World Vegan Day: is veganism elitist and expensive?

Plant-based eaters in the UAE weigh in on the debate

Critics say a vegan diet is too expensive to be accessible to all. Jannis Brandt / Unsplash
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eFor the past few years, veganism has undoubtedly been on the rise. In January, a record 500,000 people signed up for the annual Veganuary campaign, which challenges participants to only eat plant-based foods for a month. That’s double the number of people who pledged in 2019.

In the UK, one in four Britons actively cut back on animal products in the pandemic, according to a report by The Vegan Society called Changing Diets During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Meanwhile, non-meat substitutes boomed, with global alternative protein companies receiving $3.1 billion in disclosed investments in 2020, according to the Good Food Institute.

With this rising interest, there’s also unsurprisingly been an increase in scrutiny of the diet, with many saying it’s too difficult, unenjoyable and expensive.

How expensive is vegan food?

Most vegans are quick to say it’s a myth that they spend more money than their meat-eating counterparts – but is it?

“It really depends how you shop,” says business owner Ananda Shakespeare, who has never eaten meat, fish or eggs in her life. “If you’re buying organic or readymade food, prices can be high, but if you shop at markets or cheaper supermarkets, it is cheaper.

“I was brought up by a single mother and our income was low, but everything was made from scratch and extremely cheaply, while also being healthy.”

Shakespeare says it’s easy for costs to mushroom when people start buying meat alternatives, as more processed replacement foods tend to be pricier. A review of the products available on local e-store Kibsons shows a pack of two Beyond Meat burgers costs Dh35, while a pack of four lentil burgers costs Dh14.75. Four beef patties from New Zealand cost Dh26.25, while four of Angus beef from the US cost Dh48.

That’s in the UAE, though, where food is often more expensive as it’s imported. In the UK, however, where there’s a push for more affordable, seasonal and local produce, a recent study by data analytics company Kantar suggests vegans spend on average 40 per cent less on food than omnivores, and that meals take one-third less time to create.

Dubai resident Emily Evans, whose husband and 19-month-old son are also vegan, says it’s easy to go overboard when you’re buying faux meat products. “I don’t think it’s cheap. I think people who say it can be done cheaply aren’t wrong, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Yes, fruit and veg – if you buy seasonal, local produce at a market – and store staples such as rice and pasta, are cheap. However, nowadays, with so many amazing vegan products out there – burgers, ice cream, cheese, etc – living off carbs and veg doesn’t seem to cut it any more.”

Dubai resident Emily Evans, left, with her husband and son, who are all vegan. Photo: Emily Evans

While Evans and her partner, who both work full-time, have recently opted for a vegan meal plan by a local catering company, she says her previous grocery bills could often rack up to about Dh1,500 per week. “The fake meat isn’t cheap,” she admits. “One brand of sausages is Dhs45 for two, while another brand is Dhs26 for six. So I guess like anything you need to shop around and don’t buy the most expensive stuff, or save that for a treat.”

Shakespeare, on the other hand, who has also opted for a meal plan owing to her busy lifestyle, says a weekly grocery shop for one doesn’t have to cost much more than Dh200 per week. That’s if you’re sticking to a wholefoods, plant-based diet, which relies on ingredients such as fruit, vegetables, grains, pulses, legumes, nuts and more.

A wholefoods, plant-based diet

“Some of the easiest and cheapest vegan recipes are what we call in Egypt ‘ordeehi’ recipes, which are simple, usually bean-based, working-class meals,” says Nada El Barshoumi, who runs the food blog One Arab Vegan.

“In fact, both of the national dishes in Egypt, koshary – a mix of rice, pasta, legumes, fried onions and a spicy tomato sauce – and ful medames – mashed fava beans made for breakfast – are entirely vegan and very budget-friendly.”

One of El Barshoumi’s go-to meals that’s “light on the pocket” is a bowl. “I always use this formula: a grain, a green and a protein, plus toppings. For example, some brown rice, whatever fresh greens that are locally sold near me, chickpeas, and I add on whatever fresh or roasted veggies I have on hand.”

Nada El Barshoumi's ful medames recipe is cheap and cheerful. Photo: One Arab Vegan

Shakespeare says good, affordable meals she’ll often make include jacket potatoes, beans on toast, dal, curries, pasta, roasted vegetables, soups and sandwiches.

Evans similarly relies on beans and toast, but also highly recommends stir-fry. “It’s one of those meals you can make with what seems like anything. You can add any veg you have leftover in your fridge, some tofu if you have it, but if not, all vegetables works well, too. Add some soy sauce and rice or noodles, and that’s it. So simple and easy yet super-delicious and cheap.”

For anyone who is thinking of making the switch, there are tricks to keeping costs down, so that you actually save instead of splurge. For example, shop in more reasonably priced supermarkets, says Shakespeare.

“Make one dish go further – a hearty kidney bean stew is equally nice with veg, rice or pasta. If you’re time-poor, make a batch at the weekend and freeze it. If you have time to spare, make your own hummus, buy dry pulses and soak them. There are plenty of ways to eat ethically while being equally kind to your wallet.”

El Barshoumi, who has written an entire blog post on the subject, advises buying local and in bulk, treating speciality foods as a treat, and she says we shouldn’t be afraid to substitute obscure ingredients in recipes for something more simple, or omit the ingredient altogether. “If I had a dollar for every time I went out to buy an obscure, expensive ingredient for a recipe, I probably would’ve made all my money back. If your recipe calls for raw apple cider vinegar or nama shoyu sauce and you don’t have it, just leave it out or substitute with something similar.”

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, 15 MAY 2016. Portrait of a Nation subject Ananda Shakespear that has been in the UAE for 11 years. She started off as a writer then has since become a successful DJ and trained as a tour guide. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) ID: 70956. Journalist: Melanie Swan. Section: National. *** Local Caption ***  AR_1505_Ananda_Shakespear-14.JPG

Evans says it’s also worth doing some research into what’s in season. “Find your local fruit and veg market and buy from there rather than a shop. It’s almost always drastically cheaper.”

A mark of privilege?

Veganism is not only about food, though, Evans points out, as ethical vegans also eschew any toiletries, household products and even clothes that have involved animals in the production process. “If you want to go more in-depth and look at veganism as a whole, then I would be inclined to say it’s for the rich. Toiletries and household products, for instance, can be incredibly cheap, but vegan versions aren’t. It’s almost as if you have to pay more to be kinder to the world, environment and animals. If it’s vegan, it’s more often than not also organic, free of any nasties, and environmentally friendly, which is amazing, but it comes with a price tag.”

Alongside criticism of costs, many also say veganism is a mark of privilege, as in poverty-stricken countries people might not have the education or choice to opt for such as a diet.

Nada El Barshoumi has been a vegan ever since she was 20. Photo: Nada El Barshoumi

El Barshoumi agrees with this, to an extent. “We can’t talk about a fair and equitable world without addressing the role that privilege plays when it comes to the awareness and understanding around a plant-based diet,” she says. “At the end of the day, even though rice, beans and vegetables cost a fraction of more traditional animal-based ingredients, we pay a high proverbial price to gain access to research, books, documentaries – and even more tolerant societies – that make a strong case for a vegan diet as a healthier one.

“That being said, I believe it’s up to those who are more privileged – myself included – to exercise compassion and understanding towards those who are reluctant to adopt or even understand veganism. It’s a very elitist and small-minded perspective to adopt, in my opinion.”

Evans echoes these sentiments. “I think I’m very privileged to be able to live a vegan lifestyle, as I know not everyone can. I truly believe most of the people on this planet could go vegan and the world would be a better place for it, but there are lots of people who don’t have a choice about what they eat. Many people in the world don’t have access to fruit and vegetables, let alone fake meat and cheese. So many people in the world don’t even have access to fresh drinking water, which is absolutely barbaric and shocking and incomprehensible.”

Whether veganism is a mark of privilege or not doesn’t matter, though, says Evans. “If you can go vegan, you should. If you can’t, then the world needs to change because everyone should be able to make that choice for themselves.”

Shakespeare says: “Every single person who is vegan makes a difference. According to the vegan calculator, in my lifestyle, I’ve saved over 17,000 animals from death, over 19 million gallons of water, 520,000 square feet of rainforest and more than 694,000 pounds of grain.

“Even if you go vegan one night a week, one day a week or slowly transition to being vegetarian or vegan over time, you are making a different to making our planet one of more compassion.”

Updated: November 01, 2021, 10:55 AM
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