Once regarded as a peculiar and expensive lifestyle choice, veganism has undergone a renaissance over the last decade. Documentaries such as What the Health (2017) and Food Inc. (2008), as well as a bevy of op-eds exposing poor food practices and the environmental and physical hazards of meat and dairy consumption, have opened (and educated) many eyes across the globe. One of the exciting figures pushing the movement forward is Canadian television-host-turned-chef Lauren Toyota. Here, Toyota opens up about her blog, Hot For Food, and how she’s striving to shatter popular misconceptions about veganism.
What was your motivation behind making the switch to veganism?
“I had been let go from my television job in 2008, and because I had so much time to myself, I realized that I wasn’t feeling great—just based on the way I was eating. At the time, I was an omnivore, but I had been vegetarian for a while prior to that when I was a teenager and had always gone back and forth. By realizing I was feeling sick from food, I started doing some research and reading a lot. I watched Food Inc., which is a documentary about the food industry and how corrupt it is, and I went, ‘I really need to make a change.’ January 1st, 2010 is the date I decided to eliminate every animal product. I did that and just felt so much better. It was mainly for health at the beginning, but I had always felt that eating animals was weird.”
Did you experience any physical changes?
“I mainly just felt clearer and cleaner. I didn’t get stomach aches from eating food anymore, which was always a problem for me. [Before], every time I ate something I felt sick, and that was mainly because of dairy. I can’t really digest meat, so I just felt lighter and healthier. I felt I was making a better choice for my body physically, but also mentally and emotionally.”
Were there any challenges in becoming vegan?
“The main challenge was figuring out what to eat so that I felt satisfied and not empty. At the time, the options that were available in restaurants or even products at the grocery store weren’t exciting. I was looking at recipes and trying things, but was never too impressed with anything. I thought [vegan options were] missing the flavour, the fattiness, the creaminess—all of the things that you crave in food that you often only get with animal products. That’s what really inspired Hot for Food. I was really bored with what was available and started experimenting a lot more. It was [that] challenge that inspired me to start doing my own thing, make my own recipes, and share them with people in hopes that it would convince others that being vegan isn’t boring and bland.”
What’s the biggest myth you personally fell for?
“I fell into that trap at the beginning of thinking that I needed to eat a lot of raw foods and a lot of smoothies and stuff, and I got so bored of it quickly. That’s a misconception that I am focused on trying to change in peoples’ minds, because it’s really about eating the same foods that just happen to be plant-based.”
What are some of the most exciting things you’ve seen happen in the vegan market?
“Vegan food is changing and becoming a lot more accessible, less intimidating, and more palatable. It’s happening across the board and I am glad to be at the forefront of that movement, because that was my intention when I started out eight years ago. I am so impressed by the product innovations. When I first started, there weren’t even any good cheese options or substitutes. Now, there are way better options than eating the packaged, processed food that contains animal products. I really like what Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek are doing, all those Silicon Valley-based [manufactures]. All the money and investments that are [going into] vegan food products are because people are seeing that there’s this huge gap in the market, and that’s helping to catapult the vegan lifestyle into the mainstream.”
How do you see the vegan industry evolving?
“I think you’re going to see meat substitutes that are made out of plant-based and pea proteins in restaurants without really mentioning that they’re vegan. You’re already starting to see the ‘Impossible Burger’ and Beyond Meat products on regular menus at chain restaurants. In the US, they’ve integrated plant-based meat substitutes onto Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s menus, and that’s huge because that contributes to the big-picture environmental impact that the meat industry has on our planet. If all of these massive food chains can start making those changes, that’s going to effect the demand for meat a lot, and then we’ll start to see real shifts in the kinds of food that is being produced around the world. We’re not going to change the fact that people want to eat out and have convenient food, but I think that if we can make the options better, people will make the better choice.”
What effect did your media career have on you eventually writing and publishing your own cookbook, Hot for Food: Vegan Comfort Classics?
“Producing content and creating things have always been in me, and working in TV as a host and producer for almost ten years gave me the skills to be able to understand how to tell a story through video or photos. I thought I would never get sick of [television], but I did. I found it to be creatively stifling. Once I found my passion in cooking and being vegan, I became so [focused] on it because it was such a life-changing decision. Although I didn’t plan on making a book, I have always wanted to say something and have it mean something, and so that was really just part of the path. I really feel like I’ve found my real platform, my real voice, and my real message in what I do. I can’t imagine ever putting this much work into anything else.”