Gabrielle Reyes ate her first vegan meal at age 12. Years later, after personal and family tragedies pushed her into a dark period of her life, she decided to commit to the diet full-time. Suddenly, it was as if a switch had flipped.
“As crazy as it sounds, I never looked back,” Reyes, now 30 and working as an actress, singer and cookbook author, told In The Know by Yahoo. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
Things changed again in 2018, when Reyes’s husband encouraged her to start sharing her vegan recipes online. Being a performer, she figured: Why not join the app that, just months earlier, had gone by the name Music.ly? That app, of course, was TikTok.
Reyes, who posts under the handle @onegreatvegan, says that back then, the platform only had a small community of creators focused on veganism.
“There were only like two or three of us creating content at the very beginning,” she said. “I would say for about a year, there was only a handful.”
Four years later, the landscape looks drastically different. Vegan recipes, vegan food hacks and vegan meat substitutes are staples in TikTok’s all-encompassing food content. The #vegan hashtag is one of the most popular recipe hashtags on the app, and has drawn over 19 billion views to date.
Meanwhile, vegan cooks like Tabitha Brown and Alexis Nikole Nelson have launched massively successful careers thanks to their initial fame on TikTok. Reyes, who’s known for her incredible ability to turn her recipes into songs, has almost 200,000 followers herself.
Casting a wide net
Reyes believes diversity has played a big role in TikTok’s vegan explosion. As more and more creators joined the app, the definition of a “vegan” video only grew broader.
“What’s beautiful now is that there are so many different genres” of vegan food being shared, she said. “Whether it’s Korean food or soul food or sandwiches or just salads. There are so many things that everybody can love.”
Jason Kartalian, a food creator who posts under the name @veganhackspod, agreed that a lot of vegan content is about “demystifying” the concept. His goal is to show viewers how easily — and tastily — they can cook without animal products.
Appealing to a wide range of palettes is crucial, but for Kartalian, it’s just as crucial to consider his viewers’ life situation.
“Some of the people watching are younger, they might be in school,” he said. “So I’m thinking, ‘What do they have in a college dorm?’”
Even as TikTok keeps growing, its audience has remained strikingly young. Sixty-one percent of all users are age 29 or younger, and almost a third of all users are younger than 20.
It’s one of the big reasons Kartalian — and so many creators like him — focus on simple, doable, highly accessible recipes. The goal, he said, is to give them a “starting point.”
“Once you present something, you can start to show someone, ‘Hey it’s not that hard,’” he added.
Not just for vegans
Still, persistence is crucial. Reyes compared TikTok’s algorithm to a “lottery” system, in that it’s never clear when a video will go viral. The result, for her at least, is that she feels obliged to post almost every day — taking as many chances as she can.
In practice, that philosophy leads creators to post far more often than they might on other platforms, like YouTube. The result is been an explosion of vegan content, which is now bubbling to the surface.
That fact is evident in the countless viral recipes that have emerged from TikTok in the past year. For every feta pasta or salmon bowl, there are also corn ribs and watermelon steak, and any of the literally countless ways to turn bacon vegan. Even Gordon Ramsey, arguably the internet’s most famous chef, has gotten in on the trend.
Recipes like Ramsey’s have a mass appeal partly because, as Reyes explained, good vegan content doesn’t have to be geared toward people who are not meat-eaters.
In fact, every creator that In The Know spoke with said they don’t think of their content as being “for vegans.” If anything, many of them make videos with nonvegans in mind.
Reyes said she’s made this angle her “bread and butter,” which is why she specializes in turning protein-heavy dishes — like fish sticks or pulled pork nachos — into vegan alternatives.
“I love to, in a sense, trick meat-eaters,” Reyes added. “What’s kind of fun is that in a way I offend people by calling something ‘juicy vegan baby back ribs,’ but I also intrigue them, and it starts a conversation.”
This sort of provocation, in Reyes’s mind, is the easiest way to open someone’s mind. And now that vegan content is everywhere on TikTok, there are more and more nonvegans watching her videos.
“Sometimes it offends people, but more of the time, it intrigues them,” she said.
Isaias Hernandez, an environmental educator who posts on TikTok under the name @queerbrownvegan, believes people are naturally curious about other lifestyles and ideas. And on TikTok, those ideas proliferate widely.
“We are tired of the silhouette lifestyle photos of food,” Hernandez, whose pronouns are he/they, said. “We want to see how people interact with their food. We want to have a seat at a table with them on the videos.”
Kartalian has a similar philosophy. When he first joined TikTok, he’d get frustrated when other creators borrowed from his recipes.
Now, he accepts it as a positive. In the end, he says, more and more users are considering vegan recipes, and that’s what matters.
“[When my recipes get copied], I can see that what I’ve done actually has some kind of impact,” he said. “You actually see the results.”
A sustainability-minded audience
For many younger viewers, it may only take a small nudge. According to a 2020 YouGov poll, Americans under 30 are three times as likely to eat vegan than those aged 30 to 44.
Health, celebrity influence and access to plant-based foods all play a role in that trend, but its clear sustainability is also a motivating factor.
Gen Zers and millennials consistently identify as being more concerned about climate change than their parents’ generations. As a result, many have adjusted their diet in line with worrying statistics about the meat industry — such as the fact that meat production produces twice as much pollution as plant-based foods, or that livestock alone accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Hernandez noted that while corporations are far more responsible for emissions than consumers, many young people still see veganism as their best way to make a difference.
“The main focus is that we are choosing to divest away from an industrialized form of agriculture that is degrading the land, soil and natural resources,” Hernandez told In The Know. “You are reducing your personal consumption.”
Hernandez, a popular creator in their own right, is not surprised that vegan content performs so well on TikTok. The magic formula, it seems, is a receptive viewership and an easy-to-sell message.
“I think it’s a playground space,” he said. “Where we get to have fun and explore different dimensions.”
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