Not long ago, if you wanted a vegetarian meal, most restaurants in the West offered at least one option. If that veggie option involved cheese, then all the better. If it involved a bean burger, well at least you knew roughly what you were eating.

Today, vegetarians are starting to get annoyed. The once trusty meat-free option, they say, is being replaced by a vegan one. The Vegetarian Society has been receiving complaints from members who are peeved to find veggie dishes containing dairy and eggs are often absent from menus, jettisoned in favour of plant-based vegan burgers or vegan chilli.

Richard McIlwain, the society’s chief executive in the UK, says it’s “interesting to see how the eating out experience has changed”. But “interesting” is not how some of his members would describe what is on offer. “There’s always been a drive to replicate the meat experience, which is good and will encourage more people to give up meat,” he says. “But it’s been to the detriment of more traditional vegetarian dishes. It’s not to say the options are bad, but the vegetarian dishes seem to be either not on the menu or you have the option of cheese pie or a cheese sandwich.”

When vegetarian entrepreneur Vicky Borman was filming recently, the on-set caterer offered either meat or an option that was both vegan and gluten-free. “I said to them, ‘I’m not vegan, I’m vegetarian. Where’s my cheese and cream?’”

The caterer made sure to bring Vicky some cheese the following day. But obtaining vegetarian food can be even harder in restaurants, she says.

“There used to be a menu for ‘meat people’ and a menu for vegetarians,” says the mother-of-three. “Then vegan culture took over and it seems easier [for restaurants] to say, ‘if you’re not a meat eater, we’re going to take everything out of it and cover all bases.’ I used to have something like a mac and cheese [when I dined out]... It does seem everything is vegan or fake meat [now].”

The numbers tell a different story: there are 3.3 million vegetarians in the UK today, compared with only 1.6 million vegans. Yet the word “vegan” has been seized on by a food industry keen to burnish its ethical credentials and, understandably, cash in on a growing market. Supermarkets in the UK now devote whole sections to vegan products. Coffee shop chains have embraced non-dairy milks.

A 2021 report by Bloomberg predicted the global plant-based alternatives market could grow to $162 billion in the next decade, from $29.4 billion in 2020.

While an old-fashioned restaurant might still present a plate of pasta with tomato sauce to any non-meat-eating diner, urban hipster cafes proudly offer such delights as “nozzarella” (a mozzarella substitute with a similar-enough sounding name to deceive those not paying attention) and quarter pounders with cheese, which are just like the real thing, except that the burger is plant-based and the cheese is “cheeze” – a vegan substitute.

Nutritionist Helen Bond warns that those avoiding meat should remain mindful of what alternatives they’re eating. “I have a bugbear of things that are labelled as vegan or plant-based on a menu... they can still be high in salt and saturated fat,” she says. “There are more and more products on the market that are plant-based tuna, veggie sausages [and so on], but these are all quite processed foods and sometimes you’re better having the real thing.”

But perhaps as irritating for old-school vegetarians as the lack of traditional veggie food on menus is the judgment of some vegans. “I wouldn’t say [vegetarians and vegans] are one big happy family,” says McIlwain, who went vegetarian in 1987 and switched to a vegan diet more recently. “People who’ve been vegetarian for decades are being told their ethical choice is not the true ethical choice, and that’s quite unfair.”

The Vegan Society, for its part, argues that plant-based products are “not exclusively for vegans and are suitable for most diets..., often constituting a safe food option for all”. A spokesman adds that “unfortunately, continuing to consume dairy and eggs means some farmed animals are still condemned to a life of misery”.

But McIlwain is unwilling to let the perfect vegan be the enemy of the good vegetarian or flexitarian. He would prefer to see more creative vegetarian options available, not only to keep vegetarians happy but to encourage more people to give up meat. “Vegetarian and vegan food is fabulously rich. It’s not one or the other. Let’s increase the variety of vegetarian and vegan options.”

The Daily Telegraph

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