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Redefining Food: Vegans in the UK

I’ve been writing a lot about food as community and how food intertwines with the way we live our lives. But these thoughts are limited to my own viewpoint and perspective here in the United States. What about the rest of the world? How is food presented, talked about, or enjoyed in other places? Enter our guest blogger, Mark, from the UK. What follows is a great post about being Vegan in the UK – something I know very little, if anything about.  You can also find some of his thoughts in the comments section on a previous post

Mark is a blogger at Herbifit, and when not blogging, he can be found cooking up vegan treats or running over the South Downs. Sometimes he gets caught, forced into a shirt and made to teach Geography to teenage boys.  

I have been a vegetarian since I was 8 and barely noticed. I rarely thought about it. It was easy as cheese and onion pie. Then I turned vegan at 30 and wow! What a difference. You can’t not think about being vegan. Not just because your way of eating changes much more dramatically, not just because you have to give your food choices more thought but because you are suddenly part of a community and it is everywhere.

It was the first thing I noticed when my shiny new cook books arrived (Vegans with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra and The Inspired Vegan by Bryant Terry) which were not only packed with delicious recipes but notes of Vegan Pot-lucks, civil rights, activism and communes. Then you go out for lunch and in the vegan cafes are posters for meetings, talks and ‘alternative theatre’. You didn’t get this with vegetarianism.

The heart of Vegan Brighton. Photo used with permission of the author/photographer Mark Enser.

Part of this is because I live near Brighton, the alternative culture capital of England where we are spoilt for choice for vegan cafes and whole food stores. But I think it is bigger than that. Vegans make up a tiny minority of the population of the UK (0.3% by most estimates) whereas vegetarianism is relatively common (around 8% of the population). As with any minority there is a lot of vitriol out there directed at vegans ranging from ‘humorous’ comments from friends to outright anger from strangers who seem to feel that their dietary choices are being judged by the very existence of people who have made a different decision. This kind of adversity brings a community together to help and support each other – and there is a lot of support out there. People will bend over backwards to offer advice and share experiences.

Of course now the community has been enlarged by this new-fangled internet and we can share with people from around the world. This highlights some interesting differences between vegan subculture in the UK and those in the USA. Those in the USA have as greater focus on health (50% of those questioned give health issues as their main reason for becoming vegan – in the UK this is only 17%) and I wonder if this is a reaction against the infamous Standard American Diet? The vegan community in the UK is more interested in animal welfare issues (43% give this as their main reason for becoming vegan against 10% in the USA) and there is a long history of animal welfare campaigns in the UK. Many vegans in the UK are part of animal rescues, welfare groups and environmental campaigns; many vegans in the USA belong to gyms (OK, that was a joke but it is a perceived difference).

So – how do you pass for a British vegan? Firstly leave the wholefoods at home and get excited by meat analogues (yuck), dye your hair purple, get some piercings and adopt some ex-battery chickens. Ready to go deeper? Well you can join in any discussion with a vegan with the ‘How vegan is…?’ game. Here is an odd example I read the other day concerning farmed figs. Apparently these are farmed using wasps which are often killed in the process. Are figs vegan? Only in the UK friends, only in the UK.

I would love to hear your experiences of the vegan community and how you make dietary choices. Ethics, health, taste?


8 thoughts on “Redefining Food: Vegans in the UK

  1. Thanks Lisa – it was an honor to be asked to contribute 🙂 I’m off to google ‘fig wasps’…

    Posted by Herbifit | August 28, 2012, 9:48 am
  2. Love your post, Mark! Thanks so much for contributing to our blog. I’m now a follower of Herbifit… all of those delicious vegan recipes… yum!

    Posted by a_a | August 28, 2012, 10:35 am
  3. So glad I found this blog via Herbifit’s. I’m kind of surprised at that 10% of vegans in the U.S. listed animal welfare as their main reason. Mine is health, but it seems most the vegans I read came from a combination of the two and many for the animals.

    Posted by Jeff Peters | January 29, 2013, 12:02 am
    • We’re so glad you found us, Jeff! I wonder if fewer people say animal welfare because of the media attention on how unhealthy it can be to eat meat from the industrial food system. The two are connected, but maybe health comes to mind first? Not being vegan myself, I can’t speak for the though process!

      Posted by Lisa Christina | January 29, 2013, 1:45 pm


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