Top Vegan Foods 30 Years Ago Vs. Today

Views from Dietitians Researched By Christine Kasum Sexton, MPH

When The Vegetarian Resource Group was founded 30 years ago, many things were quite different than they are today. Neon colors and shoulder pads dominated the fashion scene, and most telephones were still connected to a wall. (Imagine that!) Advances in technology were beginning to gain steam with the birth of the CD player, and Time Magazine named “The Computer” as person of the year. ET was playing at the box office, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller was on its way to becoming the best-selling album of all time.

While some of us may wish to go back to those less-connected, pre-tweeting times, vegan food enthusiasts would have good reason to stay right here in the present. Thirty years ago, a vegan in the supermarket was faced with limited options, to say the least. Today, there is an abundance of vegan products competing for shelf space, and new ones appear seemingly every day. Gone are the days when vegetarians needed to search out dairy or meat alternatives in rare natural foods stores. These days, products ranging from soymilks to meatless burgers to dairy-free cheeses are commonplace in almost any grocery store. To get a clearer perspective on the changes that have occurred in vegan foods over the past 30 years, I asked some prominent vegetarian dietitians to share their thoughts on the subject.

Ryan Andrews, MS, MA, RD, Director of Education at Precision Nutrition, imagines that the top vegan foods 30 years ago included tofu, granola, and carrots. Vegan options were basic, straightforward, and limited in their variety. “Some­one who found themselves attached to these kinds of foods 30 years ago might have bailed on the idea of eating a vegan diet. Now, with all of these options, ‘limited’ food variety is no longer a concern.”

In his opinion, the biggest change regarding vegan foods over the last 30 years is that, these days, we can get just about any food ‘veganized.’ “Virtually every food that comes from an animal now has a plant-based equivalent,” Andrews says. Items such as vegan eggnog, vegan ice cream, vegan yogurt, vegan cheese, vegan meat, and vegan protein powder are now available. Andrews sees these products’ availability as important in making a vegan diet appealing to a larger segment of the population. He cites vegan versions of milk, burgers, and desserts as the top vegan foods today. “Non-dairy milks have taken over.” In fact, he is surprised when he meets someone who still drinks cow’s milk, unless they live on a dairy farm. Veggie burgers have become widely accepted, even among meat-eaters. And he thinks today’s vegan desserts taste better than their counterparts made with animal products.

Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, Co-Owner of Nutrition Matters, Inc., agrees that 30 years ago, we did not have today’s wonderful selection of vegetarian and vegan convenience products. “I think many vegans and vegetarians built their diets around tofu, lentils, and brown rice, with foods like homemade granola for snacks and breakfast,” Messina says. Textured vegetable protein was available at that time, as a sort of a preview of the veggie meats that were to come later. Early Seventh-day Adventist cookbooks made extensive use of nuts, according to Messina, so nuts were also an important food for vegans. These days, there are many more vegetarian and vegan cookbooks available, making it easier for anyone to prepare a wide variety of vegetarian meals.

Messina says, “Narrowing choices down to the top vegan foods today is a happy problem because of the incredible number of products available. I think many vegans still make extensive use of foods like brown rice, lentils, and tofu, and so they still rank as among the most important vegan foods. But veggie meats—and there are so many of them that I can’t single out just one—are increasingly important in many vegan diets and are wonderful for their convenience and nutrition.”

Another food that Messina cites as a staple in today’s vegan diet is hummus. Not so long ago, hummus was found only in Middle Eastern restaurants or delis. These days, most grocery stores carry multiple brands and flavors of hummus, attesting to its widespread popularity. According to a New York Times article last year, hummus sales in the U.S. went from $5 million a year in 1995 to $325 million only a decade later. Messina also ranks soymilk and almond milk among the most important of today’s vegan foods because their availability has made it so easy for more people to go vegan.

Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, a Nutrition Advisor for The VRG, says that the staples of her vegan diet have not changed much over the past 30 years. She still relies on basic, nutritious, whole foods as her mainstays and may choose new vegan convenience foods only occasionally. Therefore, her ‘top vegan foods’ list is the same now as it would have been in the 1980s. On that list are chickpeas, which Mangels considers the most versatile bean. They can be a main ingredient in a wide variety of dishes, including hummus, pasta sauces, falafel, Moroccan couscous, minestrone soup, and curry dishes. “I buy cans of chickpeas by the case,” she says.

Other foods topping her list include peanut butter and pasta, which she sees as a quick, easy, and versatile food. Dark green vegetables such as kale, collards, and broccoli are staples since they taste good and are an easy way to get more calcium. Also topping her list are seasonal fruits, including apples, peaches, strawberries, and blueberries. Mangels says that fruits such as these are true convenience foods.

Although Mangels does not choose the newer vegan foods often, she admits that it is nice to have them sometimes. She did miss some foods, including chocolate and cheese, when she first became vegan and is glad to be able to choose vegan forms of these nowadays. Twenty-five years ago, Mangels only knew of one company that produced vegan chocolate. These days, it is easy to find a variety of vegan chocolates at your local grocery store or online. For years after becoming vegan, Mangels says that she did not eat the vegan cheeses that were available. “Early vegan cheese tasted like soap and didn’t melt,” she remembers. The newer vegan cheese varieties do melt and have more of a greasy, salty cheese taste. Mangels states, “Nutritionally, they’re pretty worthless, but for an occasional topping on pizza or lasagna, they work.”

Vegan frozen desserts have also come a long way over the past 30 years. Previously, non-dairy frozen desserts were produced mainly for people who kept kosher. In Mangels’ opinion, these desserts were a treat, but there were not many flavors to choose from, and they had a sort of chemical taste. She is happy to have more choices these days.

Myriam Parham, RD, is glad that soymilk choices are now more varied and tasty. “I remember when soymilks had awful tastes, and they were too thick, plain, or just plain bitter-tasting. I remember eating meat analogues that had extremely chewy or mushy textures. The addition of soy isolates helped and improved the taste of many products.”

Today, Parham says that her family’s favorite vegan products include several Gardein products. “My daughter especially enjoys the Seven-Grain Crispy Tenders, Chick’n Scallopini, Beefless Tips, and the Ultimate Beefless Burgers, which have amazing flavor and texture and even contain grains like kamut, amaranth, millet, and quinoa. I find that my non-vegan family and friends find them appealing. Some of their amazing features include the facts they are non-GMO, many are lowfat, they contain some fiber, and they are not too high in sodium.” Also on her family’s favorites list are the Gardenburger BBQ Riblets.

Parham adds, “Other vegan mock meats we occasionally use, especially when we have ‘meat-eaters’ for company or for a quick meal, include Tofurky Kielbasa sausage and lunch meat slices. When you consider the serving size of the lunch meats, which is very generous, a couple of slices on a sandwich are not too high in sodium or fat.” Tofurky also has a new pizza line that uses the Daiya brand dairy-free cheese. “I was never a fan of cheese, even before becoming vegan, so the cheese pizza was too ‘cheesy’ for me, but I’ve found the Italian Sausage Pizza with a ‘blend of fire-roasted vegetables’ pretty amazing. It has a little warm spicy touch, and the crust is excellent.”

Although Parham has eaten many highly processed soy- or gluten-based vegan foods and still does occasionally, she tries to minimize them in favor of less processed, more healthful choices. “We are trying to use legumes more for our protein sources in our meals. Tofu is still tops for stir-fries, but we add lots of beans to soups, stews, and rice or pasta dishes. Slightly roasted and salted edamame is popular in our kitchen and when we visit Asian restaurants.”

Finally, Parham feels “recommending and using ‘faux meat’ products is a bit troubling, at times. They imply that we need to eat ‘meat-like’ foods to be healthy, which could not be further from the truth. Ideally, our diets should primarily consist of eating foods in their most natural form and should consist of mostly fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. This is real food! It is exciting to see our newest U.S. Dietary Guidelines encouraging at least half of the food on our plates to be fruits and vegetables. This helps us dietitians to guide our clients to more healthful eating.”

Christine Kasum Sexton is a VRG volunteer.