Not long ago, if you wanted a vegetarian meal, most restaurants offered at least one option – as long as you weren’t in a tiny village or France. If that veggie option involved cheese, then all the better. If it involved a bean burger, well at least you knew roughly what you were eating.
Today, vegetarians are starting to get annoyed. The once trusty meat-free option, they say, is being replaced by a vegan one. The Vegetarian Society has been receiving complaints from members who are peeved to find veggie dishes containing dairy and eggs are often absent from menus, jettisoned in favour of plant-based vegan burgers or vegan chilli.
Richard McIlwain, the society’s chief executive, says it’s “interesting to see how the eating out experience has changed”. But “interesting” is not how some of his members would describe what is on offer. “There’s always been a drive to replicate the meat experience, which is good and will encourage more people to give up meat,” he tells the Telegraph. “But it’s been to the detriment of more traditional vegetarian dishes, and we do get fairly regular emails from our members asking if can we raise this. It’s not to say the options are bad, but the vegetarian dishes seem to be either not on the menu or you have the option of cheese pie or a cheese sandwich. And it’s always Cheddar.”
Others scoff that where Cheddar is concerned, the chance would be a fine thing. When vegetarian entrepreneur Vicky Borman was filming last week, the on-set caterer offered either meat or an option that was both vegan and gluten-free. “I said to them, ‘I’m not vegan, I’m vegetarian. Where’s my cheese and cream?’”
The caterer made sure to bring her some cheese the following day. But, says the 43-year-old from Cambridgeshire, owner of CBD Angel, obtaining vegetarian food can be even harder in restaurants.
“There used to be a menu for ‘meat people’ and a menu for vegetarians,” says the mother-of-three. “Then vegan culture took over and it seems easier [for restaurants] to say, ‘if you’re not a meat eater, we’re going to take everything out of it and cover all bases.’ I used to have something like a mac and cheese [when I dined out]... It does seem everything is vegan or fake meat [now].”
The numbers tell a different story: there are 3.3 million vegetarians in the UK today, compared with only 1.6 million vegans. Last year, 130,000 people became vegetarian, compared with 52,000 who went vegan. Yet the word ‘vegan’ has been seized upon by a food industry keen to burnish its ethical credentials and, understandably, cash in on a growing market. Supermarkets now devote whole sections to vegan products. Coffee shop chains have embraced non-dairy milks. In 2012 there were 423 vegetarian restaurants, cafés and foodie pubs around the country, of which about one in eight (54) were vegan. This year, there are 1,600, of which almost half (750) are vegan, according to figures from the Vegetarian Guide. A 2021 report by Bloomberg predicted the global plant-based alternatives market could grow to $162 billion in the next decade, from $29.4 billion in 2020.
While an old-fashioned pub might still present a plate of pasta with tomato sauce – and a slightly bewildered shrug – to any non-meat-eating diner, urban hipster cafés proudly offer such delights as ‘nozzarella’ (a mozzarella substitute with a similar-enough sounding name to deceive those not paying attention) and quarter pounders with cheese, which are just like the real thing, except that the burger is plant-based and the chees is ‘cheeze’ – a vegan substitute.
Mildreds opened its first vegetarian eatery in London’s Soho in 1988, when “vegetarian restaurants were still stuck in a 1960s vibe – doling out ‘worthy’ brown food’”, (or so says its website). It now serves a 100 per cent plant-based menu across the capital.
McIlwain, who went vegetarian in 1987 and switched to a vegan diet more recently, acknowledges that “vegan is trendier at the moment.” But vegetarians have been left longing for more options. “I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit disappointed when I discovered Mildreds are now 100 per cent plant-based,” says Genevieve Fox, a London-based writer. “Ecologically and in terms of the environment, I’m pro-vegan but my heart does sink when I see only plant-based options. I don’t want a souffle made with chickpea flour.”
For Borman and others, it’s the fake meat options that leave a bad taste in the mouth. “I can’t understand that concept of not wanting to consume meat but wanting something that replicates it,” she says. “Being a vegetarian for me was about animal welfare but also about stepping away from processed foods. Some [vegan option] are so processed.”
Indeed, nutritionist Helen Bond warns that those avoiding meat should remain mindful of what alternatives they’re eating. “I have a bugbear of things that are labelled as vegan or plant-based on a menu but which doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy; they can still be high in salt and saturated fat,” she says. “There are more and more products on the market that are meat-free bacon, plant-based tuna, veggie sausages [and so on], but these are all quite processed foods and sometimes you’re better off having the real thing.”
But perhaps as irritating for old-school vegetarians as the lack of traditional veggie food on menus is the judgement of some vegans.
“I wouldn’t say [vegetarians and vegans] are one big happy family,” says McIlwain. “There are some vegans who will claim a moral high ground, and people who’ve been vegetarian for 60 or 70 years are being told their ethical choice is not the true ethical choice, and that’s quite unfair.”
The Vegetarian Society has members who have been veggie since the 1930s or 1940s, “in a world that didn’t really cater for [them],” he points out. “So there’s a feeling of being a bit bruised by the critique from vegans, and feeling that the vegan food on menus is coming through to the detriment of the great vegetarian options, rather than alongside.”
The Vegan Society, for its part, argues that plant-based products are “not exclusively for vegans and are suitable for most diets and religions, often constituting a safe food option for all.” A spokesman adds that, “unfortunately, continuing to consume dairy and eggs means some farmed animals are still condemned to a life of misery.”
But McIlwain is pragmatic, unwilling to let the perfect vegan be the enemy of the good vegetarian or flexitarian. He would prefer to see more creative vegetarian options available, not only to keep vegetarians happy but to encourage more people to give up meat. With plenty of reasons to do so, from animal welfare and health to the climate emergency and the cost of living crisis. Restaurateurs who offer a catch-all non-meat option to reduce food waste and cut costs are wrong to think good vegetarian cooking involves buying “a whole set of other ingredients that never get used,” he argues. A Greek salad, say, or a Spanish omelette can be made using “staple foodstuffs that can be used across the menu.”
McIlwain adds: “Vegetarian and vegan food is fabulously rich. It’s not one or the other. Let’s increase the variety of vegetarian and vegan options.”