The strange reasons behind the backlash against vegan food – Laura Waddell

The outrage over vegan food misses the simple point that it’s popular because some people like it, writes Laura Waddell.

A KFC sandwich without chicken? Some people seem to be unusually outraged by the idea, but it wouldnt be on sale if people didnt want to buy it (Picture: KFC/PA)
A KFC sandwich without chicken? Some people seem to be unusually outraged by the idea, but it wouldnt be on sale if people didnt want to buy it (Picture: KFC/PA)

Every time I have eaten a vegan sausage roll, I’ve thought about the food writers apopletic at their existence with mischievious glee. As yet, I have resisted the puerile temptation to tag them into a photo of myself eating one, but this may not hold.

If you thought vegans were annoying, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve witnessed those fervent carnivores purple with rage at the concept of a vegan sausage, as though, by virtue of its mere presence in the world, they are obliged to angrily shove it down their own throats.

Part of this is sheer myopism; vegan steak bakes truly seem to induce an identity crisis for the proudest and meatiest among us. Food is comfort and identity in many ways, and can bring out our vulnerabilities when faced with something unfamiliar, but a classic narcissistic trope is the expectation that one’s own needs must be catered to exclusively and endlessly.

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For some, options for others being on the menu at all disrupt their centrality in the universe. We might illustrate this as the space pinpointed by a ring of pineapple atop a gammon steak. Sometimes you can practically see a short circuiting at the moment of realisation that somewhere nearby lurks a nut roast.

In Carol J Adams’ book Burger, which explores the cultural history of the classic food, she describes how the advertising of meat products have historically played up the hawkish, macho elements of consumption.

Gurning to a glaikit audience

Women are still more likely than men to adopt a meat-free diet. It’s little wonder that some responses to the chickenless KFC sandwich and its feather-free ilk are often in the same tone as other reactionary sentiments, righteously punching away at anything different from one’s own personal preferences. That, and that there’s money to be made in gurning for a glaikit audience against anything remotely progressive, of course.

But among some food commentators who generally mean well, there’s a growing backlash to the recent wave of high street vegan-friendly offerings that’s truly perplexing in how often it misses the mark and goes for petty scolding.

Some jibes are attempted gotchas. There’s condemnation that convenience and fast food outlets are only looking out for profit with their vegan creations, with little regard for ethics. What a scoop! Someone’s been reading the Wikipedia page for capitalism.

But is there a single person out there, partial to a pastry whether meat or vegan, who was actually under the impression selling them was a charitable effort? The strangest thing about this attack line is that it assumes consumers are wrong about a belief there is little indication they actually hold.

Vegan junk food fans

See also the claim processed convenience food that apes a meat product isn’t ‘real food’, a phrase devoid of technical meaning while missing that approximating the taste of the genuine article, while not actually being it, is exactly the point.

“They’re unhealthy!” cry the detractors, as though anyone is swapping their five-a-day for a multipack of sausage rolls. It takes very little time browsing pre-existing vegan communities online before discovering how many are dedicated to the pursuit of junk food, proactively seeking and creating dairy-free stodge as treats, and doing so in full knowledge of the health benefits, or otherwise, of what they crave.

I’m not even a vegan (just a vegetarian) and I’ve been mesmerised by the ingenuity – but it’s also clear that anyone with a specific diet in the habit of paying close attention to ingredients lists generally has a level of engagement with what they’re eating that surpasses many others.

If anyone opts for a vegan convenience option thinking it’s better for them than it really is, the advent of veganism as a mass-market trend only follows a multitude of marketing sins not exclusive to any particular diet. Consider dressed chicken salads at fast food outlets are sometimes more calorific than a standard burger.

In a sea of cheap, high fat, salt and sugar options, why single out new vegan products for particular condemnation? We now raise an eyebrow at what was considered a health food only two or three decades ago – fresh juices are now as likely to be thought of in terms of sugar content as they are about vitamins. It’s true, however, that misunderstanding of food and how it impacts our bodies is commonplace and can be a serious problem, exacerbating other health inequalities. But this has ever been the case, and is enmeshed with the wider factors of poverty and education, as well as affordability and accessibility of good quality options.

Ban vegan burgers?

Veganism didn’t invent the profit-driven food industry and its penchant for fads. Many vegan-friendly shops, such as independent traders and traditional greengrocers, have been pushed out of the high street. Surely, when it comes to the health and sustainability of agriculture, the declining appetite for meat is small potatoes compared to the ongoing squeeze of trading terms and the Brexit carnage yet to unfold? And where the environmental impact of going vegan is over-estimated, the inefficiency of market-driven food production across the board is the real problem.

A particularly egregious note of backlash can be seen in burgeoning campaigns to prevent vegan foods from using meat-associated words such as ‘sausage’ and ‘burger’. But this is a linguisic fallacy; those terms refer to the shape and form of the food, and vegan varieties have been around for a very long time.

Protectected terms have a role in protecting suppliers and consumers, but the argument to be more specific and informed about what we’re eating should support and elaborate upon these terms rather than seeking to outlaw them.

With such a scattershot approach to opposing veganism, it leaves me wondering what the motivations are. It feels like deep anxiety about the health of food production has fixated on the wrong target.

Besides, food is pleasure. There’s something puritan and incurious in the backlash. It’s all a little Victorian and disapproving. Let vegans have their happy meals.