Soya, supplements, and seitan
The unstoppable growth of veganism in Ireland
Chicken fillet rolls are vegan now.
Well, chick*n fillet rolls are, at least.
Made from seasoned seitan, (wheat protein) covered in breadcrumbs and fried until crispy, the chick*n fillet roll has been taking the Irish vegan community by storm.
Mainly because it's not made from chickpeas - but also because it's pretty damn tasty.
The man behind the roll is chef and owner of Vegan Sandwich Co, Sam Pearson. Sick of eating vegan lunches consisting of salad and bread, he decided to take things into his own hands and create a selection of vegan options that are both delicious and instantly recognisable.
"It’s not your regular vegetable and tomato mush that people anticipate with vegan food," he says.
"It’s plant based food that’s just like you used to have when you ate meat, but without any of the ethical or environmental impact."
Sam's staple is his vegan chick*n fillet roll. But he also sells vegan breakfast muffins, vegan BLTs and, exclusive to the festive period, vegan roast turk*y and stuffing sandwiches.
For him, vegan food isn't just about being plant based, it's about providing a sustainable alternative that almost everybody can eat.
"There’s not the kind of classic vegan anymore," says Sam. "There’s definitely people who have been vegan their whole lives, but more and more you’ll see people of all ages (...) saying that they do want to cut down their meat consumption, or cut down their dairy consumption, and I’m facilitating that.
"You do still have to be very conscious of making sure you’re still eating the right kind of foods, because a vegan diet doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy diet.
"But what I’m doing is trying to make these options as delicious as their meat and dairy counterparts."
A vegan friend of mine once said that she enjoys vegan meat replacements because they remind her of the foods she used to eat growing up. Another said that she tends to stay away from them because they're often processed, high in salt, and not necessarily 'healthy'.
I myself would tend to lean more towards the former. Having been a strict vegetarian for three years, I have no shame in admitting that I sometimes miss the taste of meat.
A few years back, my only options were frozen veggie sausages and mozzarella burgers. Now, I can pretty much have anything: fish and chips, jambons, and the beloved Irish staple - the chicken fillet roll.
All of this, as well as the considerable amount of buzz around Netflix documentary, Game Changers, has generated a lot of chat about the V-word.
The film follows high-intensity athletes who have switched their meat-rich diets out for the vegan alternative and, for the most part, started performing better than they ever had in their lives.
But these people are professional athletes. Their literal job is to look after their bodies. They're surrounded by dieticians, personal trainers, and money.
What about the rest of us? Those of us living in Ireland, working full time jobs, and trying our very best to do our bit for the planet - all the while still craving the odd chicken wing or two?
Just how easy is it to be vegan here? And why has it become so popular?
So in order to find out, I decided to try it myself. One whole week with no dairy, no eggs and of course, no meat.
Was I worried I would break? No, I had already eradicated one of those food groups from my diet years ago. This should be easy.
But was I worried that I would miss my precious feta and poached eggs with the intensity of a mother spending an extended period of time away from her first born?
Dietician Maeve Hanan RD from Orla Walsh Nutrition says that a vegan diet can technically work for just about everybody - as long as they're doing it correctly.
In Game Changers, these athletes had entire teams around them making sure that they were being good vegans.
They had full access to dieticians, to doctors, to every single type of food and supplement they would need - and they were performing better than they ever had before.
“It is all about how well balanced the diet is," says Maeve, "and individuals can absolutely have a really balanced, healthy vegan diet.
"What you need is a good variety of plant based foods, especially lots of different types of plant based proteins so you’re getting all of the essential amino acids that your body needs."
The above statement is no surprise. Those of us living in Ireland are no stranger to the odd vegan or two. They make up our friends, members of our family, only growing in numbers as the years pass.
And all of them seemingly living entirely delicious, fulfilling, and healthy lives. They're not malnourished. They're fine. In fact, most of the vegans I know tend to pay more attention to nutrition and their personal health than your average meat-eater would.
Mainly, I suppose, because they have to.
"Anybody living in Ireland should be considering taking vitamin D around winter anyway."
- Maeve Hanan, RD
Maeve points to the importance of plant proteins, amino acids, and finding a decent dairy replacement (that isn't made from coconut oil) when following a fully vegan diet.
Supplements, she says, are key - but not just for those among us cutting meat and dairy from our diets.
"Anybody living in Ireland should be considering taking vitamin D around winter anyway," she says. "We just don’t get the sunshine here.
"Women of childbearing age should be considering 400mcg of folic acid. Again, that’s whether you’re vegan or not. And then for vegans, the most important ones to supplement are vitamin B12, iodine, and omega 3."
B12 is naturally found in a lot of animal products including fish, meat, chicken, eggs, and milk.
Key to keeping the body's blood and nerve cells in tip-top shape while also preventing anaemia, the vitamin is often the go-to argument of any avid meat-eater trying to convince a vegan that they are nutritionally deficient.
"Oh you're vegan? Bet your B12 levels are chronic."
Thankfully, they don't have to be though. And while it's entirely doubtful that going vegan for seven mere days had any real effect on my B12 levels, if it had done, there are supplements for that.
But what if you're a person who might be a tad nutritionally vulnerable anyway? What if you're a child, elderly, or sick? Is veganism a possibility then, and - more importantly - is it safe?
Maeve says that a person's diet always depends on the context of the individual. While there are certain groups of people who are less encouraged to remove food groups entirely (such as infants, pregnant women, and people who have eating disorders), a vegan diet can actually be safe at all stages of a person's life.
“There are appropriate supplements that vegan children and infants can take," she says, "but generally you do need that extra bit of support and planning.
"But if someone is unsure [about going vegan], they should always get individual advice from a dietician."
However, although it is possible for most people to go vegan and live a totally healthy life, in some cases the diet does come with its challenges.
Mays Al-Ali was vegan for six whole years before she realised the diet wasn't working for her.
She had moved to India to pursue her passion for yoga, removing all dairy, meat, processed foods and gluten from her diet (slowly over a six month period) while she was at it.
“I went vegan for health reasons because I knew I’d feel better, but it’s also part of the yoga philosophy to not harm other animals," she says. "The whole lifestyle is about health but it’s also about ethics.
"So I did my research and I really thought I was doing my best to be healthy, but it’s hard when you’re looking at generic nutritional advice that works for a lot of people - and we are all individual."
For the first few years, Mays felt amazing. She had fewer digestive issues. Her skin was healthy. But then over time she began to notice more negative changes, the majority of which she says were triggered by her diet, lifestyle, and the amount of pressure she was feeling at work.
"I realised that I was iron deficient," she says. "I had Hypothyroidism. There was lot of inflammation (...) I was fatigued, my hair was falling out.
"I was really stressed out at the time, and that was only making things worse because your nutrients deplete when you’re stressed (...) Omega 3 is a lot harder to obtain in a vegan diet and I didn’t realise that at the time. I wasn’t aware that you should be taking supplements.
“I truly believed that going vegan would save the world but the reality is that one diet won’t suit everyone."
Now 80 to 90 percent vegan (and a qualified Naturopathic Nutritionist), Mays recognises the mistakes that she made with her own veganism.
However, she is also now aware of what diet is the most healthy option for her: a predominantly plant based one with three pieces of oily fish and a couple of organic eggs per week.
"The problem is that a lot of people aren’t in tune with their bodies," says Mays. "Life can be stressful, people work long hours, they’ve got families, so it can be hard to listen to your body.
"I found the initial period of going vegan great. It’s essentially a detox, you’re getting rid of all those things that your body may find more difficult to digest.
"But you need to keep on top of how you’re feeling after a year or so. If you’re feeling low energy, you should get tested and reassess. It will be an investment, so it’s worth doing it safely."
"I truly believed that going vegan would save the world."
- Mays Al-Ali, nutritionist
I may not have been vitamin deficient during my vegan week (c'mon, hardly, it was seven days), but I did feel different.
As a staunch veggie of three years, I had presumed that cutting out dairy and eggs from my diet would be easy. Sure, I'd miss my runny yolk on a Saturday morning and I wouldn't be able to include feta in some (most) of my meals, but I was already halfway there.
I had already done the hard part. Or so I thought.
The body reacts to cutting out certain food groups in different ways. For the most part, removing meat from the diet reduces blood cholesterol and eases digestive issues.
When I first went vegetarian, I felt amazing. My energy levels were up, I was experiencing fewer digestive problems, it was easier to get up in the morning.
I had presumed that following a vegan diet would give me those same benefits that have unfortunately waned with the passing of time. And while I didn't notice any major changes in my energy levels, I did find that - on a couple of occasions - I was starving.
Twice after a spin class, I found myself hazy with hunger as I stumbled home, stomach calling out for the inevitably massive vegan curry that I was about to make.
My body was missing its dairy-based fats. And it showed.
My bowel movements were happening a whole lot more frequently too - even after just a few days - which may have accounted for the empty feeling in my stomach, as well as my desire to snack more frequently.
And oh, snack I did.
On top of the delicious and nutritious vegan dinners I was making for myself (see vegan enchiladas, vegan panang curry, vegan mac n cheese (not incredible, FYI) and vegan cauliflower wings), I was hitting up the in between meals food hard.
There was houmous, there was raw nut protein bars, there was a packet of plain wraps that I panic bought in a hunger-based haze for breakfast in Tesco when I didn't have the time - or the mental capacity - to check the label on other potential food items.
Finding a vegan meal these days is easy enough, but snacking while on the go is an entire different ballgame.
Because there's milk in everything, lads. Everything.
And when you're a ravenous vegan after walking a solid five minutes on a treadmill and in desperate need of something to quell the noises in your stomach, milk unfortunately just won't cut it.
A friend of mine told me that she felt the same way when she first went vegan, like nothing would fill her for more than a few hours. She would complete a work out, feel great, and suddenly become enraged with hunger. That was, until, a month or so passed and things began to settle down.
I have no doubt that if my vegan week had extended to two weeks or even a month, I would have felt the same way.
My body would have gotten used to the lack of dairy products. The internal shock of change would dissipate. I wouldn't be shaking with hunger while trying to find a vegan-friendly snack in the shop across the road from FLYEfit.
But the pangs of hunger got me thinking - and not just about eating. Shopping vegan had been easy enough for me. My weekly shop cost about the same as my regular one did, and vegan-friendly meat replacements are all the rage these days.
But this is now. What about then?
Bronwyn Slater from The Irish Vegan says that it is now noticeably easier to go vegan in Ireland than ever before.
While her website has noted a steady number of people contacting them over the past few years, there has been a considerable rise recently in the number of folk joining related Facebook groups like Vegans of Ireland and Dublin Vegans.
"That is not to say that prior to the explosion in the vegan market it was not possible to go vegan," she says. "It was. But people had to rely on wholefoods like fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and tofu or tempeh.
"That's fine, but nowadays you can buy things like vegan cheese, fake meats, pizza, ice cream, chocolate, and a huge variety of plant milks and yoghurts."
And you can pretty much buy them almost anywhere too. The majority of supermarket and shop chains here in Ireland now stock a variety of vegan-friendly foods in a bid to meet the demand of a population becoming increasingly interested in plant-based living.
Confectionary brands like Galaxy and Love Cocoa (set up by none other than James Cadbury) are ensuring that they include vegan chocolate in their product lists, with the latter telling me that the shift is "... partly in recognition of the fact that some people simply can't enjoy milk chocolate, whether that be due to an intolerance or allergy, but also due to lifestyle choices."
Restaurants are adapting too. Where there once was a look of confusion and dismay when a customer asked if there were any vegan options, many establishments now offer fully vegan dishes - if not entire vegan-friendly menus.
One such spot that offers vegan food - and vegan food only - is Dublin-based restaurant Sova Vegan Butcher.
Established in 2015 by Polish-born chef Barto Sova, the restaurant boasts an entirely gourmet vegan food selection including vegan scallops, seitan doner kebabs, and a full vegan Irish breakfast.
If you were out for the night, you could grab yourself a full three course meal there - vegan wine and all.
Barto falls firmly within the category of chefs who are working hard to make veganism a more approachable option - especially for those among us who would have been avid seven-days-a-week meat eaters.
"I found that with [calling the restaurant] The Vegan Butcher, it might be more accessible for meat eaters who are beginning to try more plant based options," he says.
"And also for other vegans that might be missing the meat and want to have a substitute. It really appeals to both."
With a menu that changes with the seasons - and also offers its fair share of gluten-free options - Sova is doing its best to feed as many people as possible.
And while the restaurant sees predominantly younger folk wandering through its doors, Barto says that more and more people of older generations have started dining there too.
“We see such a range of ages in the restaurant, a lot of young people but also people who are 60 years old and over," he says.
"Older people are conscious and open to trying new things, and that’s great because every little change makes a difference. Just one person skipping a meat based meal seems like a little change, but it can become a big thing."
Unsurprisingly, Sova isn't the only place vastly increasing the number of vegan-friendly spots in Dublin.
Vish, Dublin's first purely vegan takeaway, has been selling its vegan-take on fish and chips (made from cassava and wild seaweed) since 2017. Cornucopia has been a veggie and vegan institution since the 1980s.
McGuinness takeaway has an entirely separate vegan menu selling everything from vegan garlic cheese chips to vegan battered sausages - until the early hours of the morning.
Elsewhere in Galway, there's the entirely plant based Greens & Co, operating within the walls of what used to be a butcher shop.
It's never been easier to be vegan - and it's also never been more tempting.
With the rise of climate change awareness comes the rise of the plant based diet, one that doesn't rely on products from the meat and dairy industry to survive.
And while my own cheese-based cravings and unwillingness to part with eggs have ultimately gotten in the way of me declaring myself fully vegan this time around, the long-term benefits of the diet (going vegan is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint) are impossible to ignore.
If my vegan week taught me anything (and it did), it's that there is no group of people who know more about what they're putting into their bodies than vegans.
While the diet may not be for everybody, having a strict and solid awareness of what it means to be healthy - and the nutrients we need to achieve that - can only be a good thing.
If you are concerned about making a change to your diet, always consult a professional.