In the midst of a seemingly never-ending global pandemic coupled with accelerating climate change, vegan eats were absolutely everywhere in 2021, and 2022 promises even more. From the sudden rise of plant-powered chicken nuggets to celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey’s vegan bacon, 2021 has been full of change and surprise. Here’s a look back at the year’s biggest vegan food news.
A-LISTERS GO VEGAN
This year marked half a century since the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s hugely influential vegetarian book, “Diet for a Small Planet,” which held a place of honor in my childhood kitchen and many other homes in the 1970s and 1980s. Anniversary media coverage called the author “prophetic,” and the New York Times anointed Lappé the “Godmother of Plant-Based Living.”
Parties were (sort of) back on, and, as a result, the holiday season has been plagued by a shortage of vegan roasts, while the internet dubbed the nation’s annual harvest celebration “America’s most vegan Thanksgiving ever.” One poll from vegan egg maker Eat Just found that 71 percent of millennials planned a plant-based Christmas. At the same time, the menus at many of the year’s most talked-about events featured planet-friendly, vegan food.
In New York City, the 2021 Met Gala, an exclusive fashion event held in September, served an all plant-based menu created by 10 up-and-coming Big Apple chefs. The menu for the A-list guests: collard greens with cornbread, black rice, pumpkin chili and apple confit.
At the gala, singer and outspoken vegan Billie Eilish made headlines when she agreed to wear an Oscar de la Renta gown on the event’s red carpet in exchange for the designer stopping the use of fur in its creations; the fashion house agreed to the deal. Later in the year, Eilish released an organic, vegan milk chocolate bar called Happier Than Ever, along with an album by the same name.
Those lucky enough to rate an invite to former President Barack Obama’s 60th birthday in August on Martha’s Vineyard reportedly dined on a menu that included vegan spam musubi and vegan cheesesteak eggrolls. It’s unclear whether or not animal-based meat was served at the party.
There were no animal-based foods at the September wedding of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and his long-time partner, and vegan, Marlon Reis. The event made Polis the first sitting governor to be wed in a same-sex ceremony and the first sitting governor to announce their all-vegan wedding reception menu. Catered by celebrity chef Chloe Coscarelli, the party offered guests vegan charcuterie boards, butternut squash mac and cheese, and sweet corn-jalapeño lasagna. Dessert? A 12-layer vegan lemon-vanilla wedding cake.
In November, New York City elected its first vegan mayor when Eric Adams, a former police captain, claimed a resounding victory over his Republican opponent. Adams, the city’s second Black mayor, adopted a vegan diet in 2016 after he was diagnosed with diabetes. He supports redirecting public health spending toward lifestyle change initiatives.
While we can expect significant food-related policy moves from Adams, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a more personal move toward plant-based eating when she gave up meat for Lent in February to honor the late Tommy Raskin, a vegan and the son of Ocasio-Cortez’s colleague Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland.
The following month, David Mintz, the inventor of Tofutti ice cream, died at age 89 after proving to America in the 1980s that vegan ice cream was a thing. Following in his footsteps, songwriter and record producer Jermaine Dupri launched his own plant-based ice cream this fall called JD’s Vegan. Made with coconut cream, the ice cream is sold at Walmart.
The NFL’s famous avocado ice cream eater, Tom Brady, may have left New England for Florida, but some of his former teammates are still being powered by plants. This year, Patriots defensive tackle Lawrence Guy made headlines by opening up about his vegan diet and fondness for plant-based pancakes and cauliflower hash browns. Meanwhile, long-running quiz show Jeopardy landed a vegan host, when actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik was named co-host.
But celebrities weren’t the only ones making vegan headlines this year. At the start of 2021, more than half a million ordinary people took part in the month-long Veganuary challenge, marking the event’s largest participation ever.
VEGAN MEAT ON THE MENU
This summer, the first American Vegan Center opened in Philadelphia, a city infused with a modern (and historic) vegan vibe. The center is funded by the American Vegan Society, the oldest vegan organization in the United States, and sells books, hosts events and offers vegan history tours.
On the other side of the country, Los Angeles became home to an evening market event called Vegan Playground. In Berkeley, California, the city council passed a law mandating jails and other public buildings offer vegan meals. Berkeley leaders also required the city to cut its expenditures on animal-based meats and dairy in half by 2024.
Cruising over to the Mediterranean, another institutional menu shift occurred in March when Hayek Hospital in Lebanon switched to an all-vegan menu, reportedly becoming the first hospital in the world to do so. This is significant, since healthcare facilities around the world are facing mounting criticism for serving patients animal-based foods linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
The private sector was on its toes throughout 2021 as it attempted to respond to the shifting food scene. While facing shortages of everything from supplies to staff, some of the most successful food businesses responded by increasing their vegan menu offerings. Delivery service GrubHub reported that its most ordered item in 2021 was a meatless Impossible cheeseburger, which soared 442 percent in popularity compared to 2020.
The shift toward plant-based food was also visible in the explosion of vegan chicken and vegan chicken nuggets on major menus. Panda Express offered vegan chicken for the first time in its popular orange chicken dish, and Burger King started selling vegan chicken nuggets at select locations. Target launched a vegan house brand, which includes vegan chicken tenders, while JBS, the world’s largest animal-based slaughterhouse company, this year began selling plant-based chicken under the Ozo vegan meat brand it launched last year.
McDonald’s has been shy about joining the plant-based party, but this year, the fast-food giant began testing its vegan McPlant burger at 250 locations in the United Kingdom and eight in the United States. Rival Burger King wasn’t going to be upstaged, and this summer transformed one of its German locations into a meat-free restaurant for one week. Then in November, Burger King turned a Madrid restaurant all-vegetarian for a month, joking on social media that it was now called Vurger King. Meanwhile, the CEO of Burger King UK said the company is aiming to have 50 percent of its menu be plant-based by 2031.
Back stateside, Rapper Eminem opened Mom’s Spaghetti in Detroit in September, a restaurant whose very limited menu includes vegan meatballs. At the same time, Taco Bell began testing vegan beef crumbles at 95 restaurants in Detroit.
The Washington Post in September reported on the rise of vegan barbecue in traditional animal meat hotspots down South, including Texas and North Carolina. At the same time, foodservice market research firm NPD Group found that plant-based meat and cheese shipments to pizza restaurants increased 56 percent in 2021 over the previous year.
But the vegan restaurant news wasn’t all at quick service spots. The judges at the prestigious Michelin Guide awarded stars to a record 57 vegetarian and 24 vegan restaurants across the globe. The starred restaurants include the first vegan restaurant in France to be awarded a star, ONA, located in Ares, which was also awarded a new green star for excellence in ethical practices. Another Michelin-starred restaurant is Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, which reopened in June from its pandemic closure and shocked the food world by switching to a vegan-only $335 prix fixe menu. The exclusive restaurant’s waiting list for reservations reportedly soared to more than 15,000 people.
I remember way back in 2016 when celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay made news for claiming he was allergic to vegans. Boy, can things change in five years! Since 2019, Ramsay has been inching toward vegan food, a process that accelerated this year. First, he made headlines for creating a vegan eggplant steak. Then, in July, Ramsay posted a TikTok video saying, “I’m turning vegan. For lunch.” The video showed how to make vegan bacon, then use it in a vegan BLT.
AGENTS OF CHANGE
The shift to more plant-based food is rocking the boat here in the U.S., but in Europe it’s creating tidal waves of change that will likely soon wash onto our shores.
For instance, in May, the German government banned the mass shredding of live male chicks, a routine practice in the egg business. The ban goes into effect Jan. 1. Responding to student concerns about climate change, 34 university dining halls in Berlin switched their menus in October to 68 percent vegan, 28 percent vegetarian and 2 percent fish-based, with just one animal meat-based option offered four days a week.
While Maine agriculture advocates continued to beg French milk giant Danone to renew its canceled contracts with Maine dairy farmers, the multinational company instead accelerated its embrace of plant-based dairy, notably announcing plans to invest $49 million to switch a large milk-processing plant in southern France from cow’s milk to oat milk to meet customer demand. (The company did extend its Maine contracts by six months earlier this month, but there’s still no effort in Maine to help farmers access the lucrative plant-based protein market.)
At the end of the year, the British government was soliciting plant-based foie gras recipes from British chefs. The production of the controversial duck liver pâté is illegal in the U.K., yet a loophole allows its importation from other nations. The recipe request follows moves by government ministers to close that loophole.
Then last month, the U.K. government announced plans to recognize lobsters, octopuses and crabs as sentient beings following a review of scientific studies it commissioned from the London School of Economics, which discovered significant evidence that sea creatures have the capacity to feel. The school’s review challenges the widespread belief that lobsters placed in boiling water can’t feel pain, and it has already prompted government ministers in the Netherlands to announce a coming ban on boiling the creatures alive. The British government is expected to follow suit.
Americans can trace our meat-centric culture to Europe and particularly the beefeaters of Britain, but vegetarianism is now rising rapidly in the British Isles, as are semi-vegetarian and flexitarian eating styles. In October, none other than Prince Charles revealed to the BBC that he eats meat- and fish-free two days a week and dairy-free one day a week. He urged others to do the same as a way to combat climate change.
I have a feeling we’ll see a lot more people following His Royal Highness’ lead in the coming year.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at
Please check your email to confirm and complete your registration.
Use the form below to reset your password. When you’ve submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.