Is Tofu Taking Over? The Case for Veganism in the 21st Century

Is+Tofu+Taking+Over%3F+The+Case+for+Veganism+in+the+21st+Century

Emily Nikas

Anna Geldert, Managing Editor, Commentary

Though virtually unheard of a few decades ago, words like “veggie burger” and “plant-based” seem to be everywhere today. With the turn of the century, vegan and vegetarian diets have become more popular than ever before, so much so that food companies and restaurants are able to profit on a vegan-only selection of meals.

A post published by HealthCareers states that the number of vegans and vegetarians increased by 600% between 2014 and 2020. Additionally, the same post notes that a rising number of Americans are opting to incorporate vegan foods into their diet, even when they don’t consider themselves to be fully vegan all the time. 

By the looks of it, Americans are catapulting toward a future that is more and more plant-based. But what exactly inspired the vegan movement, and why now? This article takes a look at the top reasons for going vegan, as well as the benefits of removing animal products from your diet in the twenty-first century.

 

Health Benefits

For many people, the number one reason for going vegan is the prospect of a healthier diet option. Many vegan foods contain antioxidants, fiber, and important vitamins and minerals that can put one on track to a healthier life. 

According to a study by BBC, 49% of individuals interviewed listed health benefits as a reason to cut back on animal products, and 29% listed weight management as a factor in their choice. 

Additionally, an article by Inhabitat, going vegan can reduce the risk of many serious illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

To be clear, going vegan doesn’t automatically ensure a healthy lifestyle. While many animal products are processed, high in fat, and full of cholesterol, so too isa diet consisting of solely dairy-free ice cream and french fries. Some vegans may notice a worsening in their health as they binge-eat the wrong types of foods to make up for animal products they can no longer consume. If going vegan is one’s road to a healthier life, that choice has to be coupled with a commitment to eating vegetables, whole grains, and protein substitutes, as well as a dedication to continuing other healthy habits, like exercising and getting enough sleep. 

Vegans also have to find substitutes for important nutrients that are typically found in animal products, such as amino acids and calcium. However, through deliberate dietary choices, most of these nutrients can be found in vegan replacements, like plant-based milk, tofu, and tempeh. Other nutrients, like Vitamin B12, can be taken in supplements.

 Often, this effort to seek out healthy alternatives to animal products can lead to a more diverse palette.

Aspen Schrupp, ‘21, said, “Before becoming a vegan, I never tried tofu, hummus, miso, tahini–the list goes on and on. Yet these foods are staples in the vegan diet, so I gave them a try and was surprised by how much I liked them!”

Mara Levine, ‘21, who is also vegan, adds that she finds many of these foods taste just as good, if not better, than their non-vegan counterparts. She and Schrupp agree that going vegan has also helped them develop an interest in cooking. They enjoy discovering new recipes and experimenting with different flavors to make their plant-based meals extra delicious. 

 

Sustainability and Animal Welfare

Converting to a plant-based diet is also a much greener option than sticking to a traditional diet containing animal products. 

A report by Bloomberg.com calculated that approximately one fifth of American land is used for crops. At first glance, this appears to signify that vegan foods are a cause of significant environmental damage, but a relatively small portion of these crops are actually set aside for human consumption. A much larger portion is dedicated to cultivating feed for cattle, pigs, and poultry. When this is combined with areas used for pasture, the report explains a total of 41% of land in the United states is dedicated to meat and dairy production. In order to support a non-vegan diet, forest lands are destroyed for crops and pasture, billions of gallons of water are used to care for them, and fossil fuels supply energy to farm equipment and processing units. Only a small fraction of these resources are needed, by contrast, to sustain a vegan diet.

For Levine, sustainability was the main reason she decided to go vegan. She was also critical of the way many livestock were being treated and wanted to avoid meat and dairy products to support animal welfare.

“Even ‘ethical’ farmers treat their animals in a disturbingly poor manner,” she said. “This is especially disturbing in the dairy industry, where female cows are [forcibly impregnated] over and over again so that they continue producing milk, and their male calves are torn from them and killed, as they serve no purpose in the industry. When I’m eating, I don’t have that weighing over my conscience.” 

In his TED talk, activist Ed Winters makes a similar argument. 

 “Can we morally justify not being vegan by saying it’s our personal choice to consume animal products?” he asked. Winters said, “It is our personal choice to consume animal products in the same way that it is our personal choice to abuse a dog or beat a cat . . . Is [that] morally justifiable? . . . No. Of course it’s not. Because those choices have a victim, someone who suffers negatively because of the personal choice that we have made.”

Winters goes on to assert that many of the common arguments against veganism—such as claiming that eating meat is part of the circle of life, that it’s traditional, or that it’s a biological necessity— are either weak or unfounded. Like the “personal choice” claim, they are mere excuses so people can continue to enjoy the taste of animal products without a guilty conscience. However, he explained, when the preference for flavor remains as the only valid argument still standing, it becomes obvious that this is in no way worth the suffering of so many animals. 

“In the end, that’s why I became vegan,” said Winters. “I realized that my values contradicted my actions and deep down, I could find no real justification [for continuing to eat animal products].”

 

Increased Access to Vegan Options

Even just a few years ago, the idea of being vegan seemed impossible for many people simply because access to vegan foods was so limited. Maintaining a healthy vegan diet would require either access to special food items that are often very expensive or the extra time to prepare tofu and other protein substitutes at home. Additionally, many restaurants offer only a very limited vegan selection (or sometimes none at all). 

As Schrupp explained, some of these problems still exist today. 

“Eating out or at someone’s house isn’t that big of a deal, but it is kind of awkward when people keep asking why you’re not eating anything,” she said. “But the bigger issue is price. Although it is possible to eat vegan on a low budget, it can be extremely difficult– especially if someone lives in a food dessert.” 

As the popularity of veganism grows, however, access to affordable vegan options is easier than ever—likely another reason why so many people have converted to plant-based diets in the past few years. 

 

A statistic cited on the HealthCareers blog states that, in 2018 alone, the vegan food market was worth $12.7 billion, a value which is expected to nearly double by 2025. 

Furthermore, a study by Inhabitat found that the market for plant-based and lab-grown meats is expected to surpass that of traditional meats within the next twenty years. 

 

As the demand for vegan food grows and these products become more common, they will likely see a drop in price. This means that, for people who cannot afford to eat vegan now, the option might become more available in the future.

 

 Levine said that even today, however, it still possible to be vegan on a budget. 

 

“Veganism has a reputation for being expensive, but this is only true if you’re buying things like vegan ice cream and other pricey vegan treats and snacks or replacements all the time,” she said. “A lot of the cheapest foods in the world are vegan: rice, beans, legumes, potatoes [and] oats!” 

The health benefits of veganism, the attention to sustainability and animal welfare and increasing access to plant-based options are just some of the top reasons why more and more people have been going vegan in recent years. While it is still difficult for many individuals to maintain a vegan diet today, whether that be for financial, cultural, or lifestyle reasons, it is likely that in the future, the possibility to do so will become much more likely. As the demand for food rises with a growing population, it becomes much more practical to use our cropland for foods that go directly to our plates, rather than to livestock, who will require much more caloric intake than they produce. 

Americans in for a plant-based future, whether they like it or not. So, if any MHS students haven’t already tasted a veggie burger or tofu bowl yet, they may want to give them a shot. Who knows, they may find you enjoy it more than they thought.