The vegan revolution

The hottest food trend isn’t gluten-free cupcakes or acai; foodies are flocking to plant proteins, crafted into meat replicas and with implications for both the environment and personal health. Matt Hussey goes in search of a burger to change his life

A row of bright red patties sizzles on a grill. The grill master flips each one in turn, revealing a deep brown surface speckled with charred black bits. After a few minutes more, the burgers are lifted off the heat, slotted neatly onto a bun filled with cheese, salad and sauce.

They are quickly whisked away into a room full of eager eyes and mouths. But this isn’t any ordinary gathering. This is an exclusive event in San Francisco’s Soma neighbourhood, and the customers are journalists from across the world desperate to taste Patrick Brown’s Impossible Burger.

The start-up has raised US$182m since launching in 2012 and lists Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates among its high-profile investors. The company has attracted a great deal of attention including an unconfirmed bid of up to US$300m from search giant Google. It became a target it seems because Brown, a biologist and physician by background, has found a way of re-creating the textures and tastes of meat, using only plants..

His Impossible Burger, an ironic reference to its authentic meaty taste, claims to use 95 per cent less land and 74 per cent less water than a regular beef burger would. Brown set out on a mission to create the ultimate veggie burger in 2011 because he felt the industrial production of meat is one of the biggest contributors of climate change.

There’s an increasing body of evidence to support his assertion. According to research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to just stop eating beef would reduce someone’s carbon footprint more than if they were to get rid of their car.

The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas than cars, planes, trains and ships combined, according to the UK-based think tank Chatham House.

The World Cancer Research Fund has also made links between meat consumption and cancer. This has led to a surge in not only veganism, but also food companies looking to recreate the taste and feel of meat.

In the UK, the number of people eating only plants has risen by more than 360 per cent over the past decade, according to the Vegan Society. In the US, two and a half per cent of the population are now vegans compared to just one per cent in 2009.

There are now more than 5,000 restaurants across the UAE that go to great lengths to cater for plant-based diets. A quick peek on social media for the vegan hashtag reveals some 33 million posts tagged on Instagram featuring everything from vegan doughnuts for breakfast, to how vegan eating has changed people’s lives, or its potential to solve world hunger.

But is it just climate change that is propelling this trend, or are there health benefits that are compelling eaters to give up meat? “I became vegan because my brother had some health issues, and so as a family we all ate the same foods to support him,” explains Alona Chyrva, health coach and organiser of a vegan Meetup group in Dubai.

She regularly hosts events like the one taking place tonight, in couple Andi and Carolina’s apartment in Motor City. As guests start to arrive, they come bearing offerings such as lemonade, raw-lime mini cheesecakes, and lavender sauerkraut.

The Impossible Burger claims to use 95 per cent less land and 74 per cent less water than a beef burger

“Most people in these groups are animal activists, aware of the ethical side of veganism and the impact eating meat has on the environment,” says Chyrva, whose group now boasts more than 600 members.

“But other people in Dubai are increasingly turning to vegan food as something new and exciting to try.”

Vegan staples, such as dairy-free milk and tofu, have become widely available in the UAE, along with local businesses catering to the vegan crowd. Coco Yogo produces dairy-free yoghurt, ice cream and cheesecake made from coconuts. Jones the Grocer, a gourmet food emporium known for its fresh meat and cheeses recently unveiled a vegan menu for locals to choose from.

Restaurants too are getting in on the act, as Sumati Menda explains: “When I used to travel abroad with my family, who are all vegetarian, it was always a real challenge to find places to eat.” Menda is founder of Veggiebuzz, a site for vegetarians in Dubai.

“I thought there was space to help steer people towards places that have vegetarian food on their menu.”

The result is a database with some 5,000 restaurants that have made an effort to make their vegetarian and vegan dishes a significant part of their menu, rather than an afterthought.

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A vegetarian spread at Hakkasan in Dubai: the food blog Veggiebuzz provides restaurant listings for the emirate

“There is already a significant number of vegetarians in Dubai, and a lot of other people are also looking for healthier, lighter options. This new trend is certainly catering for it.”

At the heart of this trend are young people who are becoming increasingly influenced by the voices of celebrities and their peers when it comes to the food choices they make. The Teen Vegan Network, a social network for vegans and vegetarians, organizes summer camps for new foodies to experience all this way of eating has to offer. The founders say their first summer camps sold out within 34 hours and the following year there were 150 people on the waiting list.

It’s this meshing of youth culture and the digital world that has helped elevate vegan businesses across the globe to new heights. One such company is the Herbivorous Butcher. Based in Minneapolis in the US, sister and brother duo Aubry and Kale Walch produce a range of charcuterie and cheeses derived from plants.

“Aubrey and Kale weren’t really happy with the plant-based meats on offer when they both became vegan, so they started making their own,” explains Laura Vanzandt, Marketing Communications Coordinator for the company. “In early 2014, after some experimentation, they debuted their creations at the Minneapolis farmers market and saw them sell out. So in November 2014 they used Kickstarter to raise funds to set up their own bricks-and-mortar store and it was the most successful vegan Kickstarter campaign they’d ever had.”

The campaign saw them receive coverage from the likes of Vogue, Al Jazeera, the BBC and The New York Times. Vanzandt explains the secret of their popularity. “A lot of people are starting to think more about where their food comes from. There’s a lot of negative attention around the impact of factory farming these days, so people want to be able to make more informed choices.”

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Aubry (left) and Kale Walch

According to figures from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a third of our greenhouse gases come from farming, with a significant proportion attributable to rearing livestock for slaughter.

But while the environmental impacts are becoming glaringly obvious, what about what’s happening to us on the inside? Does eating a plant-based diet help us live longer? Last year the American phsician Dr Michael Greger published the provocative book, How Not To Die. In it he cites peer-reviewed medical research that suggests many ailments affecting modern populations today – including heart disease, cancer and diabetes – can be treated by cutting out animal products from our diet. It has been on The New York Times bestsellers list for more than a year.

Vanzandt adds: “There’s a lot of people doing it for health reasons. We see people with high blood pressure and cholesterol who are moving towards diabetes, and whose doctors are telling them to reduce their meat consumption.”

As research into plant proteins steps up a notch, and a zealous few seek to replicate the exact texture and taste of meat, the cheeseburgers of our future may very well be grown in a laboratory – with no fields in sight.