by Linda Krajčovičová
Dietary restrictions in today’s world are partly a result of advanced medical knowledge of numerous food intolerances, and partly a result of people’s interest in trying out different lifestyles. The popularity of various diets is largely a result of the great availability of resources, such as substitutes like tofu or gluten-free bakery products. Dietary restrictions nowadays are primarily concerned with omitting animal products, either completely, or to some degree. The concept of veganism has slowly become a stable conversation topic in recent years and has influenced many people since its origin. This article focuses on the most common vegan food eaten by both vegans and non-vegans i.e. plant-based milk, and provides a brief characterisation of the most accessible types.
The Vegan Society
The National Health Service, the healthcare system of the United Kingdom, defines veganism as a diet containing only plants and plant-based foods. While the origin of a diet consisting strictly of plants dates back to ancient civilisations, the first people to call themselves ‘vegans’ did so towards the end of the Second World War. A group of six plant-based diet enthusiasts not only established the term vegan but also founded The Vegan Society in November 1944 in London. The Society’s priority was not to talk about “why one should be vegan” but rather “how to be vegan”, as following such diet was not as easy 76 years ago. The primary goal and focus upon the Society’s establishment was research of foods “suitable” for vegans and a request for larger rations of dairy and protein supplements such as dried fruits and lentils. One of the biggest challenges they faced was the demand for plant-based milk.
The lack of a vegan milk alternative was a constant issue the Society had to deal with during its first few years. The only choice available was home-made nut milk; however, the price of nuts did not allow vegans to satisfy their nutritional needs adequately. This contributed to the foundation of the Plantmilk Society in June 1956, which later created its own plant milk-production company: Plantmilk Ltd, as every other company refused to do so because of “insufficient demand”.
The situation nowadays is very different, and the popularity of veganism worldwide is far greater than 60 years ago. According to The Vegan Society, its definition today does not only concern plant-based diet but also other significant aspects of everyday life. Products tested on animals, or animal products are common in the cosmetic and fashion industry and are also against basic vegan beliefs. The general ‘motto’ of vegans is defined by The Society as pursuing a lifestyle where no cruelty or improper handling of animals is acceptable, as long as it is possible to do so. This includes any form of support for any kind of institution that captures animals such as zoos, aquariums, or circuses. The only issue for vegans is medicine, which by British law, must be tested on animals. The Vegan Society does not reject such medicines, claiming “a dead vegan is no good to anyone”.
The increased popularity of vegan diet highlights several significant issues the world is facing today. The mass farming of animals in unsuitable conditions or the bad impact of people’s dependence on animal products and meat on the environment are problems that are being more and more openly discussed and that the vegan community is dealing with.
2019, labelled by The Economist as “The year of the vegan”, was a significant year in spreading awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet. According to Google Trends, last year interest in this topic increased worldwide but was most apparent among British citizens. A survey issued by The Vegan Society in 2019 showed 1.16% of the UK population were vegans, with the rising trend suggesting that the number will increase in the coming years. February 2019 also marked the month with the highest number of vegan milk consumers compared to previous years at almost a quarter of the population. And while the increasing popularity of plant milk has ensured availability of various types of vegan dairy alternatives, there are a few things worth mentioning about the most accessible and most preferred kinds of plant milk.
Soymilk has been a stable alternative to cow milk in the UK for a number of years. In 2017, its sales were worth almost 127 million pounds (approximately 3.7 billion Czech crowns), more than all other milk alternatives combined (Wunsch). Its biggest benefit is its high protein level of approximately 2.4 g per 100 ml, meaning it is the closest alternative to cow milk of all vegan alternatives. Other beneficial attributes of soy milk are its low sugar quotient and its ability to help reduce cholesterol levels. Poore and Nemecek (2017) found that overall environmental impact of soymilk is one of the lowest out of the researched dairy milk and its plant alternatives. It is well known that soy plantations cause deforestation, mainly in South America, however, it has to be added that the reason for such large demand for soya is predominantly because of its use in feeding livestock. Apart from this, its biggest disadvantage is a matter of taste preference as some people state that it is not to their liking, describing it as ‘beany’ and having an ‘odour’.
Luckily for those that do not like the taste of soymilk, there is one more plant-based milk whose overall evaluation makes it a great choice: oat milk. Oat milk is a relatively new addition to the plant alternatives of milk. Its production emerged in the 1990s by Swedish company Oatly and it was not until recent years that oat milk won favour with plant milk consumers. Today, 24% of Oatly’s sales come from the UK market which makes it the second biggest Oatly market beside Sweden. The first thing which sets oat milk aside from other milk alternatives is its low allergy quotient. The only issue would be with gluten as oats are often processed with grains containing gluten; here the solution would be milk from certified gluten-free oats. Oat milk is the closest alternative to soy milk in terms of its environmental impact as both oats and soya beans have very similar agricultural requirements (e.g. land and water use). Another important remark is that oats do not require special conditions; they are relatively easy to grow anywhere and are therefore not associated with deforestation in the same way as soya production.
Almond milk sales in the UK have significantly increased in 2019 and The Vegan Society’s statistic shows sales are expected to undergo “incredible growth” in the next five years. The biggest benefit of almond milk is its low sugar and calories quotient. However, the list of disadvantages of mass production of almonds is extensive. The majority of almonds are grown and processed in California because of its warm and sunny climate. The first issue of almond production is its request for water, the highest of all researched dairy alternatives, which makes it even more demanding in California where periods of drought are not uncommon. A larger problem arising from higher production of almonds concerns bees. Around 50 billion bees are believed to have died in the winter of 2018/19 in the US because of higher almond production. Pesticides, parasites and habitat loss were all contributors to such results; “the toxic chemical soup of California” and disturbance of bees’ winter dormancy a number of weeks earlier than is needed causes their deaths every year. Attempts to improve this situation emerged and in 2017, when the Bee Better Certified program was established, by helping to protect bees from these threats.
In the past, coconut milk was used mainly in Asian cuisine but slowly became a stable all round alternative of dairy milk. Although a favourite for its taste, coconut milk does not have a lot of micronutrients; it contains low levels of protein and has a higher calorie quotient. Another important issue concerns production. The majority of coconut trees are grown in countries in South Asia i.e. Indonesia and The Philippines. The demand for coconuts means that evermore agricultural land is needed, causing deforestation. There is also a problem with the exploitation of plantation pickers, who are said to be “often paid less than a dollar a day”.
Although rice milk is not a consumer favourite, it has been a stable in the plant-based foods market for a number of years. Availability and price are its biggest advantages but rice milk naturally does not contain as many micronutrients as other plant milks do. High in sugar and low in protein, its production also causes the highest number of emissions out of the researched plant milks.
The food options available to vegans have multiplied since the establishment of The Vegan Society last century. Their struggles with the lack of a dairy milk alternative are long forgotten and today, more and more types of milk are emerging. Generally, today’s plant milks have a great advantage as opposed to the milk alternatives of the past because they contain added vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, and thereby provide essential micronutrients. Nevertheless, every plant-based milk has its drawbacks as well as its benefits, which concern either its taste and nutritional value, or its production. And with the growing interest in veganism, it is essential to know as much as possible about them in order to responsibly choose the most satisfactory one.
Linda is a third-year Bachelor student of English Language and Literature. She decided to join Re:Views magazine because she wanted to challenge herself and try something new. Besides uni, her days are mostly filled with books, music and her family and friends. She also enjoys long walks, coffee, and snowy winters. She does not know what she would like to do in the future yet, but she hopes to figure it out in the following years of her studies at university.
Wunsch, Nils-Gerrit. “Total soya milk sales volume in Great Britain from October 2009 to October 2018”. Statista, 9 Dec. 2019, statista.com/statistics/281499/soya-milk-sales-volume-in-great-britain-since-2009/.