I approach my interview with Brendon Bale with some reservation. It’s not a typical piece for Food Manufacture and I’m always wary of speaking to people who could easily be referred to as evangelists for their cause.
However, I’m swiftly disarmed. Bale is amiable, winsome and above all not into the ‘hard sell’. He’s simply a wholesome, cheerful chap who happens to be a vegan. I’m looking forward to gaining some insights into what he looks for from the food industry, which is increasingly committed to catering for such people.
Bale currently appears on the website A Better Plant-Based Future, which was launched in June by Upfield, the spreads and cheese processor that acquired Flora from Unilever. The company describes it as a ‘plant-based advocacy platform’ to explore what such diets mean to a range of engaging personalities.
All-vegan rugby team
Based in Salisbury, Bale is the founder of all-vegan rugby team Green Gazelles and is keen to debunk the myth that rugby players are carnivorous, beer-chugging meatheads.
He initially made the switch to a meat-free diet to support his partner. “She was going through a really difficult period with her back. It was either surgery or find another alternative and we found taking on an anti-inflammatory diet was absolutely the way forward.
“I’d say 80% of the doctors she spoke to suggested surgery. She was only 25, 26 at the time and you don’t want to be doing surgery on a spine that young, because you’re going to be going in all the time. She did tonnes of research while on sick leave. She came across the anti-inflammatory diet, we gave it a go and it worked.”
What started off as a week’s experiment led to a permanent change for Bale once he found the move seemed to considerably boost his energy levels, fitness and wellbeing.
He claims that he did face some backlash for his decision initially from his peers and teammates, but, seeing the positive effect it has had on him, they were gradually won over.
“When I go and train and play rugby within other clubs that don’t feature vegans, it’s a difficult topic to talk about at times. People question you: ‘surely you can’t maintain body weight’ or ‘your bones must be brittle’, so there’s definitely a bit of a stigma there. It’s not necessarily a negative stigma. Within rugby, it’s very much a bit of banter, so people don’t do it in a nasty way.
“I’m a strong believer in evidence, so when I transitioned to a plant-based lifestyle, people have seen a difference.”
The result has been that many rugby players have approached him individually and expressed a real interest in what his dietary transformation entails.
That’s not to say it doesn’t involve some level of organisation to ensure all necessary nutrients are consumed daily. “We do a meal plan. We’ve got a club nutritionist who is absolutely fantastic.”
Neither he nor his wife have a lot of spare time, so they find the best way forward is to make big curries. “My favourite uses cashew nuts. We use tofu and chuck in loads of vegetables – broccoli, black beans – we put it all in and then try to plan it out through the week, so we’re sufficiently stocked. I haven’t yet needed a supplement.”
His wife and he try to vary the dishes they consume a little every week to avoid boredom, experimenting with new recipes on Fridays.
Whereas he used to look forward to Sunday roasts just for the meat content, now it’s the variety of vegetables that gives him a kick. His diet is low in cholesterol, while still supplying protein from non-animal sources. He suggests if someone is really concerned about nutrient deficiency, they should do some blood tests to highlight any issues.
He agrees part of the benefit of a plant-based diet is that it enables people to consume enough fruit and vegetables, where more meat-driven diets don’t. “The whole five-a-day thing – that’s the bare minimum.”
That said, he maintains that, for him, switching to a vegan diet wasn’t just about healthier eating. “Upfield’s vision is all about a sustainable future and the environmental impact of consuming meat and dairy. If we could transition as a society over time, which will take some time, it’s going to have a greater impact on the environment.
“For me if there’s two options in front of view, one is better for the environment and stops animals from dying, I’d pick the option that does less harm.”
Bale claims the variety of plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products is growing constantly, making it easier than it has ever been for shoppers to find options to suit their tastes. He cites dairy-free spreads as a classic illustration. “Upfield’s a prime example of swapping meat and dairy and making it non-meat and dairy, but you’re getting the same benefit from it.”
He highlights some vegan ‘cheese’ and cream alternatives. “The taste is pretty much bang on. For me now, it just tastes normal.” That said, he claims the category certainly offers more room for options that deliver on flavour, although he adds: “It’s improving quite rapidly.”
“There’s a lot of fake meat, there’s a lot of meal prep. For me that’s the way forward. Busy city workers, if they haven’t got the time to cook, there’s a lot of pre-prepared meals that can keep people fully stocked up.
“The amount of vegan cheesecake – even ice cream – you taste it and it’s really good.”
He also mentions the recent return to Jammie Dodgers’ dairy-free recipe, which was announced in July to highlight the diversity of vegan foods now. “A lot of manufacturers are looking at this movement and thinking, ‘right, what would help to make this product plant-based?’ Some of the products are getting so good on taste now.”
In terms of meat alternative brands, Bale singles out Beyond Meat for special mention. “Everyone I talk to says, ‘have you tried the Beyond Meat burger, have you tried their sausages?’ I’ve seen a lot of people who are meat eaters try the Beyond Meat burger and they are like, ‘that’s pretty good actually’.”
Celebrity chefs, too, have helped popularise vegan options, he says. “There’s some fantastic vegan chefs. Gaz Oakley has got a strong following. He makes trendy meals. We have made some of his koftas out of tofu. I brought them to a work barbecue and they were all eating them and they had no idea they were made out of tofu.”
If he and his wife visit a new city, they turn straight to the phone apps out there to discover vegan restaurants or cafes to try. “I really enjoy going to a cool spot where we can go for some nice food. You get your new favourite restaurants and you can still have your takeaways."
However, despite the momentum and innovation inherent in the plant-based trend, there are still plenty of opportunities for further development in certain areas that haven't quite delivered on flavour yet, such as chocolate, he says. “I was hooked on Dairy Milk when I was younger." Some German chocolate comes close, he says, and he acknowledges Mondelēz declared in February it was working on a vegan Dairy Milk variant.
Plant-based milk could be improved on as well, says Bale. “It’s so simple to make your own oat milk. It takes minutes and you can flavour it.”
Clearly veganism is as much a passion for him as rugby and it has sustained him throughout lockdown and its aftermath, during what has been a frustrating time as a sportsman. “Green Gazelles have had to completely adapt. Most of our tournaments had all been cancelled.”
He’s looking forward to getting stuck into team practices and games again and continuing to pursue his appetite for vegan food.