as the diet most compatible with Jewish values? Whatever it is, the tide is definitely turning, with two sell-out vegan Birthright Israel trips running from the US in the past year, and the first British one in the pipeline, youth movements RSY-Netzer and LJY-Netzer moving towards veganism, and a big increase in demand for the Jewish Vegetarian Society's talks and activities, it is clear that appetites are changing and that increasingly Jews are embracing plant-based eating.
It is reflective of a national move away from meat-centric eating. The fastest-selling cookbook since records began is a vegan one - Deliciously Ella by Ella Mills - so it is no surprise that this month 165,000 people are taking part in 'Veganuary', a month-long campaign encouraging people to try a vegan diet for the month of January. They join the estimated 542,000 vegans already in the UK. When Veganuary started five years ago, the number of participants was in the tens of thousands.
I spoke to two Jewish families who have taken on the challenge.
London-based Nikki and her family started the year as omnivores. Behind the collective decision to do Veganuary was a big concern about dairy: ‘the dairy industry is really cruel, and I believe it to be unnecessary for our diets.’ Dairy is arguably the most cruel of all animal agriculture industries, with day-old calves taken away from their mothers to become veal, the milk meant for her calves ends up on our cornflakes. Dairy cows should live up to 25 years but end up having their time cut short after five years in confinement with no natural light or grass in sight.
Nikki, her husband and two kids have found finding alternatives very straightforward. Cashew nut milk has pleased her guests enough to earn a permanent place in their fridge. Pure spread is vying for top position with much-loved butter, and Violife’s dairy-free cream cheese and sliced cheese has become a staple. Nikki tells me that overall she has found Veganuary easy to do.
Ray who is 65, together with his wife and three children who are aged between 26 and 28 have all taken the next step, moving from vegetarianism to veganism. They divide their time between Sussex and Israel, and, over halfway through the challenge, say they have had a positive experience and plan to continue beyond January because of the health benefits. Some research has linked vegan diets with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. “You can eat a totally plant-based diet that supports excellent health, while helping animals and protecting the planet”.
The vast majority (over 80%) of people who try Veganuary continue with it.
If you want to find out more or are coming to the end of Veganuary and want to continue, take a look at the Veganuary website which is full of resources. Vegfest fairs run annually in London, Brighton, Bristol and Scotland, and Vegan Life Live is coming up on February 11 in London. The Jewish Vegetarian Society website is full of resources and information about its soon-to-be-opened Jewish vegan and eco centre, a world first.
It really is quite apt that Tu b'shvat, an entirely plant-based festival should fall at the end of January, or should I say Veganuary!
Here are some great recipes for Tu b'shvat using each of the seven species:
Lara Balsam is the director of The Jewish Vegetarian Society