A beginner’s guide to going vegan

Gluten free vegan celebration cake kit 2

Having run our artisan gluten free bakery for 25 years, we have accrued a decent amount experience working with gluten free ingredients, recipes and delicious wheat free cakes. More recently we’ve also extended our cake range to include vegan, dairy free and soy free options by learning how to adapt conventional recipes into plant based versions. Here, we happily share what we have learnt.

During this journey we’ve become really engaged with all things vegan. Chatting to our vegan customers has given us an insight into some of the issues arising from “going plant based” and ditching all animal derived products. We start with taking a look at veganism in the UK and how it has developed as a movement. We’ll also delve into the world of processed foods, health claims and conclude with links to fab vegan tips and recipes.

How did Veganuary start?

Veganuary was founded in the UK back in 2014 by Jane Land and her husband.

According to Land, “It seems so surreal to think that something we started in our kitchen has turned into this phenomenon.

The initiative was started in a bid to encourage more people to try a vegan diet out in January when thoughts naturally turn to healthier lifestyle habits. From 12,800  people initially participating, 629,000 took part in 2022. “From acorns mighty oaks do grow…”

Is veganism now mainstream in the UK?

Veganism used to be regarded as a fringe, “hippy” movement with no food offerings on the High Street. Instead your best bet would be to seek out health food shops for niche brands or make your own food. Eating out was well nigh impossible.

The exception was certain festivals and one-off independents. For example, I remember my excitement at first going to Glastonbury Festival (back in 1991) and discovering everything from gorgeous bean and veggie burgers to mind blowingly delicious dairy free, plant based wedges of chocolate cake. Festivals aside, the vegan options in mainstream cafes and restaurants were simply not there – at all.

Fast forward to this month and the news stations were all over a story about Edinburgh becoming a meat free and vegan friendly city. Quoting Judith Duffy writing in The National“Councillors have endorsed the Plant Based Treaty, which aims to promote a shift to healthier, sustainable diets based on less consumption of meat and dairy products”.

Certainly, from our perspective as a commercial bakery, we are frequently now asked by larger brands to focus solely on vegan and gluten free cakes when developing new products. Our buyers, from Waitrose to farms shops are seeking ‘Holy Grail’ food products that can be offered as a vegan and gluten free option on the menu but are tasty enough to appeal to all.

This shift to vegan is quite ironic given that when we moved the bakery to Dorset back in 2002 we found ourselves in a dairy farming heartland. The bakery is itself a renovated milking parlour and our chief ingredient in those days was butter.

We, like many other food producers, have had to adapt to survive and most importantly ensure that adapted recipes taste every bit as delicious as regular cakes.

Why Should I go vegan?

Three of the most popular reasons for adopting a vegan diet are:

  1. Perceived health benefits
  2. Environmental considerations
  3. Animal welfare reasons.

We are going to focus just on the health aspects of the vegan diet. The environmental and animal issues warrant their own deep dive blogs – look out for further future blogs on these.

Is it healthier to eat a vegan diet?

Let’s take a closer look at some health benefits, both perceived and proven.

There is a veritable smorgasbord of health claims to be found after googling “Is vegan food healthier for me?” which can sound too good to be true. For instance PETA’s website states there are 7 clear health benefits including,

Eating vegan helps reduce our risk of suffering from cancer and other diseases.”

After reading many articles surrounding this particular cancer claim it clearly depends on which studies you look at and whether considerations such as vegans leading healthier lives generally have been accounted for. Vegans as a cohort tend to drink less alcohol, exercise more and smoke less, each of which are proven risk factors for developing many types of cancer.

Therefore, it may be wise to treat such bold claims about the healthiness of a vegan diet with a degree of caution and do your own research. Contradictions abound. For instance, there is plenty of peer reviewed research about the deficiency of vitamin B12 in the vegan diet, which in turn has been linked to a small uptick in strokes and mini strokes. On the other hand, cardiovascular health amongst vegans has been found to be stronger in terms of heart disease and heart attacks compared to the general population.

Jessica Brown has written an excellent article, “Are there health benefits to going vegan” and concludes with,

“There’s a lot more digging to be done before we know for certain if veganism can be healthier than any other diet – especially when it comes to long-term health effects. In the meantime, experts advise that the best vegan diet is one that includes lots of fruit and vegetables, and B12 supplements, and less vegan junk food.”

We’ve reached the same conclusion thus far at Honeybuns, namely, avoid over processed foods, cook your own if possible, eat what suits you best and seek sound, professional advice.

A closer look at highly processed vegan foods

I think Brown’s reference to junk food is particularly pertinent. I’d argue there is definitely a “health halo” effect surrounding vegan foods. Namely people automatically assume a vegan diet is healthier. Using our own cake range (link to vegan cakes online)  as an example – we would be wrong to claim they are healthier because they are vegan and gluten free. They are, at the end of the day, still treats and are high in fat and sugar. They are delicious indulgences which just so happen to be gluten free and plant based. It would be disingenuous for us to claim otherwise.

There are many other brands out there making pretty bold health claims, especially in the meat substitute arena, which are a little questionable.

For example, three of the leading meat free burger brands contain significantly more salt than a real meat version. Claims that burgers are 100% made from plants may technically be true but often these products are so highly processed that the vegetable protein is isolated from the rest of the plant. Simply put- there are no actual vegetables in the burger. There is a fascinating deep dive into the health claims of various plant based burgers here.

From our perspective of working in the food business, I’d recommend treating any marketing claims around “healthy” and “healthier” with a degree of caution. Reading food labels – the small print on the back detailing ingredients and allergens, is a great place to start. Again, using Honeybuns cakes as an example, by reading these ingredients on pack it is obvious that we are selling indulgent treats.

The ingredients of our vegan, dairy free and gluten free Oaty Raspberry Bar are as follows (listed in descending order of %):

Gluten free oats, golden date juice concentrate, refined coconut oil, gluten free oat flour, light muscovado sugar, sultanas, flaxseed, icing sugar, freeze dried raspberry, water & salt.

Cakes by their very nature are high in fat and sugar and ours are no exception. Delicious though our fruity flapjacks are, they do not count as one of your 5 a day! On the bright side you will notice that there is an absence of complicated, unpronounceable names on the list. The reason being we prefer to keep things simple and opt for unprocessed store cupboard ingredients. Mother nature really does know best.

In a nutshell – sticking to whole natural foods with the odd delicious treat thrown into the mix will be cheaper, healthier and more sustainable than prepackaged and cleverly marketed vegan meals or meat substitutes.

The great historian and social commentator Neil Oliver makes this point so eloquently:

Vegan foods with “an additive list longer than the old testament” and “hyper-processed chemistry sets they call the vegan sausage” are to be approached with caution.

Healthy motivations for wanting to try a vegan diet

At Honeybuns we benefit from communicating with both our online customers and those who visit our pop up shop. These customers have shared their own health reasons for opting for a vegan diet including:

– Wanting to avoid hormones/growth promoters in meat

– A desire to reduce saturated fats for better cardiovascular health

– A desire to eat more fresh, unprocessed foods, avoiding additives

– Wanting to go dairy and/or lactose free

These needs can be met by eating lots of fresh and frozen vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, peas and lentils. Treats are great in moderation. It is not necessarily an exciting, izzy whizzy sciencey message but I think it is an honest one and one that we keep coming back to the more we read.

Easy vegan recipes to try at home

Here at Honeybuns we like to keep things as easy and simple as possible in the kitchen. Recipes need to be fuss free and preferably one bowl wonders. Each recipe has been really put through its paces and we either sell the cakes or serve the dishes here at Honeybuns HQ- so they’ve been thoroughly taste tested.

Make your own:

  1. Oaty Raspberry Bar. Vegan, dairy free, soy free and gluten free
  2. Dark chocolate brownie tray bake. Vegan, dairy free and gluten free
  3. Spicy Bean Balls. Vegan, dairy free, and gluten free
  4. Planning ahead for Easter? Check out our vegan and gluten free Easter lunch menu. 100% plant based, cruelty free and delicious!

Delicious recipes abound and many countries such as India and Thailand, feature naturally vegetarian dishes which can easily be adapted to be vegan. So why not travel the globe and eat the rainbow! Inspirational meat free recipe books and blogs abound.

Some of our favourite vegan recipe book recommendations

  1. Street Vegan by Adam Sobel – full of New York inspired recipes which Adam served from his food truck business, the Cinnamon Snail. Rosemary encrusted tempeh through to pistachio milk with rosewater, the flavours are full on delicious.
  2. 15 minute Vegan by Katy Beskow – modern, fresh and simple dishes with clever use of herbs and seasonings.

If you are seeking gluten free as well as vegan baking recipes try these:

  1. Decadent gluten free and vegan baking by Cara Reid has got the lot- gooey chocolate cake, breakfast muffins to savoury, yeast free breads. Accessible ingredients and easy to follow instructions.
  2. BabyCakes by Erin McKenna Not only are the recipes all gluten free and vegan but Erin specialises in reduced sugar and refined sugar free bakes. This was a seminal book for those of us looking from the UK over to the US for vegan baking inspiration. New York was a hub of vegan food innovation and she was at the forefront. Highly recommend this one.
  3. Honeybuns All Day Cookbook Self praise is no recommendation but….we put our collective heart and soul into this collection of gluten free recipes. From breakfast and brunch through to supper and puddings we cover all bases. A third of the recipes are vegan as well and we step by step help you with how to adapt recipes to be dairy free and nut free. Ideal for allergy sufferers, coeliacs and those wanting to try vegan out.

Tips for preparing plant based food at home

Adopting a positive mindset can be a really helpful start. Swerving all animal products creates space for a plethora of new, nutritious and delicious alternatives…..

Check out our blog on Gluten free flours. There you will discover different grains and seeds that are used around the world.

There are so many amazing speciality online food retailers who can cater for many allergies and diets. Some of our go to favourite ingredients suppliers include:

Each of them stocks a great range of vegan ingredients, many of them are not commonly available in the supermarkets.

Adapting conventional baking recipes to vegan can be a little more technical as baking is quite an exact science. We’ve written up some tips here.

Here we advise on how to bake with out using eggs and butter.

Beware of surprising non vegan ingredients

Look out for The Vegan Society accreditation logo on pack. There are instances of animal exploitation in the harvesting of coconuts and other crops which would preclude them from being cruelty free.

Similarly, not all sugar is vegan due to the presence of bone char in the sugar filtering process. Check the pack states “suitable for vegans” or The Vegan Society logo.

In summary: helpful hints when considering a plant based diet

– Consider a gradual switch to vegan to see how the diet suits you. We’re all individual and you may find that you miss dairy products too much or you crave fish. By including more vegan dishes over time you can figure out what serves you best.

– Variety really is the spice of life. Via fabulous cook and recipe books you can travel the world & eat the rainbow.

– Some people may find they experience difficulty in getting enough calcium, iron and vitamin B12. Supplements can correct this. For more information head over to the Vegan Society website, they even sell a Vitamin B supplement online.

Eating out can still be tricky. Pret a Manger are sadly now closing all of their exclusively vegan outlets. Packed lunches are therefore a useful back up. Check out BFree Wraps made from sweet potato and why not buy nuts, seeds and dried fruit in bulk. You can then decant into little lunch box friendly packs at home – will save money too.

– Independent health food stores have a great reputation for employing staff with in depth working knowledge of allergens and diets. Pop in and have a chat. We do this often when researching new ingredients.

– There are really good folk online too, check out Rosie at Rosemary Nutrition  and her article Going vegan as a coeliac on The Vegan Society website.

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You might also be interested in reading how to make a gluten free and vegan cake.