Veg for victory – what’s behind the rise of plant-based eating in Aotearoa and how to get involved, without missing out on your favourite foods

Been to the supermarket lately? Chances are, you’ve spotted the vast array of tofu available these days. Or maybe it’s the beetroot patties or vegetarian sausages that have caught your eye; the chicken-less chicken tenderloins or vegan ‘bacon’; the plant-based ice creams; the oat milk chocolate. Go into any café worth its salt and you can expect a range of non-dairy milk options. Hit any burger joint and there will be a vegan option. Meal delivery services are offering plant-based plans; chains like Wise Boys offer exclusively plant-based options; and just think of the high-profile plant-based devotees among us, from movie stars (Natalie Portman; Joaquin Phoenix) to local foodies (Chelsea Winter).

Plant-based diets are no longer some weird outpost, restricted to that one moralising uncle who makes Christmas catering a nightmare – they’re big, mainstream business. Really big business, in fact: the global vegan food market is forecast to be worth US$24.3 billion by 2026 (cosmetics, by comparison, are forecast at $20.8 billion).

What the stats say

A 2019 Colmar Brunton study found that 31 per cent of Kiwis can be categorised as ‘flexitarian’ or meat-reducers – meaning they ate meat only one to four times a week. Another 3 per cent were full-time vegetarians or vegans. Fifteen per cent of New Zealanders identified as eating “always or mostly” meat-free.

And as Nikhil Sawant, general manager of perishables at Countdown, explains, the plant-based category at supermarkets has grown “significantly” in popularity, with no signs of the momentum slowing down.

“We’ve seen demand for fresh meat alternatives like patties and sausages grow by 10 per cent in the last year,” he says. “In the fresh burger category alone, plant-based options now make up around 8 per cent of our total sales.” Demand for traditional plant-based chilled foods, like falafel and tofu, has also skyrocketed in recent years.

Whether you’re talking vegetarian (eating no meat or fish), vegan (eating no animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, dairy and honey) or flexitarian (reducing the meat in your diet), it’s clear that plant-based diets are a growing trend in Aotearoa. But why are so many Kiwis choosing to go (at least part-time) plant-based?

Health benefits

One of the key reasons to go plant-based is for the health benefits – which are considerable. A plant-based diet has been linked to lower rates of bowel cancer, heart disease, diabetes and strokes – and anecdotally, proponents of vegetarianism, veganism and flexitarianism report feeling clearer, lighter and just… better.

For Chris Kinnell, owner of former vegan restaurant The Butcher’s Son in Auckland, going plant-based was all about his health.

“I was curious because I’d heard so much about the health benefits of eating vegan. I visited a friend in Bali who had been vegan for a couple of years and there are lots of vegan restaurants in Bali, so I gave it a go,” he says. “Soon after, I realised I felt great. I can’t imagine going back now.”

“Personally, I just feel better when I don’t eat too many animal products,” adds Plabita Florence, owner and chef at Auckland vegetarian restaurant Forest, who has been vegetarian since childhood. “The ratio that feels best to me – flavourwise, physically, morally – is more plants, less of everything else.”

Animal rights

For Drissilla David, owner and baker at Auckland plant-based patisserie Maison des Lys, meanwhile, the rationale for eating plant-based is just as much about the ethics as the health benefits. Drissilla went vegetarian at the end of her teens but became vegan after learning just how much food was made from animals.

In New Zealand, millions of animals are killed each year for human consumption. According to Statistics New Zealand, in 2021 alone, over 27 million livestock were killed in this country – and of course, some of those animals are raised in unethical conditions.

“I think there is a question of what feels right,” adds Plabita.

“At what cost should us humans be living? I think it’s great for people to be aware, and think about where their food comes from. At the very least I think we should clearly understand the decisions we’re making as consumers and eaters.”

Environmental factors

Another key reason to opt for fewer animal products in your diet is to reduce your environmental impact. It’s difficult to calculate the exact impact that the animal agriculture industry has on the environment, but globally, around 35 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, with meat responsible for more than twice the pollution of greens, fruit and grains. Recent research at the University of Otago found that if every adult in New Zealand adopted a vegan diet and minimised food waste, the emissions saved would equal around 60 per cent of the emissions from cars and vans. As the world continues to warm, it’s certainly food for thought.

Easier than ever

Whatever the reason, the growing variety of options means it’s easier and more delicious than ever before to go plant-based in Aotearoa. Beyond the growing supermarket range available, there’s also a cornucopia of hospitality options offering worthy plant-based substitutes.

At Maison des Lys, for instance, patrons can enjoy an array of traditional – and inventive – French treats somehow made without butter or eggs. Ten years ago, a high-quality plant-based croissant would have been unthinkable, but Drissilla is now turning out everything from plant-based ‘ham and cheese’ croissants to vegan cruffins and macarons, plus coffee made exclusively with non-dairy milks. Her laminated pastries are made with an organic butter substitute (involving shea butter, coconut oil and rapeseed oil) and taste, we can confirm, just as good as pastries made with butter.

Drissilla and her partner Peter opened the brick-and-mortar bakery in Grey Lynn in October 2022, after two years trading at the Shed Collective Market, as a way to spend more time with their young daughter. But they’ve been blown away by the response to Maison des Lys.

“We’ve never had any leftovers in a month,” says Drissilla. “Not only vegans but all kinds of people come and get a bunch of pastries. I love being able to blow people’s minds when they try the food – very often when you are offering a vegan dessert, people are like… Ah, vegan. They’re not really excited about it.

I like to surprise them – when they try it, they’re like, ‘oh right, actually it doesn’t taste vegan’.”

Plant-based food that mimics the taste and texture of non-vegan food convincingly, never feels like a compromise for the consumer, says Chris.

“It’s common for people to say something like, ‘It was actually okay’, like they were expecting it to be terrible,” he says. “People are conditioned to think that if there’s no meat in it, they’re not going to be satisfied – but that’s not the case.”

Embracing the unique delights of plants

On the other hand, plant-based consumers who aren’t craving meat or dairy are also well catered for these days. Restaurants like Forest offer a plant-forward experience that doesn’t seek to replicate animal products but to offer an equally tasty but distinctive alternative. Forest’s vegetarian food doesn’t pretend to be meat – instead, it celebrates the particular flavours and textures of the plant world.

“I think there’s a world of delicious, juicy, delicate, floral, herbal flavours in plants and sometimes heavy hearty animal products overpower those, or dull them down,” explains Plabita. She stresses that good food is all about eliciting a series of reactions – delighting the palate in various ways. “Different cuts that achieve different textures, temperature contrasts… Playing around more and understanding the results, that’s what changes the way you cook. As far as the vegetarian part goes, vegetarian food shouldn’t really need more tips and tricks than any other kind of food to make it outstanding.”

How to get involved

Keen to ease up on the animal products? It can seem daunting to make the switch to plant-based, but there are some easy ways to introduce more plants into your diet. Here are some of our top tips.

Less rather than none

For many Kiwis, going full-time vegan would be unthinkable – and for some households, the current cost of living crisis makes it difficult enough to plan meals without factoring in a full change of diet. But you don’t have to eat plant-based all the time to be making a difference. Why not try eating vegetarian at home but keeping things loose when you’re eating out? Vegetarian three dinners a week? Change out the milk in your flat white for oat milk; try coconut yoghurt on your cereal – even small steps count for something when it comes to your health, the wellbeing of animals and the good of the planet.

Abundance, not deprivation

All too often, the vegetarian or vegan option can feel like a flavour compromise. But as Plabita explains, it’s all about making the most of the flavours of plants rather than missing the meat. A burnished whole roasted cauliflower, a creamy dhal or a delicate platter of tempura eggplant offer their own pleasures quite distinct from, say, a leg of lamb or a burger.

“I think [it’s best] if you can just focus on what you like eating, that just happens to be plant-based,” says Plabita. “Explore the things you find delicious, instead of dwelling on what’s missing or needs to be replicated.”

On the other hand, many Kiwis feel they can’t do without meat, the product of lifelong conditioning and habit. If that’s how you feel, now is the perfect time to experiment with at least part-time veganism: there is a huge variety of meat substitutes available to stand in as the hero of a dish.

One of the best ways to feel like you’re not missing out while eating fewer animal products is also – of course – to support chefs who are expert at plant-based cooking. Unsure how to make a vegetarian burger that tastes just as good as a beef one? Try one made by a chef.

Choose your animal products carefully

If you simply can’t imagine cutting your meat and dairy consumption, one of the best things you can do is make it more conscious. Choosing local rather than imported meat, seafood and dairy will cut the travel emissions associated with your meal – while opting for free-range or organic products is not only often more environmentally friendly, but also more ethical.

In general, try to treat animal products as the luxurious items they are, items which take plentiful resources and labour to produce.

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