In Switzerland, it is easy to switch to a diet low in animal products. The country has a wide range of restaurants and vegetarian or vegan food shops. The market for plant-based alternatives to meat, cheese and fish is booming there. However, our journalist’s transition to a more sustainable diet will prove more complicated than expected.
This content was published on August 02, 2022 – 16:10
The decision to almost completely eliminate animal protein from my life came like a thunderstorm in clear skies in January 2021. I had survived a Christmas based on Chinese fondue, sausages and mascarpone cream and wanted to atone for my sins of gluttony.
A few crucial readings, yoga and the pandemic had opened my eyes to the impact of my plate on the environment, on our health and animal welfare. With Veganuary, the month-long vegan challenge that over 2 million people have participated in since 2014, I had a good reason to follow my New Year’s resolution.
As a good Italian, food has always been an important part of my life, personal and social. I don’t eat myself to fill myself; eating well is as important as reading a good book, having friends, dressing tastefully. Ultimately, knowing how to eat is knowing how to live.
But from an early age, I always knew that food has two sides. It has the power to make us feel very good, but also very, very bad. A rather disastrous family history in this field, studded with cases of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular problems made me realize very early on how much food is both our cross and our joy.
That’s why my mother always had this obsession with healthy cooking. For years, she repeated to satiety the beneficial properties of the foods we ate: the polyphenols in cinnamon to lower blood sugar, the curcumin in turmeric to keep weight under control, the sulforaphane in crucifers as a cure for all ailments.
At each sermon from her, my brothers and I stared at her, smirking, while trying to hide our business of pushing back these so bitter Brussels sprouts, this far too spicy arugula.
Despite everything, animal proteins were permanently present in our daily life. Throughout my childhood, no one ever talked about the impact of food on the environment and animals. I grew up like this, ignoring or wanting to ignore the consequences of my food choices.
Food of the Future Series: How Technology is Changing Our Plate
Climate change, pandemic, war, population growth: these phenomena that shape our times force us to review the way we eat. More and more consumers in Switzerland and around the world are turning to more sustainable food. Thanks to food engineering, changing our lifestyle without sacrificing the foods we love is finally possible.
Switzerland is a driving force behind this development. Its powerful food industry and its many pioneering start-ups are at the forefront of areas such as research on sustainable proteins or precision agriculture. In this new series, we tell you the journey of a journalist to discover the most innovative and captivating food technologies in Switzerland. All seasoned with irony and lightness.
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A vegetable paradise
My transition to veganism has started surprisingly well. Switzerland is of course the land of Gruyère, dried meat and cervelas, the national sausage. But on the shelves of supermarkets, from discounters to organic stores, you can find interesting alternatives to foods of animal origin: soy cutlet, peanut brie, carrot salmon.
Over the past five years, innovation in the food sector has made it possible to further expand the offer of innovative dishes to satisfy the demands of all palates and provide more sustainable alternatives. There are so many products available that I haven’t tried them all yet.
In fact, the market for alternative proteins is growing rapidly. Globally, it is now worth more than $50 billion and could exceed $150 billion.External link in 2027. It is still a niche market compared to that of meat, which is expected to grow from 838.3 (2020 figures) to 1157.6 billion dollars by 2025. But its growth in percentage suggests that eating habits are changing.
In Switzerland, the sale of meat substitutes has almost doubled since 2016. More than one in four people sayExternal link consume plant-based alternatives to meat, milk and cheese regularly. Many people have already changed their eating habits like me, to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. According to a surveyExternal link, some 4% of the population surveyed say they are vegetarian. Only 0.2% of men claim to follow a vegan lifestyle compared to 1% of women.
In general, the figures show that people opting for a plant-based diet are mainly young people, those with higher education and wealthy families. As a result, in wealthy cities, options multiply. I live in Bern. Almost everywhere you can find vegetarian and even vegan food. Including on street food stands.
In Zurich, it’s even easier. The Hiltl, opened in 1898, is the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world. Switzerland is home to one of the highest densities of establishments of this type in Europe. The United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden are other popular European destinations for vegans.
I must admit that at the beginning, I missed the taste and texture of meat, and especially those of fish which I was fond of. Sometimes I dreamed about it at night. But the many reflections on the ethical dimension and the sustainability of the foods I used to eat, not to mention the abundant variety of plant-based products, prompted me to extend my Veganuary. To abandon? Never.
Not to mention that I also became more creative in the kitchen. I learned how to make delicious plant-based versions of my many indulgences. Lentil stew, genovese pesto with basil, edamame and nutritional yeast (instead of parmesan), spaghetti alla carbonara with chickpea flour and smoked soy. My skin has become brighter and smoother, my hair softer and shinier. What more?
In search of the ideal diet
But after a few months of this vegan diet, things went wrong. I was training intensely for a marathon and sometimes felt big slack. Sometimes, fatigue and hunger caused dizziness, I was in a state of intoxication, a feeling that was foreign to me. Was the vegan diet really so healthy, so balanced? Was I wrong on one level or another? To dispel my doubts, I contacted Alexander Mathys, head of the sustainable food processing laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH).
From our first conversation on Teams, he didn’t hide anything from me. With his colleagues, the researcher constantly discusses the sustainability and health benefits of various diets. In a studyExternal linkAlexander Mathys and his research group compared different types of diet from environmental, nutritional, economic and health perspectives.
It shows that the vegan diet is the most environmentally sustainable, but it produces nutrient deficiencies. Like vitamin B12, choline and calcium. “If we consider all the micro and macronutrients that our body needs, the vegan diet is not the best,” says Alexander Mathys.
According to his study, the ideal diet consists of massively reducing the consumption of meat and vegetable oils. It also involves eating fewer grains, tubers and fish products, and eating more legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables daily.
Thanks to Alexander Mathys and a nutritionist I consulted later, I realized that to feel better, I had to increase my consumption of vegetable proteins (for example by adding soy milk to my lunch) and keep some fruit on me. nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.) to snack between meals or when travelling. Through this, I managed to control my cravings. I regained my energy and succeeded in my marathon.
Laura Nyström, food biochemist at ETHZ, confirmed to me the possibility of following a balanced and beneficial vegan diet for the body. Products of plant origin are made up of vegetables and cereals and are therefore rich in fibre, which is important for the regulation of intestinal functions and the assimilation of sugars and fats. “I’m sure a vegan diet can be complete. But that requires a good deal of organization and not everyone has the time to think about their meals in advance,” explains Laura Nyström. Clearly, the vegan diet is not for everyone.
After various attempts, I finally hit on my ideal diet. Mainly vegan at home and vegetarian outside, with some exceptions during the year for some fish and, more rarely, meat. With above all one invariable rule: sometimes you have to have fun without feeling guilty.
Technology is cooking the future of food
I enjoyed lentil stew and other vegan recipes that I’ve mastered now, but nostalgia for the foods I’ve eaten all my life—milk-fed chicken breast or escalope milanaise, for example—led me to explore the food technologies developed in Switzerland. I wanted to see if it was possible to follow a plant-based diet without giving up the flavors of childhood.
To think of the possibility of reproducing in the laboratory the consistency, the appearance and even the taste of meat or other foods is something fascinating and a little unsettling. I wanted to discover the heads of these “extra-terrestrials” who govern the transformation of the culinary culture in Switzerland, bite after bite. So I went to find them.
Follow me on this journey through my series on the food of the future…
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