Food

 

Vegan diets becoming more popular, more mainstream

washingtonpost.com | 01/06/11

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Read More: Isa Chandra Moskowitz, mark bittman, Michael Pollan, Skinny Bitch, vegan

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-- You've come a long way, vegan.

Once mocked as a fringe diet for sandal-wearing health food store workers, veganism is moving from marginal to mainstream in the United States.

The vegan "Skinny Bitch" diet books are best-sellers, vegan staples like tempeh and tofu can be purchased at just about any supermarket, and some chain restaurants eagerly promote their plant-only menu items. Today's vegans are urban hipsters, suburban moms, college students, even professional athletes.

"It's definitely more diverse. It's not what you would picture 20 years ago, which is kind of hippie, crunchy," said Isa Chandra Moskowitz, author of vegan cookbooks like the new "Appetite for Reduction." She says it's easier being a vegan now because there is more local produce available and more interesting ways of cooking.

"It's not just steamed vegetables anymore and brown rice and lentils," she said.

Veganism is essentially hard-core vegetarianism. While a vegetarian might butter her bagel or eat a cake made with eggs, vegans shun all animal products: No meat, no cheese, no eggs, no honey, no mayonnaise. Ethical vegans have a moral aversion to harming animals for human consumption, be it for a flank steak or leather shoes, though the term often is used to describe people who follow the diet, not the larger philosophy.

It's difficult to come up with hard numbers of practicing vegans. There's a blurry line between people who define themselves as vegan and vegetarian and some eaters dip in and out plant-only diets. For instance, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman has described his "vegan till 6" health plan, in which he becomes more omnivorous in the evening.

In a 2009 survey, advocates at the not-for-profit Vegetarian Resource Group reported about 1 percent of Americans are vegan, roughly a third of the people who reported being vegetarians. A separate survey released last year by the same group found a similar breakdown for Americans aged 8 to 18.

That makes veganism something short of a fad sweeping the nation like low-carb once did. Consider that while Kraft Foods reports that it shipped out more Boca Original Vegan Burger Patties and Boca Ground Crumbles last year, the increase was a modest 1 percent. Still, there are plenty of signs that vegans have pushed beyond their old, exclusive cocoon that once inspired celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to mock them as the "Hezbollah-like splinter faction" of vegetarians.

Exhibit A would be the "Skinny Bitch" diet books, which provide vegan lifestyle tips in a blunt, girlfriend-on-the-phone style (Sample passage: "Soda is liquid Satan. It is the devil."). Actress Alicia Silverstone added a dose of star power to the vegan cause more recently with "The Kind Diet," a No. 1 best-seller. Vegan diets also have been touted by other celebrities, including Emily Deschanel in "Bones" and Lea Michele of "Glee."

Veganism has been buoyed by the same health-conscious wave that has drawn Americans in unprecedented numbers to low-fat, vegetarian and organic foods. The idea of eating lower on the food chain is especially attractive to environmentally conscious consumers, since large-scale meat production is a major source of greenhouse gases.

Veganism also provides a safe harbor for the growing number of people concerned about where their supermarket meat comes from. Critics of industrial-scale food processing like writer Michael Pollan have been gaining a wider audience in recent years.

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