Just like fashion, there are food trends.
In the 1980s it was fat-free everything, following a 1970s U.S. Dietary Goals report that Americans cut back on their fat consumption.
Then there was a boom in all-natural and organic food as Americans looked for healthy options and became conscious food consumers.
Gluten-free was next, with items that would never have gluten in them — yogurt, hummus, cheese — labeled as gluten-free in a ploy to attract more customers on that gluten-free trip.
And somewhere in the midst of all those trends, sushi became big.
Looking at the restaurants that have popped up across the city of Boston, and across many cities in the United States, it looks like the next food trend is veganism and vegetarianism.
Of course, a diet change of any magnitude — going fat free, gluten free, or meat free — is a big change. That’s why Christopher Hendrickson, Grassroots Director of The Humane League, which works toward reducing animal suffering, says it’s important to start slow. He recommends starting by changing your diet for one day or one meal a week. This approach works well for places like universities that have begun introducing events like Meatless Mondays, as Boston University began doing in 2011.
“It’s a chance to try out plant-based foods, which is a great step into a plant-based diet,” Hendrickson says. “It seems daunting to give up meat completely and it is, it’s a habit change that needs to be taken slowly.”
Hendrickson says that the variety of vegan and vegetarian fast-casual places — like Sweetgreen, by Chloe, Life Alive and Whole Heart Provisions, to name a few — are popular not just among hardcore vegans and vegetarians, but those who “just want to see the amazingness that is plant-based food.”
Rebecca Arnold, chef and co-founder of Whole Heart Provisions in Allston, attests to her restaurant being for everyone.
“80 percent of our customers are not vegetarian or vegan, but omnivorous. Our goal is not to convert people to plant-based diets, but to make delicious veggies more accessible and crave-able so people will want to add them to their diets,” Arnold says. Whole Heart Provisions does this, she says, by taking flavors from around the world to put into their bowls.
Hendrickson says another factor getting people to add plant-based meals to their diet are the values that vegan and vegetarian diets represent: kindness towards animals. The new, popular, plant-based restaurants are “capitalizing on that knowledge and offering a choice that is more in line with peoples’ values, as well as way healthier,” Hendrickson says.
Arnold agrees that health was probably a factor in the increased interest in vegan and vegetarian restaurants.
“I think vegetables and plant-based diets are definitely becoming more popular as Americans try to eat healthier and I think that our restaurant [Whole Heart Provisions] options are definitely reflecting that. We are seeing much more plant-based options across the board as well as a slew of fast-casual restaurants popping up in the city,” Arnold says.
The Boston Vegetarian Society currently lists 25 vegan or vegetarian-branded restaurants just in the Boston area, which isn’t fully complete because by Chloe, a New York-based vegan fast-casual restaurant that opened its first Boston location in Seaport this year, isn’t on their list yet.
The BVS list also doesn’t list the countless restaurants that provide vegan and vegetarian options, options that Boston University student Angelie Gomez (CAS ’17) has been scoping out.
Gomez, a vegan for about three years, and says “finding vegan and vegetarian food is really easy in Boston.”
Gomez started trying veganism as an experiment, but liked it so much that she kept at it.
“Most restaurants are super accommodating,” she says, “and I usually know what to look for depending on what cuisine I’m eating.”
Though veganism seems limiting at first, in terms of cuisine, there are quite a few options to pick from — Indian, Thai, Asian, Italian and more.
Evelyn Kimber, President of the Boston Vegetarian Society, says it’s easy to live a vegan lifestyle in Boston because Bostonians have so many resources.
“Natural food markets and food co-ops carry a bounty of vegan products, and standard supermarkets have increased their vegan product selections,” Kimber says. Dining out is easy too, she says, “with our wide range of all-veg*n [shorthand for vegan and vegetarian] restaurants serving a variety of cuisines — vegan Asian cuisines, Indian, vegan pizza, world cuisines, salad/soup/juice bars, veg diner foods, vegan comfort foods, high-end upscale vegan cuisine, and vegan bakeries. Beyond that, any restaurant offering international cuisines will have many vegan-friendly dishes.”
Emily Franco (CAS’17) has been a vegetarian since she was in seventh grade, and while she agrees there is a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian-friendly places to eat in the city, she would often find herself let down by the vegan option in the BU dining halls.
“I only had a dining plan freshman and sophomore year, and there was always a vegan option available,” Franco says, “but I’d say at least once a week it was basically just a pile of ingredients, which was disappointing.”
Franco says that she is an open-minded vegetarian when it comes to food, but when a place has limited options, she feels a little awkward being picky.
“When I go out to restaurants with my friends, (especially to nicer places) and there isn’t a vegetarian option, I feel uncomfortable because I don’t want to be the person at the table who’s being unnecessarily fussy,” Franco says. “I think that I’ve had an okay time of things because outside of meat I’m not a picky eater at all, but if you are and a menu only has one or two vegetarian options, I could see that being a much bigger issue.”
Franco has also come up against the dreaded leafy-greens-only option as a vegetarian living in a society of mostly omnivores.
“There’s also been more than a few times where the only vegetarian options are salads, and while I love salad, that can be kind of frustrating because who goes out for dinner to get a salad?” Franco asks. “I can make that at home for free.”
The popularity of vegan and vegetarian fast-casual restaurants is promising for those that become stuck with salad-only options, especially because being vegan or vegetarian isn’t a novel diet.
The diet only seems new because there are new restaurants, Hendrickson says, but “humans have been eating plant-based diets for hundreds of thousands of years.”
The rise of plants for meals, however, might help fight against the stigma that all vegans and vegetarians are out to change their dinner mates to their lifestyle, and that omnivores will never be able to eat in peace with a vegan or vegetarian at the table, because they will be on the receiving end of a rant about how they are eating an animal.
More often than not, it’s the other way around, and it’s vegans and vegetarians who are are asked multiple questions about their diet.
Gomez says she’s been on the receiving end of “lots of questions” about her veganism but that she isn’t bothered by it.
“I don’t mind because most people who ask me about veganism seem to just be genuinely curious,” Gomez says, but remembers a time when it was a little more than just curiosity. “I think there’s a lot less of a stigma now than there was when I first went vegan. People usually seem not to care [now].”
Hendrickson says it’s an unjust stigma, because a lot of foods we eat are vegan or vegetarian — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a salad, pasta, rice and beans, any fruits and vegetables — but when the label “vegan” or “vegetarian” is attached to them, it can turn people away.
“We just eat apples,” Hendrickson says. “We don’t think about it as vegan.”
For places like Whole Heart Provisions, the label that is tossed around the most is “veggie-centric,” which sounds less hardcore than “vegan” or “vegetarian.” And like Franco and Gomez, they aren’t trying to convert people. They just want to make and sell food that, as Arnold says, “pleases your body, your conscience, the planet, and most importantly, your tastebuds.”
Featured photo from pexels.com.