From model and media scapegoat to activist, athlete and founder of VBites, Heather Mills has come a long way. The British businesswoman (who was married to Paul McCartney) gave a talk, called Solving the Trillion-Dollar Healthcare Problem, at the World CEO Forum in Dubai at the end of October. Her engaging, anecdotal delivery style elicited much laughter, but there was no mistaking Mills’ single-minded commitment to her subject, a goal that she states can be achieved with one simple change: going vegan.
She proposes three solutions to achieving this end. “I have a 14-year-old, who is vegan. And when she was growing up, they all said: ‘Your child is going to die,’” she intones in an exaggerated falsetto. “And now she is the tallest, fastest, smartest kid at school, who is never sick. So I think the fastest way to convert the world to veganism is education, to educate the mums or whoever is buying the family’s food.”
Mills says that while she thinks it is possible for meat-eating parents to raise vegan kids, in her experience, the adults naturally tend to stray towards the plant-based route themselves. "Let's just say that the 10 vegan burgers I sent round for my friend's children one time didn't get to the kids at all. From eating plant-based once a week to three times to five times, mums and dads realise early on that if it's tasty and it's healthy, it just makes more sense to eat it."
Taste is her second tenet. When she turned to veganism 25 years ago, on the back of an accident that cost her a leg, the options were not good enough. "I ate raw food for close to two years, which is fine when you're younger, and have a lot of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes, or live in a hot country. But in England, it was torture. So I decided to develop my own plant-based line, but make sure the substitutes tasted as good as meat, fish and dairy." Product development took years of trial and error, but Mills' company VBites – which supplies products to restaurants and supermarkets in 20 countries – is now renowned for its meatless meat, fish-free fish and dairy-free cheese.
She is also currently working on bringing her products to the GCC in the near future. "Unfortunately, a lot of products that are out there are made very badly, so when people try it, they're disgusted. It's taken years and a lot of hard work for us to work out what people like and don't like. Taste is the only thing that will keep them on the right path. But now, I have yet to feed someone and them not go 'OMG', which is the name of our new burger, because everyone goes: 'Oh, my god' every time they eat it. We've done feta cheese and coconut allergen-free cheeses for pizza places, plus barbecues and seitan for Thai, Mexican, Italian and Indian restaurants.
“Sometimes you also need to know how to cook [a vegan product]. It’s not going to give you salmonella, so you don’t have to kill it in the oven; you want to keep it quite tender,” she says.
Mills credits her plant-based diet for her post-amputation recovery (she now wears a prosthetic limb), as well as for her mental well-being. "The health benefits are simply staggering. You can literally turn your cancer cells on and off, based on your diet," the 50-year-old claims.
If one is attempting to convert die-hard carnivores, Mills suggests experimenting, surreptitiously if needs be, until you find enough products to suit your palate. “My suggestion? Don’t tell the kids and never tell the husbands what you’re serving them,” she suggests, only half-joking. “My friend fed her rugby-player husband the VBites mince for a year, and he didn’t notice the difference. When she finally served him ‘real’ mince in his spaghetti bolognaise instead, guess what? He hated it. So keep it at it.”
Today might be an opportune time to give it a go, with several restaurants in the UAE celebrating World Vegan Day, with new dishes, deals and discounts. In Abu Dhabi, Urban Retreat at Yas Mall, has included Patty’s by Roots and The Chiller by Roots to its current rotation of vendors. The food-incubator space has a number of offers today, such as a latte and cake for Dh44; 50 per cent off a bro-cauli or plant power upon the purchase of a vurger; and a vurger and papas bravas combo for Dh75.
In Dubai, Hala Organic will offer a complimentary portion of beetroot hummus for every order worth Dh50. Ting Irie in Souk Al Manzil and Vietnamese Foodies in JLT have launched permanent vegan menus. The former includes Caribbean-inspired dishes, such as a red kidney pea stew with coconut milk, curried vegetables with Caribbean herbs and spices, cauliflower popcorn with sriracha sauce, and soya and ginger- marinated tofu with squash and tamarind sauce; while the latter puts a vegan twist on Vietnamese staples, such as Cari Chay (tofu and vegetable curry with jasmine rice), Pho Chay (pho with lotus root, mushroom & tofu), Ca Tim Om Dau Phu (tofu & eggplant clay pot) and Bun Dau Sa Ot (cold rice noodles with lemon grass tofu, nuoc cham, lettuce, mint, basil, coriander). Meanwhile, Local at Tryp by Wyndham has created a menu that includes cauliflower mushroom risotto, roasted tomato and pepper soup, and refried beans and quinoa stew, and Roti Rollers has created an edamame dosa.
Mills agrees that while “occasions” such as World Vegan Day can be looked upon as just another gimmicky marketing ploy, they are important nevertheless. “Celebrations such as these help raise awareness, and they give people a reason to make an effort at least on that day. Even if they make people go: ‘Oh, I wonder what such and such means and involves?’ – it’s worth it. It’s why we created Veganuary; we tend to overindulge over the holiday period, and January is the perfect month to encourage people to go on a clean, vegan diet. You have to set these things out to make it simpler for others to try and follow.”
Mills further notes that the human body could probably handle 5 per cent of animal protein, but the trouble arises when we are unable or unwilling to cap it at that. From eating meat about once a week or on special occasions – as Mills said her family and many others did growing up – to consuming it for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a daily basis, consumption rates have exploded in the past few decades.
“In the end, it boils down to being aware of your personality type as well as being kinder to yourself. If you’re an extremist, it’s best to avoid meat or cigarettes or alcohol and the like altogether. On the other hand, if you slip up, don’t give yourself a hard time or stress about it too much. Stress is what makes us reach for that cigarette or junk food in the first place. If you haven’t been good today, be good tomorrow.”