When I have told people that I am following a vegan diet for a month one of the first questions I get asked is “is it cheaper than eating meat?” That’s a really interesting question (although not surprising in the current economic climate) but it’s not really a straightforward one to answer.
I am just about three weeks into the experiment and I feel that I am now ready to give an informed answer – and that is – it depends. I know that’s not a very satisfactory answer but please bear with me and you will soon see what I mean.
Let’s start with protein. Instead of meat, fish and dairy I have mostly been eating more pulses and tofu. Weight for weight or serving for serving pulses and tofu are cheaper every time. For example, an average (150g) free range chicken breast costs in the region of £2.30, the same weight in tofu costs around 60p. In terms of a meal that makes the vegan option significantly cheaper.
However, in terms of nutrients, the150g serving of chicken would provide around 45g of protein whereas the tofu would only give you around 10g of protein. You would have to eat four and a half times more tofu to get the same amount of protein and this would cost you £2.70. Price wise, this would make the cost of your protein more or less the same for chicken or tofu but no one wants to eat 675g of tofu in one meal!
If, as a meat eater, you aren’t particularly focussed on free-range or organic you can buy your chicken much cheaper than this so, in some ways, meat eating becomes the cheaper option.
Are you beginning to see why this is not straight forward?
Of course nuts and seeds are higher in protein than tofu (or other soya products) at around 30g per 100g but you wouldn’t want all your protein to come from such a high calorie / high fat source even if it is a healthier type of fat than the saturated fat in meats.
Lots of (but by no means all) vegans buy food supplements to boost their protein levels. I bought some hemp protein powder which can be added to soups or smoothies to add a little protein punch to the day. I bought it in an independent health food shop which I know to be expensive but having looked on-line you can still expect to pay around £12 to £15 for a 500g bag. This is NOT a vegan essential but it does make getting a balanced diet easier so I can see why people might opt to use it. I also bought flax seed /linseed (for essential fatty acids) and raw chocolate powder (cacao) and these things all add up.
We already ate a lot of fruit and veg before the vegan experiment but have probably eaten around 50% more over the last few weeks. This can only be a good thing for all sorts of reasons but it does mean that we are spending more in the greengrocers. I desperately wish that fruit and veg was cheaper and this year, after all the rain fall and failed crops in the UK it is more expensive than ever, so, if you are on a very tight budget, you will feel the difference. If you are thinking of becoming a vegan or a vegetarian – get an allotment – it really makes a difference.
Regular readers of bun scuffle will also have noticed that I like to bake. Baking vegan cakes and biscuits takes a bit more thought and may also work out a little more expensive although it really is a little bit “swings and roundabouts”: Refined, granulated sugar is the cheapest sort of sugar available at less than £1.00 per kg but most vegans don’t eat refined sugar. Refined, specialist sugars cost quite a lot more; I pay around £2.00 per kilo for unrefined golden caster sugar and around £2.80 per kilo for Muscovado sugar but, quite honestly, I would use them anyway even if I am not following a vegan diet. Using agave or maple syrup will push the cost of your baking up quite significantly. However, using vegetable oil instead of butter reduces costs a little and, depending on your egg substitute there is scope to save again.
Specialist vegan groceries tend to be a little more expensive than their non-vegan counterparts but I have been pleasantly surprised by how many products are “accidentally” vegan (lots of bread, most pre-made hummus for example). However, it is fair to say that milk turns up in some surprising places too (why is there double cream in pre-made guacamole?).
I also like an occasional glass of wine (or three…) and have found that most of the vegan wines I have come across are at the cheaper (£5.00 per bottle ish) end of the scale and some of them have been quite drinkable considering the low cost.
So, all in all, is it cheaper to be a vegan? That still depends. I think most people eat to suit their budget and if being vegan is important to you then I am sure you can be a low budget vegan – you may miss out on a few nutrients but the same is true of low budget meat eaters. If you want to ensure that you eat a wide range of nutrient dense foods then it will cost you more – just as it would a meat eater.
In summary, if you want to become a vegan in order to save money then it is probably not the best choice you will ever make. There are, of course, other very good reasons for making this choice (more later).
However, if as a meat eater you currently eat a wide variety of foods and get all the nutrients you need then you could definitely save money by introducing one or two vegan meals per week into your diet. There will probably be health benefits too. Most omnivores tend to get more protein than they need in the course of a week so getting less at an occasional meal won’t have a significant impact on your health. However, the ability to feed a family of four a scrummy bean and vegetable chilli for under a fiver will definitely do your wallet some good.