Jasmine Briones was nervous during her first vegan Thanksgiving. She wasn’t sure how her family of omnivores would react to the plant-based Thanksgiving foods she had made for them.
It was 2012, Briones’ first year of veganism, which her parents thought was a phase, though it eventually led to her becoming the Sweet Simple Vegan. She had done the best she could with the ingredients and recipes she had on hand for vegan biscuits, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.
“My parents didn’t really enjoy it, but I could do a much better job now,” Briones said. “Nowadays, there’s a plethora of vegan products and recipes to help make Thanksgiving food vegan.”
While strictly vegan Thanksgivings probably won’t slow the demand for turkey anytime soon, interest in plant-based foods and Thanksgiving recipes has grown in recent years, and companies are responding to demand.
Krissi Vandenberg is the executive director at the Vegan Awareness Foundation, an organization that offers certification for a range of vegan products. To receive certification, a manufacturer must prove that their product contains absolutely no animal-based ingredients and that it does not use animal products in processing. For example, sugar manufacturers often use cow bone char to remove impurities from raw sugar. While it may be sparkly white, and perfect for an omnivore’s cranberry sauce, such sugar cannot be considered vegan by the Vegan Awareness Foundation.
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According to Vandenberg, when the organization started certifying products in the year 2000, it was mostly approving snack foods for a strictly vegan audience. That trend has since changed – rapidly.
Over the past five to seven years, the consumer base of many vegan products has expanded to include the “vegan curious.” Companies are noticing this shift and have begun seeking certification for more savory and substantial foods, such as frozen entrees, soups and pantry staples, the kinds that could help make a Thanksgiving meal, according to Vandenberg.
While Briones admits that her first vegan Thanksgiving wasn’t exactly a hit, she said that later attempts have tasted much better, thanks in part to the introduction of new vegan products and improvements in ingredients like vegan cream cheese, which Briones mixes into vegan mashed potatoes to make them more decadent.
Since the Foundation began issuing certification, it has worked with over 1,000 different companies and approved several thousand products, according to Vandenberg. This growth is completely unprecedented.
“We’re seeing right now a lot of things we never envisioned,” Vandenberg said. “Things have really just taken off.”
This trend has made vegan Thanksgiving foods more accessible for those looking to add more plant-based dishes to their holiday meals, and a number of companies have started in recent years to fill that need.
No Evil Foods is one of these companies. Though the company has been operating since 2014, they’ve recently expanded production of their plant-based turkey roast made from wheat protein due to overwhelming demand. No Evil Foods named it The Pardon after the presidential tradition of “pardoning” a turkey from slaughter every Thanksgiving, and a portion of sales is donated to Full Circle Farm Sanctuary in Warm Springs, Georgia, which takes care of rescued farm animals. So far, No Evil Foods has already an 1100% increase in sales on The Pardon from 2018.
“The market is so right,” said Sarah Schadel, co-founder of No Evil Foods. “Plant-based eating is clearly on the rise, and consumers are looking for more deliciously meaty ways to celebrate that align with their desire to eat healthier, be kinder and make positive environmental choices.”
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Meal kit companies are getting in on vegan Thanksgiving as well. Purple Carrot, which exclusively sells vegan meal kits, launched its own Thanksgiving box this fall. The kit, which includes the ingredients and recipes for: Hasselback butternut squash, ciabatta bread stuffing, roasted brussels sprouts, cranberry citrus cake and “classic gravy,” has already sold out. According to Ashley Hocking, head of marketing at Purple Carrot, the idea for a Thanksgiving box sprung directly from customer feedback.
“There is a growing interest in plant-based foods overall, which is very encouraging for brands in this space,” Hocking said. “Sales of plant-based versions of traditional animal protein products have risen by double digits over the past year.”
And then there’s Tofurky, the largest independent producer of plant-based proteins in the U.S., which has been selling its plant-based “turk’y” roasts since 1995. According to company president and CEO Jaime Athos, Tofurky will sell about 400,000 of its trademark roasts this holiday season, while operating at full production capacity. That’s a steep jump from the 800 sold in 1995. Due to increasing demand over the years, Tofurky sold 5 million roasts from 1995 to 2018.
While vegan Thanksgiving foods have become more popular and more accessible in recent years, those who celebrated the first public vegan Thanksgiving in had to be a little more creative with their Thanksgiving menu. There was no version of The Pardon, no Thanksgiving meal kit, no Tofurky. But there were fruits and vegetables.
“The vegan foods were always there,” said Alex Hershaft, founder of the Farm Animal Rights Movement, or FARM. “What you’re seeing now in supermarkets is the result of greatly increased acceptance in plant-based eating.”
Hershaft organized a Thanksgiving celebration in 1975, which he claims is the first of its kind, where about 40 to 50 vegans gathered at the Siddhartha vegetarian Indian restaurant in Washington, D.C. Hershaft, a vegetarian since 1961 and a vegan since 1981, still prefers foods like lentils to plant-based meats, but he acknowledges that having the meat-like options is helpful in getting people to eat less meat or no meat at all.
“If someone has spent most of their life looking for a piece of meat, it’s less of a sacrifice to eat something that looks and tastes kind of like meat,” Hershaft said.
Despite the recent surge in popularity of vegan Thanksgiving foods, turkey still dominates the Ameican plate. According to the National Turkey Federation, 44 million turkeys were bought and served for Thanksgiving 2017, a number roughly equivalent to the population of Argentina. Hershaft said he still feels rewarded by having been able to inspire interest in veganism over the past 44 years.
“Some people feel that we’re not making enough progress,” Hershaft said. “But this is not just about plant-based Thanksgiving, it’s about the increased acceptance of plant-based eating altogether, and for that I’m grateful.”