In an April episode of the British TV show Food Unwrapped, the team discovered that vegan burgers and other processed vegan foods were far more expensive than meat-based foods per kilo.
They did a little vox pop test on the street too — getting passersby to put foods in order depending on how much they thought they cost.
Most people thought a whole fresh chicken would be one of the most expensive while the plant-based foods? Cheaper, surely.
Aside from touching on the high nutrient value and benefits of plant-based diets (a topic deserving its own article), what was amazing was how expensive ‘vegan’ food was.
On the face of it, it kind of looks like only wealthy people can afford to become vegan or even vegetarian.
And there’s a really good reason why this appears to be the case.
Food manufacturers can’t increase the price of raw vegetables, legumes and grains. So they’re inventing foods they can increase the price of.
The false expense of plant-based
For the purposes of simplicity, I’m generalising the term ‘plant-based’ to exclude all meat and fish products. This includes foods containing substances that you cannot derive without killing an animal, like gelatine.
Funnily enough, being plant-based is fundamentally incredibly simple and incredibly cheap.
Vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils etc), pasta, rice, other grains (depending on how trendy they are) and local fruit (plus bananas) are all really, really cheap. I mean…crazy cheap.
And you could live off that list for the rest of your life. You’d get tons of fibre, carbs, protein and healthy fats in your diet. Your food would be filling and nutrient rich. You’d be healthy.
That diet would also be vegan. The only thing you’d be missing would be vitamin B12, so you’d have to supplement with a vegan B12 tablet. If you’re a vegetarian, you could add in eggs, milk and cheese — all of which can still be bought cheaply and include B12.
Boom. Plant-based diet — ultra cheap.
And this is a big problem for food corporations. Because they don’t really want you to eat cheap. If you eat cheap, they don’t make much money. Cue tears.
So when they smelt the sweet scent of a new diet trend (aka plant-based), they were pretty quick to start developing all sorts of exciting and delicious foods that they could stamp ‘vegan’ on and sell for a huge mark up.
I mean, does anyone remember cauliflower steaks?
So now you can browse the plant-based aisles of supermarkets and find huge arrays of meat-free sausages, burgers, kebabs and ‘meatballs’ at great expense. And that’s what people see and think ‘ah shit, being plant-based is way too expensive for me’.
No matter that you can actually make plant-based burgers yourself, extremely cheaply, using all sorts of things like beans, chickpeas and lentils.
The taste lie
I’ve heard a weird amount of people claim that plant-based food is ‘boring’ and ‘doesn’t taste of much’. Especially if they try making it themselves.
And I was guilty of this for a while before I learnt processed food 101.
You want to know why meat products taste so delicious? Because they are full of salt, sugar and flavourings. Oh yeah. Get a piece of chicken that hasn’t been messed with, cook it with zero seasoning and try eating it. It’s not going to be packed with flavour.
Aside from the fact that many vegetables have delicious flavours all by themselves thanks to their massive nutrient content, you just need to remember that as you season meat when cooking, you season plant-based food too.
All those herbs and spices? They’re plant-based. Pepper? A plant. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar? Yup — derived from plants.
Recognise when you’re being sold a marketing ploy
The food industry isn’t exactly pretending to be holier-than-thou anymore. I mean…we all get it…we know. There have been enough documentaries and news stories written on the conniving ways of mega-corporations and how they invent some new food and then tell us it’ll be great for us.
Food manufacturers are not doing it because they want you to be healthy. If they wanted you to be healthy they’d become vegetable farmers and tell you that ‘mushrooms with added vitamin D’ just means they’ve been exposed to UV radiation (aka sunshine).
They’re inventing fancy ‘vegan’ foods because they need to get creative about how to make money from a diet trend that will most likely steer people away from meat and processed foods, and towards things that are inherently cheap — vegetables, legumes and grains. Also known as — things that are good for us.
It can be so tempting to be drawn into the marketing ploy. So tempting to buy those £6 ($7.60) jackfruit, edamame and carrot burgers because what else could you possibly take to Saturday’s BBQ?!
Yeah, I’m sure they are delicious. Chanel clothes probably look lovely on you as well, but you don’t have a wardrobe full of them (do you?).
Eating plant-based is not intrinsically expensive. In fact, it’s cheap. It’s only expensive if you choose to buy processed plant-based foods with fancy, hipster labels.
You’re far better off buying a good plant-based cookbook and loitering in the vegetable aisle. You’ll be richer for it. Maybe rich enough to buy Chanel.
P.S. During the course of writing this article I made the typo ‘pant-based’ about five times. This note is far more amusing to a British than an American audience. In the UK, I supposed it’d mean we’d all start walking around in our underwear and saying, ‘I’ve gone pant-based, no more trousers for me!’
Kitiara Pascoe is a ghostwriter and author. After three years of sailing around the Atlantic and Caribbean, she washed up in Devon in the UK. You can find her on Twitter @KitiaraP and @TheLitLifeboat. She’s the author of In Bed with the Atlantic and The Working Writer and you can find her journalism and blog at KitiaraPascoe.com or her ghostwriting at TheLiteraryLifeboat.co.uk