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Veganuary who? From ‘facon’ to ‘cheeze’, here’s how we fell out of love with plant-based products

Gone are the days when we couldn’t move for vegan nugget drops. How did imitation meat lose its grip on the nation – and is veganism itself going anywhere?

A rotting tomato
Image: Jamie Inglis for Time Out
Image: Jamie Inglis for Time Out
Ella Doyle
Written by
Ella Doyle

We’re half way through Veganuary. Once upon a time, you wouldn’t have been able to move for new vegan products. Previous Januarys saw the launch of Wagamama’s watermelon tuna, McDonalds’s McPlant and Pizza Express’s ‘Sloppy Vegan’ pizza. 

Vegans and carnivores alike queued outside Greggs for its Quorn sausage roll drop, and veggies who hadn’t been to KFC in eight years were suddenly buying its Mycoprotein burger for lunch every weekday. The hills sang with seitan and the streets were alive with vegan consumerism – and we ate it up, every last crumb. 

This year? Things are a little… quiet. Sure, the drops are still dropping; Honest Burgers has brought back its bacon plant with Applewood cheese and Greggs relaunched its vegan steak bake for the month. But compare it to 2020 in all its collabs, brands and vegan nugget glory? It’s over.

The rise of veganism

‘Before, people would go vegan just for the trend, especially in January,’ says Tom Stock, co-founder of London restaurant chain Burger and Beyond. ‘From a restaurant’s point of view we were really seeing that and hearing that, and that’s why we had to cater to it. Whereas now, it feels like that demand isn’t there.’ Burger and Beyond are running a meat-only menu for the whole of January, with no vegan offering, celebrating British meat and farmers. 

Veganism has been picking up speed in the UK, but it stayed a pretty niche diet choice until around 2018 (the year when Impossible Burger launched its vegan burger that bleeds, which broke the internet by 2018 standards). After that, veganism went mainstream; vegan food made up nearly a quarter of all food launches in the UK in 2019, and by 2020, every popular supermarket and chain restaurant in the UK had a vegan range or offering, while the number of people eating vegan meals had soared by a massive 46 percent. Veganism was mostly adopted by 18 to 30 year olds: a diet sold to us as a way to eat more sustainably, more healthily, and without any animal cruelty. 

A table of burgers
Photograph: Richard TurnerBurger & Beyond’s meat only menu

That was when faux meat brands like Meatless Farm, Beyond Meat and Vivera were having their moment, squeezing various plant-based proteins into smash burgers and shawarma kebabs, soaring over the old-school big dogs Quorn and poor Linda. Start-up vegan meat brand This was slapped on the menu everywhere from Honest Burger to Coté Brasserie, where it looked, smelled and tasted just like chicken, if a little paler looking. 

And these faux meat brands were bringing home the (synthetic) bacon: Meatless Farm made £11 million in 2021 and This, which only launched in 2019, was selling £1.4m worth of meat-free foods per month by 2022. But in 2023, Meatless Farm quietly went under (it’s now been bought out by VFC foods, which specialises in vegan fried chicken, along with its £2m worth of debt). Oatly withdrew all of the ice-creams it had launched in 2019. Lewis Hamilton-backed vegan burger chain Neat Burger was forced to close half of its London restaurants by the end of last year.

It ain’t chicken

According to Lisa Jayne Harris, a food trend expert at Harris and Hayes consultancy, the fake meat hype was actually bringing the movement down at a time when it couldn’t be more needed. ‘We’ve been backed into this really dangerous dead end where we need to eat plant-based more than ever, but the market is saturated with this overly processed, overpriced alt protein,’ she says.

After all, for most of us eating faux meat products, if the question is: ‘what’s that made out of?’ The answer is almost always: ‘I’ve got no idea’. But things are beginning to shift. ‘Consumers want to know what food is,’ says Harris. ‘It’s about positive nutrition. The whole brand thing of not chicken, not milk, you’re left in this absence of experience.’ 

The whole brand thing of not chicken, not milk, you’re left in this absence of experience

Edinburgh-based food PR Abigail Dunn, 25, says that she leant on faux meat products heavily in the transition phase at the start of her six-year journey with veganism. ‘I used to eat a lot of meat,’ she says. ‘My hangover drink was a pint of milk. I leant on those [vegan] alternatives because that’s what I was used to eating.’ Now, she tries to avoid them wherever possible. 

Alice Vyvyan-Jones, a 27-year-old radio producer from Bristol, says she jumped on the vegan hype at its peak, during lockdown in 2020, with absolutely zero research into what she’d need to supplement her diet. ‘I lasted about a month and a half before my hair started falling out,’ she says.

Ultra-processed who?

So what made us fall out of love with all this squidgy gluten and proteins? ‘I think people are far more aware now of what they’re eating and what they’re putting into their body,’ says Dunn. ‘As well as where it’s coming from and how it’s getting there, which I think it’s great.’ And it’s true. A new term entered our collective consciousness and is refusing to budge: Google searches for ‘ultra processed food’ (UPF) have tripled since 2019

It might be a bit of a buzzword, but UPF is essentially any food that’s been majorly altered, enhanced and manufactured. The opposite of a whole food, basically. Awareness is growing that ultra processed foods are bad for our health (it’s been linked to greater risks of high blood pressure, strokes and cardiovascular disease), but also for the environment, due to long supply chains and packaging processes. 

A supermarket vegan section
Photograph: Shutterstock

‘I think consumers are generally a bit sceptical, and they’re also a bit tired,’ says Harris. ‘With the awareness of UPF, there’s a new sort of suspicion around products with long lists of ingredients. Vegan meat was presented as an answer [to unsustainable eating] and then it got nipped in the bud, before it could really develop.’

Veganism promised health for ourselves and the planet, but somewhere along the line, it started to look just like the mainstream diet it was opposing: full of burgers and sausages and strips of streaky bacon. So as quickly as it came around, we lost our appetite. According to market-research firm Mintel, the faux meat market in general doubled from £289m in 2017 to £568m in 2021, but sales fell for the first time last year. 

Full of beans 

But it wasn’t the vegans themselves disappearing into the mist, in a cloud of pea protein dust. According to the Vegan Society, the amount of vegans in the UK is still increasing, growing from 0.25 percent of the UK adult population before 2015 to about 1 percent by 2018, and about 1.35 percent by 2022. 

Five years who, the biggest driver of veganism was young people aged between 18 and 34, who still make up half of all vegans in the UK. Young people now, though? They’re around, sure, and they definitely still care about the environment. But they’re broke. ‘Plant-based products can be the more expensive choice now,’ says Harris. In the cost of living crisis, the once-hyped vegan meat products got shunned. 

‘The meat alternatives, they’re not cheap,’ says Dunn. ‘And I think people are wanting to live more sustainably or eat better or eat less meat, and they’re finding that it’s too expensive to do it by shopping the alternatives. Instead, they’re going back to traditional methods of just cooking vegetables really well.’

The faux meat market in general doubled from £289m in 2017 to £568m in 2021, but fell for the first time last year 

And thus came a new trend, emerging on the shelves in brightly coloured jars and cans. One which went back to the very basics. A new obsession with straight-up, unprocessed whole foods; all things tinned, cheap and briney. One of the biggest instigators, Bold Bean Co, which sells beans and chickpeas in cute, aesthetic jars, grew sales by 218 percent from 2022 to 2023, and actually markets itself as a product to help reduce meat consumption. They are a vegan product, after all. 

Will Moxham, founder of plant-based meal kit brand Planthood reported that his company saw a 500 percent increase in new customers since January 2023. Tempeh brand Better Nature, which is keen not to market itself as a meat alternative product, had its first mainstream supermarket launch in summer last year, taking advantage of the move towards ‘more natural products’. Burger King even introduced a bean burger for the first time in about a hundred years. Imitation vegan meat might be out, but vegetables, beans and pulses are most definitely in. 

Down with the labels 

Dunn now eats fish and eggs if she knows it’s sustainably sourced. ‘I’d been vegan for two years when I was up north visiting family who have a farm by Loch Ness,’ she says. ‘They have chickens and they’re treated like pets. So I ate eggs there because they’re very looked after and it wasn’t harming animals or the environment.’ 

She also eats some seafood caught by local fishermen, but still personally identifies as vegan. ‘I’m technically not, because I do sometimes eat seafood and eggs,’ she says, but explains that for her, to be vegan means to make the most ethically and sustainable choices possible in her diet. ‘It’s easier for me to live as sustainably as I would want to by being vegan then it is for me to source produce of a high enough quality all the time.’ 

And as this balanced, thoughtful, sustainable way of eating gains momentum, what’s next for the future of veganism? ‘Nature’s amazing, and it has all this incredible food for us to eat,’ says Harris. ‘Meat can be a part of that, but it’s got to be sustainable and avoid industrialised production.’ 

The next chapter

After all of that, things might not look so bad for the vegan movement after all. Even while we fall out of love with fake meat, the UK is actually eating less meat than ever: down 14 percent since 2012 according to a government survey, driven by lifestyle changes and the cost of living

‘People are finding balance,’ says Dunn. ‘On TikTok, there’s so many meat eaters and non-meat eaters sharing vegan and vegetarian recipes.’ And we’re eating them up, vegan or not. Food influencers have been going viral for their meat-eater Veganuary series, while plant-based creators are avoiding putting a label on their recipes at all. ‘My mission is to get people eating more plants,’ @sophsplantkitchen writes. ‘I think the best way to do this is to not label everything sans animal products as vegan.’ In London, the newest vegan hype restaurant is King Cookdaily, a complete ode to the humble vegetable: all chickpea curries, veggie udon and tofu pad thai. 

@sophsplantkitchen Quick one pan high protein pasta + things I didn’t have time for in the voiceover: I often see non-vegan food labelled as ‘normal’ food, this just pushes us away from a plant focused future. My mission is to get people eating more plants. I think the best way to do this is to not label everything sans animal products as vegan. I still very much identify as a vegan, however I’ve seen and heard pretty much all the counter arguments and I do understand that this lifestyle is not suitable for everyone. I want people to FEEL good, and my mission is to provide recipes which do just that, to encourage a gradual shift away from animal products. Not an overnight elimination. I’m not encouraging the extinction of the movement at all. I see a lot of value in activism. This is a choice I’ve made as a creator with the power to hopefully reach many more, non-vegan people. It’s the way I see I can make the biggest impact. Recipe: Protein breakdown: 300g puy lentils - 33g 250g pasta (dried weight) - 35g 40g walnuts - 6g = 74g /2 large portions (it is recommended that those following a plant-based diet eat larger portions) = 37g The ingredients and recipe are in a pinned comment 💚 Ingredients: 250g dried pasta 350g chopped chestnut mushrooms 1/2 an onion, finely chopped 4 gloves garlic, minced 40g walnut pieces, soaked in boiling water(10 mins) 7 large sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped 1 tsp smoked paprika 1 tbsp tomato paste 300g ready cooked puy lentils 1 400g tin plum tomatoes Salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil Cashew parm for serving Method is on my IG page x #fyp #veganfyp #pasta #lentils ♬ original sound - Sophie Waplington

And while younger people were the ones driving veganism’s growth, now it’s all demographics who are eating less meat. The over-50s, known for pushing the meat-and-two-veg diet, are increasingly eating meat only a few times a week now, whether they identify as ‘flexitarians’ or not. The vegan mission isn’t going anywhere: it’s just the labels that might be on their way out.

If unsustainable animal products and UPFs are being ditched, it leaves us with something that pretty much resembles (yep, you guessed it) a vegan diet: wholefoods, nuts, pulses and veggies. ‘A lot of people disagree with the vegan lifestyle just because vegans can be so annoying,’ says Dunn. But the plant-based diet, for all its beany, fibrous goodness? It’s actually in. Love them or hate them, if we carry on this way, the vegans might just win after all. 

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