An ethical diet:
The joy of being vegan
March 2006

An ethical diet: The joy of being vegan


Its followers claim they look and feel healthier

than ever - and have a clear conscience too.

Martin Hickman examines the arguments for taking

up a meat-free diet


Wendy Higgins is pleased that her beliefs, her

most passionate beliefs, are ridiculed by

comedians. At least the gibes about vegans are

evidence that vegetarians are now so numerous

that they represent a substantial part of the



Making jokes about veganism is hardly likely to

result in a mass walkout. But Ms Higgins has

taken comfort from knowing that at least people

know what it is.


When the 33-year-old animal rights campaigner

adopted the more extreme version of vegetarianism

in 1988, her new-found beliefs met with perplexed

looks. She said: "When I said I was a vegan

people would look at me as if I had just said,

'I'm from the planet Mars'."


The transformation of veganism from oddball

movement to the fringe of the mainstream has

taken 60 years. Its progress to the mainstream is

likely to be much quicker.


There are estimated to be at least 600,000 vegans

in the UK, although there may be up to one

million. The number is certainly growing sharply.

Food surveys suggest that there were just 100,000

in 1993.


The shelves of supermarkets are increasingly

being stocked with products designed for vegans

and the market for vegan food is thought to be

growing by up to 15 per cent a year. Although

there are no specific figures for veganism, the

market research group Mintel estimated the

meat-free market to be worth £626m in 2004 - a

rise of 38 per cent in five years.


Despite the rise in its popularity, vegans

encounter countless questions about why they

eschew the consumption of all animal products -

unlike vegetarians who just avoid eating animals

- and decline to eat, among other things, milk,

cheese and eggs.


Their reasons for adopting this lifestyle - from

animal welfare to nutrition to environmentalism -

increased by one yesterday. It seems that a vegan

diet is better than a veggie or carnivorous diet

for staying slim.


Researchers who studied the eating habits of

22,000 people over five years, including meat

eaters and vegetarians, found they all put on a

few kilos but meat eaters who changed to a

vegetarian or vegan diet gained the least. " The

weight gain was less in the vegans than in the

meat-eaters and somewhere in between in the other

groups," said Cancer Research UK, which carried

out the study with Oxford University.


For vegans, the findings reinforced something

which they have long held to be true: that a

vegan diet is healthy.


They would have been more pleased if the

scientists had proved something the public finds

even harder to believe: that vegan food is tasty.


The vegan movement was started by a woodwork

teacher, Donald Watson, in 1944 because of a

desire to improve animal welfare.


Watson grew up on a farm in South Yorkshire in

the 1920s and became concerned for animal welfare

when his Uncle George slaughtered one of the

farm's pigs. He recalled in an interview aged 92

(three years before his death): "I decided that

farms - and uncles - had to be reassessed: the

idyllic scene was nothing more than death row,

where every creature's days were numbered by the

point at which it was no longer of service to

human beings."


Watson became a vegetarian and later a vegan, a word he invented.


The central tenet of the lifestyle and philosophy

is that human exploitation of animals, as fellow

sentient beings, is wrong. Vegans do not eat meat

or fish and they also dislike the cruelty of

dairy farming, which produces milk from cows with

swollen udders who are separated from their

new-born calves, of which the males are killed or

shipped for veal.


They dislike the conditions of poultry farming

and the fact that the eggs eaten could have

become chickens themselves.


"There is an awful lot of processes involved in

the dairy industry and egg industry that are

toe-curlingly awful," says Catriona Toms, the

head of information at the Vegan Society. "Fifty

per cent of chickens that are hatched are killed

[males don't lay eggs]. They mince them alive or

gas them."


For a movement grounded in such grim facts,

veganism has a surprisingly large number of

celebrity followers - some of them with public

images far removed from the sandal-wearing



Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, has a

veritable roll-call of celebrity vegans. Woody

Harrelson, the actor, is a vegan, as are his

fellow Hollywood stars Joaquin Phoenix and Alicia



The singer Bryan Adams refuses to eat milk or

cheese or any other animal product, as do k d

lang and Moby.


Heather Small, the lead singer of M People, and

Benjamin Zephaniah, the poet, follow the vegan



The athlete, Carl Lewis, who won nine Olympic gold medals, is a vegan.


The insertion of Uri Geller's name in the vegan

list is believed to be a joke by a mischievous



Heather Mills-McCartney, the wife of Paul

McCartney, himself a vegan, is the latest

celebrity convert to the cause. The former model

announced her conversion last August, saying that

vegetarianism not only benefited health but also

made a huge difference to the planet.


She added: "I could never go back to eating meat

or fish and I'm moving towards being vegan. When

I crack an egg now, I think: 'Could that have

been a baby?'"


Vegans eat all the foods meat-eaters eat - except

meat, poultry, fish, cow's milk, yoghurt, cheese

and honey. They also avoid wearing leather, bone,

ivory, feathers, and mother of pearl.


All manner of combinations of vegetables and

pulses to replace animal-based ingredients in



A commercial market has also emerged in free-from

foods suitable for vegans and for people who

cannot eat dairy products for health reasons.

This sub-sector of the food industry is booming.


Holland & Barrett, the health food shop, stocks

more than 1,000 ranges of vegetarian foods. Many

of them are vegan, such as the Sos Roll and the

Porkless Pie.


"They are selling incredibly well," said Lorna

Pridmore, the chain's food buyer, who credits

part of the success of meat-less whole foods to

the TV nutritionist, Gillian McKeith.


"We saw a huge lift in sales last year and

generally the food side of the business is

growing rapidly. We have so many products that we

want to put in but we are running out of space."


One of the biggest producers of vegan fare,

Plamil Foods, has seen revenues rise by between

10 and 15 per cent a year. Its 30 products are

made at its meat and dairy-free factory in

Folkestone, Kent. One of the company's

best-selling products is egg-free mayonnaise,

made from water, oil and pea protein instead of



The managing director, Adrian Ling, has noticed a

considerable change in perceptions of veganism in

his 23 years at the company, which began making

soya milk.


"There has been a vast change", he said.


"As veganism has grown, understanding of it has

grown. The word vegan is commonplace and the food

has become widely available in supermarkets.


"Whereas a long time ago it was perceived as food

for sandal-wearers, it's now become more



The rising number of vegans has also reached a critical mass.


"Not having dairy when you are eating out is much

more easy," explains Catriona Toms, of the Vegan

Society, which has 5,000 members.


"People are becoming much more aware of lactose

intolerance and places like Starbucks have soya

milk, as do all the main coffee chains."


She believes the vegan movement taps into many of

the trends which are influencing modern cooking,

from the growing interest in animal welfare to

awareness of the environment.


Moreover, almost all restaurants have dishes that

are, or can easily be made, vegan.


"Indian restaurants don't need to be a problem;

Chinese restaurants are the same. In pizza

restaurants you have to be a bit vigilant about

what they put in the dough. But anywhere that can

cater for vegetarians can cater for vegans if

they want to."


There are also vegan-friendly restaurants, such

as Dandelion & Burdock in Halifax, West Yorkshire

and Veggie Vegan and Eat and Two Veg in London.


Vegan diets are healthy, according to followers

of the philosophy. The only vitamin from animals

that cannot be replicated elsewhere is B12 -

important for the nervous system and preventing

iron deficiency and anaemia.


Vegans take supplements, but can also find B12 in

food fortified with vitamins such as breakfast



Such is the rise in veganism that people are no

longer bemused by its existence, according to

Wendy Higgins, a former campaign director for the

British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.


She turned vegetarian aged 10, and vegan aged 16.

She explained: "When I was a child we kept lots

of animals, including a cat, guinea pigs and

hamsters, and it made no sense to me that there

were lots of animals that you cared for, and

often cared for very deeply, and other animals

that are killed and consumed."


When she became a vegan, life was harder but once

the adjustment was made, things became

surprisingly easy and have become easier all the



"I do 99 per cent of my shopping in a supermarket

like everyone else, but instead of buying dairy

milk I buy soya milk. Even my local corner shops

does soya milk.


"If you are shopping for a low-fat diet or a

nut-free diet you just get used to what you can

buy and it's not a big deal."


She adds: "People ask, 'What do you eat?' and

they seem to think I must eat carpet or twigs.

But I probably eat 80 per cent of what they eat."


Five famous vegans


Alicia Silverstone


The actress, 29, who had an organic wedding with

Christopher Jarecki, was voted the world's

sexiest female vegetarian in 2004. She says it is

the best thing she has done in her life: "My body

just got so healthy and skinny, and my skin

became so radiant, that I started looking

fabulous anyway." Last year, the actress, who

starred in Clueless and Love's Labour's Lost,

suggested that she would like to take her vegan

lifestyle one step further: "I'd love to raise a

family on a farm and grow my own food, and grow

my hair down to my ankles and be a kind of

punk-rock hippy."


Woody Harrelson


Harrelson, 44, the bartender on Cheers!,has not

eaten meat for 15 years. Not only is he vegan,

but he also eats a 90 per cent raw diet. At

opening night parties, he grazes on vegan canapes

and regularly fasts, taking up to a week off from

solid food. During one fast he lost 15lb. He has

declared dairy to be one of the great evils of

the world. "Yeah, milk does a body good - if you

are a calf," he says. "It is evil to your body to

put something in there that's designed to make an

animal go from very small to very big in a short



Gwyneth Paltrow


The Oscar-winning actress, 33, lives on a

macrobiotic diet of wholegrains, vegetables,

beans, seaweed and soya. A lover of new-age

treatments, she is married to the Coldplay

singer, Chris Martin. Her daughter, Apple, had a

vegan first birthday party last year with food

and chocolate cheesecake from Moby's café, Teany.

"I would rather die than let my kid eat instant

soup," she says. She has admitted that people do

not see her and her husband as the epitome of

rock'n'roll. "There is this perception of us in

this country like, 'Oh, they're quite boring,

they do yoga and stay home,'" she said.


Benjamin Zephaniah


The poet, whose favourite restaurant is

Chawalla's in East Ham, is a " militant vegan"

who would not sit on a chair made of leather.

When asked what he would eat if he was in a

desert with no food in sight except a cow, he

said: "I'd find out what the cow was eating and

join it." He became vegetarian at the age of 11

and vegan at 13: "I was disgusted by the taste

and texture, and the thought of having flesh and

blood against my teeth," he said. "Think of the

fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury

it in the ground, and it explodes into an oak!

Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay."




The singer, 40, a "vegan fascist" for nearly two

decades, owns Teany, a café in New York, which

has spawned a vegan soft drinks company. Moby,

born Richard Melville Hall, feasts on vegan

focaccia with roasted onions. "When I think of

the fact that literally tens of billions of

animals are killed nearly every year for human

purposes, part of me wants to go out and join the

Animal Liberation Front," he has said. He admits

that some people are filled with "ridicule" at

the idea of veganism. But he says that it is

"second nature" to him.


Easy Vegan Chocolate Cake




680g plain flour


450g sugar


100g cocoa


2 teaspoons baking soda


1 teaspoon salt


6 fl oz vegetable oil


2 tablespoons vinegar


2 teaspoons vanilla essence


16 fl oz cold water




Mix the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients.

Stir until smooth. Bake at 175C (350F) for 30

minutes. Makes two layers of a two-layer 9-inch

or 8-inch diameter cake. When cool, cover with

frosting. You can adapt any conventional

buttercream recipe by substituting vegan

margarine for butter and soya milk for cow's milk.