When Mary Gabriel shopped for a taco dinner Friday, her list included the usual ingredients — ground beef, cheese, taco shells.
The items in Gabriel's cart, however, might seem anything but ordinary to some: Her meat was beef-free Tofurky chorizo made of wheat flour and soy, her cheese dairy-free and her shells free of honey, lard, whey or any other animal-derived products.
A vegan for about 20 years, the now 51-year old Gabriel said converting every meal to vegan isn't as challenging as people might think.
"It's so simple, and the amount of foods out there now is unbelievable," she said.
Though the vegan diet was originally popular with animal rights activists, its health benefits have helped veganism gain a more mainstream following over the last decade.
Veganism is similar to vegetarianism, but in addition to eliminating animal meat, a vegan diet also restricts eating any animal-derived products, including eggs, dairy, honey, lard and fish oil.
"It started out for the animals, but then I learned the health benefits," said Gabriel, who helped persuade her husband, Cameron Gabriel, to also go vegan.
Mary Gabriel is the driving force behind Rogue Valley Vegans, a new network of local vegans who meet regularly to dine out at vegan-friendly restaurants and socialize together.
She began the organization a few years ago and just recently started advertising the group and welcoming new members.
According to Google Trends, which measures the popularity of any search term across any state or country, searches of "vegan," "veganism" and "vegan recipes" have been steadily rising over the last decade, with Oregonians searching for the terms more often than people from any other state.
A 2012 Gallup poll revealed that 2 percent of Americans identified themselves as vegan, but some believe the percentage is greater.
After seeing so many vegan products in stores and on restaurant menus in the Rogue Valley, Gabriel realized she was among kindred spirits.
"I knew there had to be a lot of us," she said.
Gabriel is quick to note that as veganism gains in popularity, so do widespread misconceptions about the diet.
She said the belief that vegans are lacking protein or calcium in their diets is false.
"It's just a misconception," said Gabriel who eats a diet of lentils, beans, soy, tempeh and lots of fruits and vegetables.
"It couldn't be easier," she said.
According to the Vegan Society, an appropriate vegan diet supports good health and decreases the risk of heart disease. Gabriel said there also are studies that link vegan diets to a decrease in diabetes and cancer rates.
"I've enjoyed vibrant health," said Gabriel.
For vegans missing a certain meat or dairy product they once enjoyed, food manufacturers have come up with vegan replicas of just about anything a consumer could imagine: vegan burgers, meatballs and ground beef, cheese alternatives, non-dairy yogurts and ice creams and even egg substitutes.
"Even stuff like ravioli or Italian dishes — things you wouldn't think — you can make vegan," said Cameron Gabriel.
Vegan meals are even gaining traction in national restaurant chains, where vegetarian menu options can often be made vegan upon request. Locally, restaurants such as Bambu, Chipotle and Shinsei Sushi in Medford offer vegan menu items, as well as more than a dozen restaurants in Ashland, including Mystic Treats Pizza, Greenleaf, Taroko, Pangea, Milagros and Sauce.
As part of Rogue Valley Vegans, members dine out at a local restaurant with vegan options and provide a review of the eatery on the group website, www.roguevalleyvegans.com. Any vegan is welcome to join the club, with the next dinner tentatively scheduled for Saturday, April 19.
Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at email@example.com.