Veggie World

The vegan movement is growing as folks say `no' to animal products and `yes' to tofu, tempeh and rice cheese.

January 31, 2001|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Debra Wasserman encounters a package of strip steaks at the grocery store, she sees not food, but a dead animal on display under cellophane.

"It's not appealing - and no different than road kill to me," she says.

The judgment is not surprising from someone who is co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, an international nonprofit group based in Baltimore and located, ironically, next to one of the city's best burger joints - Alonso's Restaurant - on Cold Spring Lane.

But Wasserman's dietary crusade goes beyond vegetarianism. She - and her husband, Charles Stahler, who also directs the group, and their 2-year-old son, Sam - are vegans, part of a growing movement of people who not only refuse to eat meat or fish, but also eschew eggs, honey and dairy products.

FOR THE RECORD - A recipe for Funk's Vegan Chocolate Cake in yesterday's A La Carte section listed the wrong quantity of canola oil. The recipe requires 1 1/2 cups of canola oil. The Sun regrets the error.

No longer reserved for the tie-dyed, flower-child set or for those battling severe allergies or illness, veganism is moving mainstream with consumer demand for a steady diet of natural foods reflected in grocery sales and restaurant entrees.

"Today when you go into a place and use the word vegan, people know what you mean," says Stahler, a vegan since 1977. "I never thought that would happen in my lifetime."

Davida Breier, consumer research manager at the VRG, charts the trend with statistics. She says in national polls taken in 1994 and 1997, only 1 percent of the U.S. population was vegetarian. Last year, a poll showed that number increasing to 2.5 percent, with up to one half of the respondents calling themselves vegans.

"We've even noticed that the word vegan is popping up in the media - I recently saw the term in TV Guide," Breier says. "So there's more awareness."

And you don't need to go to Fresh Fields, the local organic mecca, or to your local health-food store to stock your shelves and refrigerator, Stahler says.

Super Fresh, Giant and Safeway have added products like fresh soy milk, soy yogurt, rice cheese, tempeh and tofu hot dogs - and they are strong sellers, says Barry Scher, Giant spokesman.

"If you compared the natural-food products we offer today to five years ago, it's night and day," Scher says. "And that's because shoppers are more health-conscious and are reading labels - they truly want healthier foods."

Ethical beliefs

Josh Valle, 29, a first-grade teacher and a vegan for nearly a dozen years, says he maintains strict dietary standards because of ethical beliefs. He, like most vegans, says he doesn't choose to eat meat or any food derived from an animal out of respect for all living things.

"It seems like something that sort of cuts off people's options because you are limiting your food choices, but in my case, it has made me cook more and try more ethnic foods. The main difference I've seen since I became vegan is that more people see it today as a healthier choice, whereas before, people were convinced that your hair would fall out or something."

Most restaurants today offer vegetarian and even vegan entrees, Valle says, making dining out easy and optional. Restaurants like the Mango Grove in Columbia, One World CafM-i in Baltimore and Liquid Earth in Baltimore are favorite haunts. In Fells Point, the vegan chocolate cake at Funk's Democratic Coffee Spot on Eastern Avenue is renowned for its texture and rich taste - and political correctness, Valle says.

That cake recipe was developed by Funk's chef, Dave Cluster, in response to the demand of the small restaurant's vegan customers, Cluster says.

"We have a lot of PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] people who come in here," he says, "and they are vegan for spiritual, ethical and health reasons." Cluster also prepares a spate of vegan entrees daily, including Thai sesame peanut noodles, ziti with mushrooms marinara and veggie burgers from eggplant, onions and garlic.

Constant vigilance

Such options help vegans maintain their commitment to a healthier lifestyle, says local nutritionist Roxanne Moore, a registered dietitian who works at the Towson University Wellness Center and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. But Moore cautioned that vegans have to be constantly vigilant of their nutrient intake so that they can maintain a balanced diet.

"Being vegan in today's time is easier than it was 20 years ago, ... and fortunately, there are many products on the market today that make it easier," Moore says. "Overall, consuming a vegan diet can be a very healthy pattern of eating, but you have to make sure you are consuming high-nutritional foods."

Wasserman is forever conscious of this. Author of numerous vegan and vegetarian cookbooks, including "Vegan Handbook" now in its third printing, she has written reams and advised many on how to eat healthy for years. She believes the vegan movement is growing, based on the large number of teen-agers and people in their 20s who contact VRG in search of meatless lifestyle advice.

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