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Canada's Food Guide a boost for Okanagan vegan businesses

Black Sheep Vegan Cheeze owner James Johnson is proud he dairy-free vegan cheese still melts like regular cheese.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Black Sheep Vegan Cheeze
February 09, 2019 - 7:30 AM

VERNON - Disappointed with the tasteless vegan cheeses he could buy at the odd specialist store, James Johnson decided to try his hand at making his own.

Little did he realize that within two years his quest to satisfy his craving for cheese would lead to him and his wife Jenna to running a full-time vegan cheese business and be well positioned at the front of changing diets. The Armstrong couple launched Black Sheep Vegan Cheeze in 2017 at the Vernon Farmers' Market and now sell all over the Okanagan and the province.

And since the move away from dairy is getting a solid endorsement from the new Canada Food Guide, it appears the Johnson's vegan cheese business is ahead of the curve.

"It's really exciting," James says of the new food guide. "I think that's an excellent push in the right direction."

The newly released food guide has a strong emphasis on a plant-based diet, even when it comes to eating protein.

"Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods. Choose protein foods that come from plants more often," the guide recommends.

And James is "100 per cent sure" the new food guide will be good for business.

"I believe it's going to help us increase sales due to the fact that now a reputable source is mentioning that you might want to lay off the dairy," he says. 

Anna Zonderland and her mother Afke Zonderland own and operate Okanagan Rawsome, an organic vegan cracker company formed a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, Anna welcomes the advice given out in the new food guide.

"It’s about time... welcome to the party,” she says. Anna says it will certainly help her business, as well as give people "a wake-up call." She also hopes it will help change negative stereotypes about vegan food. The "hippy-dippy granola" image is changing.

Anna and Afke Zonderland launched Okanagan Rawsome 10 years ago. Canada's Food Guide's recommendations to eat a plant-based diet will certainly help business says Anna.
Anna and Afke Zonderland launched Okanagan Rawsome 10 years ago. Canada's Food Guide's recommendations to eat a plant-based diet will certainly help business says Anna.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/TOkanagan Rawsome

"The stigma has shifted... it's cool to be vegan. People are getting on the bandwagon."

Anna also says she wasn't expecting the food guide to be so favourable to plant-based diets.

"There's a lot of politics [involved], it's really refreshing [to see change]," she says.

The Canadian dairy industry has been critical of the advice given in the guide.

After a decade in business, Anna says she's noticed a recent shift towards a vegan diet.

"Its gained so much momentum, especially in the last two years. It's been enormous."

Food awareness has skyrocketed, Anna says.

"Gluten-free exploded, and now the vegan community has exploded... our food has followed all these health trends, it's growing and growing which is great for us."

According to figures from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadians do eat less meat than they did a generation ago. Figures show Canadians consumed about a third less beef and pork in 2017 than they did in 1980. A Dalhousie University study conducted in 2018 showed just below four per cent of B.C. residents are vegan, higher than any other province.

One of the main differences between now and 10 years ago, Anna says, is that consumers have a lot more choice — "it's easy to be vegan now" — while a decade ago it may have been impossible to find an edible vegan cheese.

James and Jenna are part of that change. When they met almost 20 years ago, he couldn't fathom that she'd never in her life eaten meat. He tried to change her mind but failed.

"I would never have believed you if you had told me where we'd be right now," says James who became vegan six years ago.

Vegan products, in general, are getting better and better, he says, and the negative connotations are starting to wane.

"The number one reaction that we get is that this tastes surprisingly like the real thing."

Black Sheep Vegan Cheeze mainly use almond milk to make their product, as well as coconut oil and tofu. Although the few different kinds of cheese the company sell don't have the firmness of cheddar, James is proud to point out their takes on brie, mozzarella and gouda do melt. He reckons about 40 per cent of his customers aren't even vegan.

"People just like good tasting cheese whether it's vegan or not," he says.

Individual reasons for being vegan vary from person to person and range from animals rights, environmental concerns and health.

"Pick one of those three and the cheese is sold," says James.

A new awareness in a plant-based diet spurred on by Canada's Food Guide maybe be a good thing for vegan-based businesses but there are still politics involved in the diet.

A recent Instagram post by Anna showing a hardboiled egg on one of her vegan crackers caused a bit of fuss.

"I don't think I would have got those sort of comments a few years ago," she says, pointing out it was at least a free-range egg.

As food guides change and diet fads come and go, is this just another fad?

"I think it's here to stay," she says. "A plant-based vegan diet is the way to go. It's not going to help all the world's problems but it's going to help."


James and Jenna Johnson, Black Sheep Vegan Cheeze.
James and Jenna Johnson, Black Sheep Vegan Cheeze.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Black Sheep Vegan Cheeze

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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