Saturday, 27 August 2011

Is a Vegan Diet too Expensive?

“I would eat vegetarian more often, but vegetables are so expensive.” “I can't afford to eat healthy.” “Don't vegan ingredients cost more than normal ones?” Even from vegetarians, I hear these attacks of irrationality: “our grocery bills wouldn’t be so expensive if we weren’t vegetarian,”or “it’s a sad state of affairs that meat is cheaper in this country than vegetables.” Um, no it isn’t. Granted, meat and dairy are subsidized in many countries by the government, which means that meat and dairy are much cheaper than they should be, but they still aren’t cheaper than their vegan alternatives. Stop spreading lies!

I wouldn't have thought that the fact that sources of animal protein tend be amongst the most expensive things on our shopping lists was any big secret.  If I were to make the bold claim that steak is more expensive than brown rice, I don't think I would shock anyone.  So I'm truly baffled when anyone claims that veganism, the base of which is vegetables (any kind you want, they don't have to be fancy), fruits (ditto), grains, beans, nuts, and spices, is more prohibitive in cost than omnivorous diets that use the most expensive items in your grocery store as their staples.  Saying that you would be vegan except that the diet is too expensive is like claiming that you would watch One Tree Hill but you don't think the show takes itself seriously enough.

To demonstrate this claim to those of you who are impudent enough to not just take my word for it, I’m going to compare a typical day of vegan fare to a day of typical omnivore fare. And before you get up in arms claiming that I’ve skewed the results to my own liking, I interviewed two (not one, two!) omnivores about their daily diets as the basis for my omnivore day, and used my own diet for the vegan day.

Although I love to shop at the farmer's market and rarely do my weekly shopping at a big supermarket, for the practical purposes of the post I’ve  used the website to price out the day on Tesco. I’ve generally chosen the cheapest option available, unless it was too budget even for me.

Typical Vegan Day

Breakfast: Porridge with Raisins and Walnuts

Morning Snack: 1 Apple

Lunch: Vegan Caesar Salad and North African Cauliflower Soup

Afternoon snack: 2 Plums

Dinner: Butternut Squash Timbales with Walnuts and Arborio Rice

Total cost of day: £2.70

Typical Meat Eater Day

Breakfast: Cereal with Milk

Morning snack: Banana

Lunch: Ham and Cheese Baguette

Afternoon snack: Individual Sized Yogurt

Dinner: Spaghetti Bolognese

Total cost of day: £4.32

You may notice that my vegan menu does not include so-called substitutes, and most people think these foods are more expensive than their animal alternatives.  But I've drawn up a little comparison to show that most vegan staple substitutes aren't really any more expensive than the cruelty-full items.
For example:
  • In the UK a stick of butter costs £1.60, or 64p per 100g.  A container of Pure vegan butter is £1.57, or 31.4p per 100g
  • A carton of 1.1 litres of cheap milk costs 89p, or 7.8p per 100ml, and a container of cheap soy milk costs 59p, or 5.9p per 100ml
  • Everyone who does eat dairy should only consume organic milk, aside from the ethical considerations, as the added hormones in regular milk are very questionable substances for your health.  From a gastronomic perspective, basic soy milk cannot hold a candle to higher quality soy milk brands, so I've compared the price of a carton of 1.1 litres of organic dairy milk: £1.10, or 9.7p/100ml, to the price of my favourite Alpro Original soy milk: £1.09 per litre, or 10.9p/100ml.
  • A 500g container of Onken yogurt costs 99p, or 19.8p per 100g.  A 500g container of Alpro yogurt costs £1.00, or 20p per 100g
  • While I wouldn't consider cream a basic some people do (especially you cream-loving Brits), so it's worth noting that a 300ml container of Tesco single cream costs £1.00, or 33.3p/100ml, compared to a 250ml container of Alpro soy single cream, which costs 74p, or 29.6p/100ml
You get the idea.  Sometimes a vegan product might cost a little more than the dairy alternative, but often the price is competitive.  The average price per gram/millilitre for the non-vegan items listed above comes out to 26.9p per 100 grams or millilitres.  The average price per gram/millilitre for the vegan items comes out to 19.5p per 100 grams or millilitres.  But of course you know that these processed substitutes shouldn't make up the bulk of your diet.

In my New Year's post, I mentioned that lentils and beans were the cheapest source of protein around.  Beans are not only nutritional powerhouses full of iron, protein, complex carbs, fibre, and micronutrients; they are not only versatile nutritional powerhouses; they are dirt cheap versatile nutritional powerhouses.  Despite all of the attention that soy gets, I think that most vegans consider beans to be their mainstay sources of protein.

Let's compare them to a standard source of comparatively cheap animal protein.  One 1.23Kg package of chicken thighs costs £3.00 or £2.44 per Kg (priced at Tesco).  A 400g can of kidney beans costs 24p, or 60p per kilogram.  Cans of beans are very cheap, but it's even cheaper to buy dried beans and cook them yourself.  While a 500g bag of kidney beans costs 79p, or £1.59 per Kg, in order to properly compare the price of canned and dried beans we must account for the drained weight of the cans and the cooked weight of the dried beans. Isn't this fun?  Would you judge me if I told you that I really think it is fun? 

Since the weight of the drained canned beans is about half the original weight, and the weight of the cooked dried beans is roughly double that of their dried weight, we can estimate this difference fairly accurately simply by doubling the price of the canned beans, and halving the price of the dried beans, meaning that the canned beans cost £1.20 per kilogram and the dried beans cost 76p per kilogram.  So dried beans are even cheaper than canned beans, and both are so much cheaper than the chicken it's silly. Dried beans are only a little more than one quarter of the price of cheap chicken!

I don't think that the perception that vegan foods are more expensive comes from the actual cost of vegetables, fruits, beans and grains, I think it comes from the prices at stores such as Whole Foods Market, Planet Organic, and other uber trendy, organic-esque halls of granola.  I've come to realize that many people believe that doing the bulk of your shopping at these over-priced hippy traps is a requirement for your annual vegan membership.  The uncomfortably well-groomed organic produce sold at Whole Foods et all is no more of a requirement for the vegan diet than it is for the omnivore diet.  Most vegans shop at the same stores that meat-eaters do (unless you do all your shopping at the butcher's), and only visit these shops every once in a while for hard to find specialty items.   

I have to confess, the cheapness of veganity uncovered in this post has amazed even me.  Go forth and buy beans. 


Butternut Squash Timbales with Walnuts and Arborio Rice

These little constructions of yum look and taste fancy enough to serve at a dinner party or holiday meal, but I've made them for weeknight suppers without much fuss.  The recipe is adapted only slightly from The Vegan Table.

2 cups of peeled and cubed butternut squash
2.5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup Arborio rice (this is the kind of rice used to make risotto)
1/2 tsp salt
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh parsley (2 tsp dried)
1 tsp fresh thyme
1-2 small sun-dried tomatoes
Black pepper
1/4 cup toasted, chopped walnuts
several leaves of dark greens such as kale or collard greens (about 2 per person)

Lightly oil 4 ramekins, mini-loaf pans, or smallish sized cereal bowls.  Note: this step is optional.  If you are making this dish for a weekday meal and aren't too fussed about presentation, you can just serve everything in a big old mess on a plate.

Steam or bake squash until just tender, about 10-12 minutes for steaming, 30 minutes for baking.

Bring stock and rice to a boil in a large saucepan.  Add salt, and reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 20 minutes, stirring often (the rice should ideally be tender with some liquid remaining).  Uncover, give a good stir, and take off heat.

In the meantime, toast the walnuts in a single layer on a small baking pan in the oven for about 5 minutes, or until fragrant.  Saute the greens in either water or a little olive oil in a frying pan.

Heat oil or water in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.  Saute onion until translucent and just browning.  Add garlic, parsley, and thyme, and stir for a few minutes.  Add the sun dried tomatoes and squash.  Remove from heat.
If serving in a big mess, simply arrange the greens on each plate, top with rice, then squash mixture, and then sprinkle with walnuts.

If serving fancy-like, place a quarter of the squash mixture in each ramekin/bowl, and press down to pack.  Top with 1/4 of the rice mixture, and press down firmly again.  Arrange the sauteed greens on each plate, and turn over each bowl/ramekin onto the bed of greens.  If the timbale doesn't come out on its own, gently run a knife around the edge to dislodge it.  Reshape carefully if needed.  Sprinkle with walnuts and black pepper to taste.

1 comment:

  1. Good post....

    It is better if you can add mushrooms and soya as sources of proteins. It is a better way to reduce meat too.