Going meatless in PH: The Filipino vegan diet up close

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 21) — With vegan or plant-based meat showing up in restaurants and fast-food chains across the globe, many people — including Filipinos — are starting to remove meat, dairy and eggs from their diet.

In the United States, big names in the fast-food industry have, for the first time, released plant-based alternatives to their products. Burger King introduced “The Impossible Whopper,” while KFC tested out its “Beyond Fried Chicken” — both made entirely out of plants. The phenomenon is also slowly spreading to restaurants in the Philippines.

What usually begins with a desire for a healthier lifestyle is also often done in response to a greater call: consuming less meat to help save the environment.

For the Planet

Chris Ross, Matt Ganuelas-Rosser and Alex Cabagnot, professional basketball players for the San Miguel Beermen team, have been eating vegan for years. They revealed that almost nothing has changed in their routines since cutting out meat from their diets.

Ross, one of the team’s guards, hasn’t had any meat for almost two years, and he doesn’t regret it.

“Once I went in [got into] it, my main thing was, what took me so long to do this?” Because I felt amazing,” he shared. “I’m a big sleeper. Usually when I wake up, and before I went vegan, I can’t wait to get home so I can nap... but once I went vegan, my energy level went up. I couldn’t nap, my sleeping patterns were better and I just felt better overall, my digestive system was better.”

At 34, Ross said he wanted to keep his strength up to stay ahead in the game.

“I felt like younger athletes were trying to take my spot, trying to push me out of the league, so I had to do something drastic to help myself maintain my body and get a leg up on [the] other guys,” he said. “I went from 190 pounds to right under 170, but the thing was, I still felt strong.”

Cabagnot, a point guard, has been eating vegan for the last four years, agreed.

“I’m 37, and I’m still playing a young man’s game, so I have to figure out certain ways to be competitive. I want to be at a competitive level as Father Time gets closer,” Cabagnot explained.

Both began their journey to veganism to pursue better health but stuck with it to help animals and the environment.

“I think we are making a difference. Every little thing helps,” said Ganuelas-Rosser. “I do get a lot of negative backlash from it, but I didn’t stop because it felt right and connecting it to the animals and that industry I feel right as a human being not contributing to that suffering, to those animals.”

The three are members of Manila Vegans Facebook group. Founded in 2014, Manila Vegans began with only 70 members, but in May 2019 had grown to 31,000. It now has around 34,000 members who are either vegans or vegan-curious.

Although dietary vegans do not expect to see instantaneous results in the environment in the next few years, they continue to be optimistic in the change they contribute to the world.

A way of life with a cause

The concerns about the impact of agriculture on the environment are not unfounded. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report in August that says changing our diets to consume more plants would contribute to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent.

Livestock emissions make up 14.5 percent of global emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Apart from clearing land to raise cattle, the production of feeds and fertilizers also contribute to the release of greenhouse gases. Cows are also a major source of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

Non-government organization Greenpeace has reached out to local governments across the nation to implement plant-based diets and information drives in schools. By encouraging people to avoid meat and demand more vegetables, the group notes that farmers would be able to shift to ecological farming that produces diverse yield.

“Specific for the government, ang call namin ay gumawa sila ng appropriate programs and policies to drive the dietary pattern ng mga Pilipino kasi if the government will stay silent about the issue, lalo na 'yung mga local government units, kasi nakikinig ang mga tao sa mga officials nila,” said Vigie Llorin, Greenpeace Philippines food and ecological agriculture campaigner.

[Translation: For the government specifically, our call is for them to create appropriate programs and policies to drive the dietary patterns of Filipinos because if the government will stay silent about the issue, especially the local government units, well, the people listen to their officials.]

Greenpeace worked with Adarna House to launch a storybook that would encourage kids to eat various fruits and vegetables.

Greenpeace is working with local government units (LGUs) in Iriga and Cebu on a local ordinance that would put this into action, but often their worry is access to resources.

“Access, you can have it if you want to... Ang isa nating problema ‘yung kaisipan ng tao mahirap lutuin ang gulay, ang mahal ang gulay, at ang hirap hanapin ang gulay,” Llorin said.

[Translation: ...One of our problems is the mindset of the people saying it’s hard to cook and find vegetables and they’re too expensive.]

Find a need, Fill a Need

Auggie Suratos wants to provide a solution by helping vegans find meat-free and dairy-free items.

In her store,'The Vegan Grocer,' you won’t find any cow’s milk, eggs or meat — but there is chocolate, mayonnaise, cakes, as well as other Filipino dishes such as sisig, bagnet, Bistek Tagalog, tocino and tapa — all made from pure vegan and plant ingredients.

She and her husband opened the store in May 2017 to sell vegan products made with soy protein, vegetables and almond milk, but with flavors that closely resemble traditional Filipino flavors.

Suratos was suffering from a gynecologic disorder, and wanted to remove meat, fish, eggs and dairy products from her diet. But she couldn’t find a store that sold healthier food. That’s when the couple decided to open a one-stop shop for vegan products in San Juan.

With the growing interest in veganism in the Philippines, they opened a second store in Las Piñas. In addition, they also now supply their products to two restaurants.

Camille Acosta, owner of 'The Good Choices,' is in the same business. Her store sells plant-based ready-to-cook Filipino food like tocino, tapa, embutido, longganisa and Bistek Tagalog. A Hare Krishna member, Acosta is a vegetarian who wants to help Filipinos with their transition to meat-free diets.

“(I aim for "The Good Choices" to be) a household staple just like Pampanga’s best, CDO. It’s a household brand. People know The Good Choices because they have it in their freezer,” Acosta said.

What about protein?

Despite the growing number of options for vegan diets, this lifestyle still faces contention and confusion from predominantly carnivore folks. The common concern: Where do you get your protein?

Growing up, children are taught the basic food groups with an emphasis on meat and poultry as sources of protein and carbohydrates. However, according to Dr. Johann Mañez, a plant-based doctor and founding president of the Philippine College of Lifestyle Medicine, there is no exact study that points to the unique benefits of animal-based food.

“You’ll always get enough protein from plant-based foods. I always tell them (my patients) you know, where do you think cows get their protein from? Do they eat meat? They’re huge, big and strong. They get their food from plants, from grass,” Mañez said.

Vegans get their protein from whole plant-based foods such as lentils, nuts, soy and tofu, which have lower risks of complications such as diabetes and chronic heart diseases.

“Red meat is a class 2-A carcinogen... there’s no black and white connection yet, but we know there is probable risk for developing cancer when you eat red meat, so when you eat red meat and processed meat what do you expect? People will get cancer. People will get heart disease,” the doctor pointed out. “I’ve never seen a patient with protein deficiency, so it’s more like a worry that isn’t real. It doesn’t happen.”

Mañez pioneered in the country a newly-established specialization in the medical field called “Lifestyle Medicine.” Under the program, doctors train to advise patients to follow whole food, plant-predominant diets as well as regular physical activity, sleep, smoke cessation and stress management to reverse the effects of chronic illnesses. Lifestyle Medicine prescribes plant-based diets where each meal would include four food groups: vegetables, whole grains, fruits and beans.

However, this is not to say that veganism or vegetarianism is a completely clean diet - there’s room for error.

A recent study showed that vegetarians have a 20 percent higher risk of having a stroke than meat-eaters, possibly due to lack of other nutrients. This is no surprise to Mañez. He said vegetarians would often eat an excess of eggs and milk to make up for not eating meat.

Dairy contains casein, a carcinogenic protein, which raises the risk of developing cancer. Mañez pointed out that vegan food doesn’t necessarily mean only vegetables and fruits. Some snacks such as fries and sugary cookies do not have animal-based ingredients and a diet primarily composed of these products can still be considered vegan.

“You can be vegan and you can be the most unhealthy person in the world because being vegan doesn’t mean eating whole plant foods. You can be eating vegan junk, and become very unhealthy,” he explained.

Filipino Tradition

It goes without saying that offering food is a prominent sign of Filipino hospitality. And often this means extra effort on the part of Filipino vegans.

Suratos, who has been vegan for 13 years, eats before attending social events or calls ahead to the restaurant to see if she could have a special meal prepared for her.

“What I do, I eat first before going to parties, kasi I go there to bond with relatives, with friends. I know it’s hard... but what I do which works for me, I eat first, I check kung may makakain ba ako kasi [if there is something I can eat] I don’t want to pressure the celebrant or bride and groom to prepare for me,” she explained.

Cabagnot, on the other hand, accepts meat at big gatherings to avoid offending the hosts.

“For me, Filipino tayo eh. Mahirap. Naghanda na sila for you. Binigyan ka ng plate ng beef steak, sinigang. They’re doing their due diligence just to accommodate... It’s very difficult for me kasi I was raised that way,” he said.

[Translation: For me, we’re Filipinos. It’s hard. They prepared food for you and they gave you a plate of beef steak and sinigang. They’re doing their due diligence just to accommodate you. It’s very difficult for me because I was raised that way.]

It was a common notion to expect vegans to have a difficult time eating outside. However, nowadays, vegan and vegetarian restaurants and pop-ups have scattered in the local eating scene. The international Happy Cow directory lists 403 vegan and vegetarian restaurants all over the country.

“Research is key...Mahirap kung hindi mo alam kung saan pumunta pero kung alam mo kung saan pumunta madali lang,” said RG Enriquez, a Filipino vegan chef.

[Translation: It is difficult if you don’t know where to eat but once you do, it’s easy.]

Filipino Soul Food

For the past 15 years, Enriquez has been eating nothing but vegan. Her journey began when she took a nutrition class in college. After learning the benefits of eating plant-based diets, meaning eating only plants without artificial or processed ingredients, she gradually transitioned to veganism.

“I was becoming more conscious of what I eat. Later on, I started eating less meat and later on, I realized I didn’t eat meat anymore and then it became [more for] empathy towards animals,” she shared.

Better known as “Astig Vegan,” on social media, Enriquez has a YouTube show that features Filipino-style cooking with no meat, dairy or eggs. She teaches her audience how to make kare-kare, mechado, longganisa, kaldereta, among other dishes, using alternatives such as soy protein, tofu and coconut milk.

After not having tasted meat for almost two decades, Enriquez relies on her mother’s guidance to replicate Filipino flavors.

“My mantra has always been Filipino food can be vegan, healthy and delicious, without losing its soul,” she said.