The focus on our diet and what is good for us is a moving feast. During the 1980s, butter was demonised in America as the leading cause of heart disease. In 2014, however, new research made the front cover of Time magazine proclaiming, “Eat Butter”, the war on fat was over.
In the noughties, the Atkins diet was celebrated where carbs were off the menu and the focus was on lots of protein – steak, bacon and eggs.
Then in marched the Paleo diet, based on foods consumed during the Paleolithic era, ie the hunter and gatherer diet.
Now vegetables are in their glory days as the vegan diet has substantially gathered force. This is a plant-based diet of vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits. Like the vegetarian diet, no meat is consumed but further to that, vegans do not eat any food that comes from animals including dairy products and eggs. While some focus on a plant-based diet, others do not wear any animal products such as leather.
Some of the proclaimed benefits of vegan living include weight loss, lower cholesterol due to lower consumption of saturated fats as well as reducing your risk of diseases like cancer. Another key factor promoted by those following a vegan diet is sustainability, proclaiming that by following a plant-based diet you are respecting the planet and living more in harmony with it.
In regards to reducing air miles however, how Irish and local is the vegan diet? Of course, those following a vegan diet can make a conscious effort, like all of us to source Irish seasonal fruit and vegetables.
However, as we became inundated with products promoting “Veganuary”, we began to question where these products are actually coming from?
We asked this question of companies big and small supplying the Irish market. And based on the responses, it appears the bigger the company, the less information we received on origin.
One of the most-promoted vegan products this January was the McPlant burger in McDonald’s. Instead of a patty of meat, it is made with pea protein while the vegan alternative to cheese is made with coconut oil and pea protein. McDonald’s have for many years been keen to promote the fact that they are a big supporter of Irish farmers, using Irish beef, eggs and bacon on their burgers. However, despite a query sitting with the company for over a week on the source of their vegan products and ingredients, we received no reply.
Similarly, Subway is promoting their T.L.C. Tikka (Tastes.Like.Chicken) subs and again, when questioned where the ingredients were being sourced from, we received no reply.
Furthermore, Aldi was keen to promote its vegan range. Press releases proclaimed that “Aldi has everything you need with its amazing range of plant-based products”. Yet, when queried about where the ingredients were being sourced from and where they are manufactured, “there was no information available at the time of request”.
Lidl also has an extensive vegan range but just three of their vegan products are from an Irish supplier. These are their plant-based vegan burgers, made by Loughnanes in Galway. Flavours include curried cauliflower; beetroot and chickpea; and sweet potato and chilli. We questioned if the vegetables such as the cauliflower and beetroot were sourced in Ireland Lidl informed us that “while the products are produced in Offaly for Lidl Ireland, the ingredients are sourced from outside of Ireland”.
Fiid is another company that has grown in popularity with their meal bowls which include lentil and sweet potato curry; chickpea and coconut curry and smoky black bean curry. You’ll find them in Dunnes Stores, SuperValu and Tesco but there are no Irish ingredients used and the bowls are produced in Holland.
Another company with a vegan range is Plant-It. They supply to Irish retailers including SuperValu, Tesco, Spar, Avoca and Fresh. They also supply the meat alternatives in the Chicken-Free Fillet Roll in Applegreen stations. When we put the question to them about where their ingredients were sourced from, the reply was vague stating: “Our ingredients are sourced as close to home as possible, with a small number from Ireland like our flavours and seasonings, with the majority coming from within the EU. All products are produced in our dedicated plant-based facility in west Dublin.” Despite seeking clarifications on what ingredients were sourced “close to home”, we received no reply.
One of the most popular vegan companies is the Happy Pear. They have 54 products in the Irish market. Fifty-one of those are manufactured in Ireland (94% of their offering) but surprisingly, their granola is not. We had heard this was being manufactured in Eastern Europe and although we sought clarification from the company, we did not receive a reply at the time of print confirming or denying this.
However, the most surprising response by far came from Strong Roots. For those really interested in where their food comes from, log onto the Our Story section of their website strongroots.com. There is a wonderful video of Samuel Dennigan, founder and CEO of Strong Roots (and grandson of the man behind Sam Dennigan and Company) driving along the Irish landscape, visiting an Irish farmer (in an Irish registered car) and actually examining potatoes from the soil. The voiceover says: “When we eat, we want to know where it comes from. What it is, how good it is for you and who is involved... Strong Roots presents its offering honestly.”
However, when we contacted the company, they confirmed that although Strong Roots products are designed in Dublin at Strong Roots global HQ, by their Irish R&D and quality teams, they are “then reproduced around the world in various locations close to our markets. We don’t currently manufacture in Ireland but our hope is that we can use native ingredients in the future where it makes business sense.” In short, Irish ingredients are not currently used in their products.
For those seeking to support Irish on a plant-based diet, all is not lost. It appears small Irish companies are coming up trumps and during our enquiries were very transparent on where their ingredients are being sourced from.
Plantruption, an Irish start-up by Jennifer O’Brien has developed plant-based seafood, using wild Atlantic seaweed as its base. They produce seaweed burgers which are currently stocked in SuperValu and are launching their second product seaweed goujons. They are also working on a plant-based cod substitute. While plant-based “tuna” has emerged recently in many forms, as the first fish replica, their mission is to replace white fish such as cod and they are currently working with Wageningen University in the Netherlands along with an European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) consortium to develop this. Their main ingredient, which is seaweed is handpicked from the west coast of Ireland and comes from Prannie Rhatigan’s Seaweed Kitchen in Sligo. Most of their ingredients, including their onions and mushrooms, come from Irish suppliers with the exception of tofu and tempeh which is sourced from the Netherlands.
Galway’s Roots and Shoots produce vegan bowls and everything they make is manufactured in Ballybrit. They also source ingredients from Irish growers where possible and when in season. For example, key ingredients, the likes of carrots and potatoes come directly from farmers in Wexford.
The very nature of many vegan foods however, especially plant-based protein, means that they need to be sourced outside the country. Coconut oil, which is used as a plant-based bind, mostly comes from the Philippines and Indonesia. You’re looking towards South and Central America for quinoa, black beans and pinto beans as well as nuts. Chickpeas also come from that part of the world, as well as India and Asia. Quite simply, the Irish climate is not suited to these foods.
But some small Irish companies are keen to support Irish in whatever way they can. Erica Sheehan runs Homespun which offers wholefood alternatives to Irish consumers. Her products are stocked in SuperValu, Avoca, Nourish and other fine food stores. In her range, two of her products are vegan. These include the Cocoa, Cashew and Hazelnut quinoa crunch and Chicory Root Syrup. Speaking to Irish Country Living, she says: “Our quinoa and coconut oil comes from Peru and our chicory root syrup is cultivated in the Netherlands, our climate just doesn’t support those products but wherever possible, we are supporting Irish.
“For example, our chicory root syrup is bottled in Co Laois and our ingredients for our quinoa crunch may be coming from abroad but it is handmade in the Gaeltacht area of West Cork. There are a lot of companies that will get their manufacturing abroad but our first port of call is always Irish.”
This summer, Homespun will be adding vegan granola bars to their range and the oats will be sourced from Irish farmers.
Other companies include Nutshed peanut butter which do all their manufacturing in Tipperary and while they can’t source peanuts in Ireland, the one other ingredient in their peanut butter is Oriel Sea Salt from Clogherhead in Co Louth. Other companies keen to keep as Irish as possible include Nobó (Cork) and Leamhain (Kerry), both non-dairy ice creams.
The decision you make on the diet you follow is individual but just because it states it is vegan does not necessarily mean it is local and honest. If sustainability is a key factor in someone’s decision to follow a plant-based diet, do your research on just how many air miles are in the pack.