Vegetarian food is much, much more than meat substitutes. Or is it? Hugh Westbrook left a recent vegetarian showcase disappointed by the lack of genuine innovation he found there. Don’t vegetarians deserve better?

The world of vegetarianism flocked to Wembley recently as campaigning group Viva! brought its Incredible Veggie Show to the capital. Viva! pronounced the day a roaring success, with more than 5,000 people cramming into the hall to attend a show proclaiming that it contained “everything you could ever have wanted to know about going, being or staying veggie/vegan”. But what did the show really say about the state of vegetarianism in the UK?

Despite the organisers’ understandable pride after the event, this was not a show that your correspondent can report on with any great enthusiasm. On one level, this was purely practical – the venue was far too small for the number of people who turned up. Consequently, this made it extremely hard to get to many of the stalls or to speak to people for any length of time. The crush to sample free food was almost overwhelming, and the crowds were such that organisers banned babies’ buggies from being brought down to the main area. There is clearly an appetite for shows about vegetarian food – however, more thought needs to be given to their staging.

Where is the real innovation?

But from an industry point of view, the show was quite worrying if it showcased the best of vegetarian food. The majority of food stalls present were simply producing vegetarian versions of meat products. There was nothing that showcased vegetables for themselves, no ethnic cuisines that create interesting and nutritious food from vegetables. The longest queues at the show were for the free tofu stir-fry and for a product called a Vebab – a kebab made with a vegetarian meat substitute. If modern vegetarianism is simply creating non-meat versions of popular meat products in order to spare people’s consciences, then it is not perhaps as creative and innovative as it claims to be.

The tone of the show was also peculiar. It reinforced the sense of vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice. As well as food stalls, there was non-leather clothing, wildlife preservation societies and even a group called the Hunt Saboteurs Association, hammering home the message that to be a vegetarian is to buy into a certain ethos. This is surely not true of all vegetarians.

Dairy farming campaign

Viva! itself is a campaigning organisation and used the show to launch its latest campaign – against dairy farming. Its new report is certainly concerning focusing as it does on the way cows are treated in order to produce regular milk, and it is useful to ignite debate. As well as slamming production methods, Viva! has also put together information to claim that humans do not need to drink milk. But as just-food has found in the past, for every attack on milk’s health value, an equally qualified adherent will step in on the other side and defend it. It is to be hoped that if Viva! does attract publicity from its latest campaign, a debate on both sides of the argument can be held.

So what products did we find that were interesting? As discussed above, precious few. There were many examples of mock-meat, milk-free cheese or chocolate. One of the biggest companies showing off its products was Redwood Foods. Redwood is typical of modern vegetarian fare – mock sausages, a cheese substitute called Cheezly and fishless fish-style fingers. Their website confirms that campaigning goes hand in hand with food.

Nutty about butter

Less interested in issues and more concerned about an unusual product was Red23 Health & Fitness. The company used the show to allow people to sample its pure nut butters, made from ingredients such as cashew, pistachio and brazil nuts. They are expensive, at GBP13.99 (US$23.90) for a 16oz jar, but 8oz jars will come on the market later this year.

The company explained to just-food that the high price is justified because of the quality of ingredients and the processes involved – the nuts are freshly ground at low temperatures a number of times. The health benefits behind the butters come because the ingredients are not cooked, and so retain their natural nutrients and therefore boost energy when eaten. When asked to compare them to peanut butter, the company said there is no comparison, as peanut butter is roasted and the peanut is not as nutritious as the ingredients it uses. The products are made and imported in California, and Red23 is currently the only supplier in the UK.

Baby soya beans means success

Haldane Foods used the show to bring Edemame beans to the public. These baby soya beans are high in fibre, low fat and help to reduce cholesterol. They have been a popular ingredient in Far East cuisines for many years. The beans are sold in frozen packs, making preparation easy, and as the company pointed out to just-food, they therefore do not need to be pre-soaked before being cooked and eaten. This is clearly a new product which is likely to do very well for Haldane.

The other major type of product on display were supplements containing greens. The most impressive were Seagreens and managing director Simon Ranger told just-food that the products could help with basic health, skin, energy levels and even teeth.

There were some interesting products at the Incredible Veggie Show, and it clearly tapped into public enthusiasm for vegetarian food. But with meat-style products already reaching saturation point, there is clearly an opportunity for companies to come in and change the direction of vegetarian produce, giving consumers new alternatives.

And it was hard to escape from the overall impression that vegetarianism should be more about celebrating creative ways of eating fruit and vegetables and less about falling back on vegetarian alternatives because that is all that is left once you have decried meat and fish.