Amid the cacophony from the social networks and other media, the word VEGAN is becoming more and more talked about. Whether it’s for reasons of health, animal ethics, sustainability, religion, food labelling or fashion, the question remains: what is veganism in the end? A societal, ethical trend or a historic vegan philosophy of food that’s actually been around for millennia?
History teaches us that the consumption of meat and the domestication of animals are pillars of our evolution. The world’s gastronomic traditions have evolved in this direction, putting meat and fish at the centre of culinary creations. From the first culinary accounts (De Re Coquinaria – Apicius) to present day soups, starters or main courses, animal proteins are those to which the most recipes and publications are dedicated.
But today, gastronomic sensitivities are changing and certain traditions no longer find existential justification; foie gras, to name but one example. Veganism questions these multi-secular culinary traditions which perpetuate animal exploitation for the benefit of human gustatory pleasures. Can we justify opposing animal rights for a tradition as delicious as it is? From a vegan point of view, obviously not.
Some animal protection laws were passed in the 19th century. Imperfectly, they defined animals as movable and utilitarian property. Thus, the Grammont law, the first of its kind, in 1850, which punishes the mistreatment of domestic animals in public, aims less at protecting animals from violence than at containing the violence of their masters. However, the first notions of animal suffering appeared and paved the way for the animal protection society.
In January 2015, the French National Assembly passed the bill on the modernization of the law. The animal is now recognized as a “living being endowed with sentience” and is no longer considered as movable property (Article 528). This historic turning point puts an end to more than 200 years of an archaic vision of the animal in the Civil Code and finally takes into account the state of scientific knowledge and the ethics of our 21st century society.
Family ties are forged through generations by the transmission of recipes that create indelible gustatory and olfactory memories. When a family member adopts a different diet from their culture, other members are tempted to dissuade them from adopting this diet, perceiving it as a rejection or resistance; a threat to the cultural identity of the family nucleus.
Sometimes, thanks to the convictions of the new generation, a new diet is adopted and these differences are accepted. There are many reasons why people turn to veganism or what can also be called plant-based cooking. Whether it is for reasons of animal welfare, health, harmony with nature or even spirituality, plant-based cuisine is attracting more and more followers in the western world.
In the East, this philosophy of food, friendship and even benevolence has been applied for thousands of years. It is a true ode to nature, respect for mankind and the interaction with living plants. This has led to the development of Japanese Kaiseki cooking, which itself comes from Shojin Ryori cuisine.
Shojin Ryori developed from the 13th century in Japan, at the same time as the expansion of Zen Buddhism. Devotional cooking should accompany the practice of meditation and promote balance and alignment of body and mind. It therefore includes fresh, light, seasonal and local foods. But no meat, because killing animals clouds the mind and is contrary to the principles of Buddhism. Moreover, in all religions or beliefs, there are periods of youth or abstinence allowing a form of purification of the body. And this is also advised by medicine.
Is the vegan diet healthier?
However, this type of diet is more difficult to balance than other diets. If not balanced properly, the vegan diet can lead to anemia or physical and mental weakness. Man has evolved as an omnivorous being. If the vegan diet is not followed with particular care, deficiencies are possible. These deficiencies are more related to essential nutrients such as group B vitamins and in particular vitamin B12 (a cofactor for neurotransmitters), iron (abundant in red meat), calcium (dairy products), iodine (fish) and essential fatty acids (Omega 3 and 6) than to proteins. The problem with protein intake in adults is relatively minor in developed countries.
Animal proteins are of high biological value. This means that they contain the eight essential amino acids in the right proportions. In contrast, vegetable proteins (with the exception of soya) are often deficient in one or other of these amino acids. It is therefore necessary to combine cereals, seeds, algae, oleaginous fruits and legumes throughout the day so that all the essential amino acids and nutrients are present.
For example, legumes are rich in lysine, an amino acid that is absent in cereals, which provide methionine. Iron is essential to our body and enables red blood cells to transport oxygen to the cells. Apart from meat, foods rich in iron are: lentils, parsley, tofu, wheat germ, nuts, sultanas, spinach and beetroot. Vitamin B12 is mainly provided by foods of animal origin: offal, beef, lamb, shellfish, oily fish, eggs and cheese. Vegetarians will therefore find vitamin B12 in rice, eggs, cheese or milk.
So, with a variety of well-adjusted ingredients, you get all the essential amino acids and nutrients you need. Here are some examples of good combinations:
- Pulses + cereal products
- Pulses + oilseeds or seeds
To conclude, a balanced vegan diet is above all a diversified diet. This obviously opens up unsuspected horizons of creativity.
Veganism and the environment
Veganism also positions itself as an actor in the preservation of the environment, calling for a reduction in the environmental footprint caused by animal exploitation. But in truth, both carnivorous and vegan diets impact water consumption, greenhouse gases, and transport of non-local ingredients. Anyone wanting to go vegan for the sake of reducing their carbon footprint needs to carefully research to origins of what they’re eating.
Even if the ecological balance sheet may be favourable, is it idyllic? An Oxford University study shows that the average diet of someone eating a lot of meat and 2000 calories emits 2.5 times more greenhouse gases than the average diet of a vegan eating 2000 calories. But the origin and production conditions of food products must also be taken into account. For example, several studies have shown a larger water footprint for nuts and beans than for chicken, so switching from a diet that had a high proportion of chicken to a vegan diet that required protein from legumes and nuts resulted in a larger water footprint in some cases. (However, overall, studies have shown that diets with reduced meat consumption have a lower environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and land use).
Vegan Michelin starred chefs
After a long period of playing the sidekick, vegetables and vegan products are stealing the spotlight from meat and fish to be cooked differently.
Claire Vallée, chef of the Ona restaurant in Arès, Alain Passard at Archestrate in Paris, Pietro Leemann chef of the Joia restaurant in Milan, to name but a few, are all Michelin-starred chefs who have taken vegetal gastronomy to new heights.
Pietro Leemann of Joia in Milan runs the first vegetarian Michelin starred restaurant (award received in 1996). After 30 years of existence, Joia is considered the most important restaurant in Europe and the world in terms of green, ethical and sustainable cuisine.
“In Europe, vegetarian cuisine has always been the cuisine of the poor since for them meat and fish was inaccessible, whereas in the East, vegetarian cuisine is for everyone. Now we are living a historical moment, the real revolution is natural, it’s a necessary change of mind” Pietro Leemann – founder of Joia, Milan.
Thanks to a sense of growing awareness, many people, not necessarily vegans or vegetarians, are attracted by plant-based cuisine. The famous Michelin guide launched the Green Star in 2021 to reward chefs who are eco-responsible and who highlight examples of sustainability
“There are infinite flavours in vegetables! Tomatoes alone can have a hundred different flavours. In the United States, India and elsewhere in Asia, chefs have long since grasped the richness of this cuisine. In Europe, it takes a little more time,” says Claire Vallée, chef of the Michelin-starred Ona restaurant.
It is also impossible to ignore Rolf Hiltl, who created one of the first vegan butcher’s shops in Zurich in 1898, and who continues the family tradition with his vegetarian restaurant, considered the oldest in the world.
Food as medicine
“Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be in your food” said Hippocrates. This famous saying, centuries before Christ, still applies to us today. The reality is that poor food hygiene can very easily cost us our health. Let’s face it, food is life-giving, but it can also be life-destroying.
As with the reduction of CO2 and the energy costs, shouldn’t the public authorities be playing a leading role in a new food transition with targets for reducing the consumption of animal products? Wouldn’t this be a beneficial public health measure for humanity? It’s also important to ask if will we be able to fight against the influence of lobbies and the food industry, and above all overcome the weight of our cultural habits?
Whether we are vegan, vegetarian or even flexitarian, I believe in going back to our roots, back to the earth, back to the seasons, back to age-old culinary traditions. Jean François Revel highlights in his book “Un festin en paroles: Histoire littéraire de la sensibilité gastronomique de l’Antiquité à nos jours” (1979) that our food needs are intimately linked to climate, geography and seasonality. Our bodies need the water, vitamins and minerals found in a tomato in summer, while the nutrients found in a cabbage or root vegetable are needed in winter.
Simple solutions are available to us such as diversifying our meals, balancing our nutritional intake, following the seasons of the products, enjoying cooking for others and even exchanging our recipes. The culinary pleasures of plants are an infinite source of creativity and health, let’s use this to our advantage.