Are Germans leading a vegan revolution?

Story highlights

  • Vegetarian and vegan diets are increasing among the German population
  • This diet is increasing globally, but experts add it is also a way of life

(CNN)When thinking of a typically German meal, two particular items probably spring to mind: bratwurst sausage and a tender schnitzel.

Both are traditional, and both are made of veal, beef or pork, occasionally chicken.
But today, these classics have been transformed, going meat-free to embrace the growing number of vegetarians and vegans across Germany and to fuel the vegan movement itself.
    "These new food products are quite tasty," said Stefan Lorkowski, vice president of the German Nutrition Society. "It's tremendous what food technologists can do."
    In 2016, Germany launched more vegan food products than any other country, according to research agency Mintel, and vegan products as a whole have been soaring over the past few years. Mintel's data show that 18% of all global vegan product launches were in Germany in 2016, many of which were substitute versions of traditional meat dishes.
    Meat-substitute products such as sausages and schnitzels are usually made of plant proteins such as soy, wheat or tofu, woven and glued together to give the texture and consistency of meat.
    "Meat substitutes are what Germany is leading in, from a personal view," said nutritional epidemiologist Clarissa Lage Barbosa of the Robert Koch Institute, part of the Federal Ministry of Health. "If someone is just starting, these kind of products can help them get into the diet."
    "These products are a simple way of replacing meat," Lorkowski said. "There are some that are fantastic ... (but) there are also some that are a disaster."
    Lorkowski is not a vegetarian or vegan, instead labeling himself a "flexitarian," eating small amounts of meat and fish. Lage Barbosa says this subgroup could be seeing an even bigger rise in Germany.
    Lorkowski warned, however, that regular consumption of processed food -- even plant or meat-based meat substitutes -- is not healthy, as meat alternative products like vegan bratwurst or schnitzel are more or less pure protein and do not provide a balanced diet alone.
    Some of the plant-based foods, such as yoghurt made from soy, are fortified with vitamins known to be lacking in vegan diets, but raw foods, grains and vegetables are also needed, he said.
    Lage Barbosa agreed: "That's not the way you should keep going with your nutrition. You should change your habits to healthier ones."
    Vegans in particular already face nutritional challenges from omitting dairy and eggs from their diets, namely deficiencies in vitamin B12 and calcium.
    The German Nutrition Society's position on vegan diets as a whole recommends that people take B12 supplements and possibly include other supplements or fortified foods. That could include these new vegan products in addition to raw and whole-grain foods, added Lorkowski.

    Aiding a healthier diet

    Europe's first vegan supermarket chain, Veganz, began in the German capital, Berlin, in 2011. There are 10 stores across the country today and more across the continent, offering more than 4,500 products. More restaurants are also offering vegetarian and vegan options, as well as special food aisles at most major supermarkets, Lorkowski said.
    Lage Barbosa, herself a vegan, shops at specialized supermarkets. But along with her colleague Gert Mensink, she is skeptical about the sudden rise in such shops and products, fearing that they may just be a trend.
    "We have seen fluctuations before," Mensink said. "The market is quick with such products, but if they cannot make a profit, they will disappear."
    But this is one trend that might survive. Mensink says there has been interest for at least five years and particularly in the past two years.
    A 2016 study using survey data from 2008 and 2011 estimated 4.3% of Germans between 18 and 79 years old to be vegetarian, with the greatest number between the ages of 18 and 29. About 2% of the UK population is estimated to be vegetarian and 3.3% in the US. In most settings, numbers are greater among higher-income populations and city-dwellers, say experts, as well as among women.
    "The diet is increasingly of interest, as is the idea that you can do something beneficial to your health by choosing the right products," Lorkowski said.
    This is emphasized by Mintel's recent data, which showed that after a rise in meat substitute products, greater numbers of "natural" products were launched between 2015 and 2016, suggesting that people are increasingly analyzing what's in their food -- a factor more typically associated with veganism. Mintel data also found that one in three Germans regularly checks the ingredients in their food
    "The trend towards naturalness plays a dominant role in the food choices of German consumers, who prioritize health benefits of unprocessed, natural and wholesome products," Katya Witham, MIntel senior food and drink analyst, said in a statement.
    The movement parallels vegan and vegetarian ideals in other parts of the world, such as the UK and US, where these diets revolve more around raw, unprocessed foods, according to Kay Peggs, professor of sociology at Kingston University in the UK. But the origins differ.

    Global trends and rationales

    The main reasons people become vegans are down to animal welfare, helping the environment and improving health, Peggs said.
    Recent guidance from the United Nations has highlighted the environmental benefits of reduced meat consumption. For example, livestock are estimated to be responsible for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
    "The UK is a world leader" in veganism, Peggs said, adding that it was the first country to have a Vegan Society. That ideology arose from concerns over animal welfare, followed by the environment, meaning people did not necessarily seek meat-like replacements.
    "Where a country has a heavy focus on meat-based products, it may be more difficult to replace with a raw product," Peggs said.
    Peggs is conducting a global study of the reasons why people choose to become vegans, but she emphasizes that it is no easy feat. In some countries, such as India, people may have a meat-free diet but may not necessarily identify as a vegan or a vegetarian.
    Other leaders in the movement are the United States -- particularly more liberal parts -- and Scandinavia, she added. "There certainly seems to be a trend in younger people identifying as vegan in European countries," she said.
    Thomas Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at Kings College London, has spent his career understanding nutrition in southern Europe and says there is not much of a movement toward veganism there. "Some of this stems from animal rights ... and the green movement, (which) is very strong in Germany."
    Sanders also believes that greater ethnic diversity in countries such as the UK, with the resulting wider range of foods, further affects the type of vegan and vegetarian diets people want. UK residents are commonly exposed to Greek, Indian and Cypriot diets that have many vegetarian options. "Most vegans do not think of meat as food ... (so) they don't want things resembling meat," he said.
    Most experts believe the trend has not yet peaked, though they say it is unlikely to become the norm.
    "There is a lot of concern around health," Peggs said. "So it will keep rising."
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    Sanders believes there will be a further increase in the type of products available. "I see a growth in ready meals that are vegan, or vegetarian, coming in," he said. "There will be a shift to plant-based eating among the more educated."
    But he highlights the difference between veganism as a movement and vegetarianism. "Veganism extends beyond just the food," he said. It is a way of life, determining what people wear and how they live.
    "I see it growing," he said. "But like organics, it might increase, but I can't see it becoming a mainstream thing."