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What's Behind The Vegetarian Boom In Meat-Loving Argentina

In a country famous for its carne culture, a new generation is opting for a far different kind of diet, and food retailers are paying attention.

Environmental organizations protesting in Buenos Aires
Environmental organizations protesting in Buenos Aires
María Paula Bandera

BUENOS AIRES — There have always been kids who are picky eaters. But these days, more and more are being picky with a purpose: to avoid eating anything "animal-based." Yes, even in Argentina — a country that's celebrated for the quality of its beef and known for its love of barbecues — a growing number of teenagers are going vegetarian or vegan.

Food firms are taking note. Indeed, anyone shopping or eating out will note more vegetarian and vegan options. A study from July 2019 by consultants Kantar found that 9% of all Argentines were vegetarian or vegan. The numbers aren't broken down by age, but it stands to reason that the trend is most prevalent among young people, as suggested by a survey done in the United Kingdom by the polling firm Ipsos Mori, which found that half of all vegans are aged 15 to 35 years.

Pediatrician Jorge Yabar Bilbao isn't surprised. "It's the stage in life when you're opposed to the previous generation's parameters, and that means judging your parents' food culture," he explains.

And yet, it's also something that's relatively new in Argentina. Fellow pediatrician Pablo Posternack, who works at the Ricardo Gutiérrez children's hospital in Buenos Aires, says the trend was discernible "about seven years ago" and that most of those opting for this diet were "about 14 years old."

Nine percent of all Argentines are vegetarian or vegan.

Mariela Mociulsky, head of Trendsity, a consultancy specializing in trends, has her own take on why youngsters should be turning to "green" eating: "They are always ahead of things and show they are open to changing some consumer habits," she says. There are also a lot of young people, Mociulsky adds, who are militant in their defense of animals and the environment.

Lucas Marion, the owner of the Estilo Veggie restaurants, says that when he opened in 2017, few people were clear about terms like plant-based or vegan. Even now, many of his young customers aren't strictly vegetarian, be explains. Nevertheless, they come to Estilo Veggie after school — or they did, at least, before the pandemic — because they're seeking "good, healthy food," Marion says.

Veganism is something that goes beyond food to include rejection of all products — like shoes, for example — that are derived from animals. Vegetarianism, for its part, comprises a range of habits. Some vegetarians, in addition to not eating meat, also avoid dairy products, while others consume dairy but not eggs.

These choices make a difference in terms of nutrition, and doctors believe vegetarian eating can lead to vitamin deficiencies. María García, a nutritionist and teacher at the private university Isalud, says vegetables are generally deficient in vitamin B12 and iron. Pediatrician Yabar Bilbao agrees and says that when patients tell him they want to go vegetarian, he has them take a blood test and another one six months into the vegetarian diet.

"Often I find rock-bottom B12 and iron levels," he says.

But vegetarians themselves often have other concerns in mind. Carolina Capaccio, a 17-year-old who decided to ditch meat in 2018 after seeing information on its reputed health and environmental effects, initially had blood tests every semester.

"But now my body is happy with this type of food," she says. "I used to adore veal steaks, but I'm more concerned about their impact on living beings than I am about my palate."

Mia Arrosi, 13, became vegetarian during the pandemic while in lockdown. In her case, she consulted a nutritionist. "It helped a lot," Arrosi explains. But many youngsters prefer to take their advice from social networking sites, says Yabar Bilbao.

It doesn't seem right to kill a living being that is sentient and contributes to the ecosystem.

Zoe González, 18, went vegetarian thanks to a friend. "He introduced me to this world and when we went on a gap-year trip to Europe, we saw that many people there are vegetarian," she says. "Today in our group there are 15 vegetarians."

"It doesn't seem right to kill a living being that is sentient and contributes to the ecosystem," the young woman adds. "My generation is moved by the pollution of the environment and meat is the most polluting."

The market has responded to the trend by offering more plant-based products. In Argentina, the U.S. firm NotCo already has five vegetarian products including mayonnaise and plant-based hamburgers, and wants to "reach 20 products by December." And local Walmarts sell plant-based burgers, yogurts, ice creams and especially milk.

Matías Grondona, sales chief for Walmart Argentina, calls the veggie-milk a "star product" and says that unit sales increased 90% this year. "That's why we're working hard to boost this section, adding in our own brand," he says.

Unlike homemade versions, packaged plant milks have added vitamins and supplements like zinc or calcium. One of the firms venturing into this category is Pampa Vida, offering rice milk and almond milk. "We often traveled to the United States and could already see in 2015 that people were buying more plant milks than the classic kind," says Gonzalo Leiva, one of the firm's founders.

La Serenísima is also launching two plant-based drinks. The firm says a recent market study showed plant-based foods are "a very promising future in the country. Our objective is to keep expanding our offer."

As consumers, youngers have a certain amount of power — green power, in this case — and in Argentina and elsewhere, they're wielding it to put a stop to violence against animals.

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