In the 19th century, farmers mainly ate Gschwellti – potatoes cooked in their skins – and Emmental cheese, and drank milky coffee. Meat was rarely on the menu.
In the 19th century, farmers mainly ate Gschwellti – potatoes cooked in their skins – and Emmental cheese, and drank milky coffee. Meat was rarely on the menu. Swiss National Museum

A brief history of vegetarianism in Switzerland

Vegan and vegetarian diets are considered healthy and sustainable. A look at the history of vegetarianism in Switzerland shows how giving up meat created a market of the future.

Hannes Mangold

Hannes Mangold

Hannes Mangold is exhibition curator and head of cultural outreach at the Swiss National Library.

The trend towards vegetarian diets cannot be ignored. In the well-patronised outlet of the vegetarian fast food chain near the railway station, in the growing assortment of meat alternative products in the supermarket round the corner, or in the new vegan bakery downtown: over the last 20 years or so, there has been a substantial upsurge in consumption of meat-free foods. These days, eating a vegan or vegetarian diet can boost your social profile as an environmentally aware, thinking person with a good level of health- and fashion-consciousness.
Vegan ragout.
Vegan ragout. Instagram @vegan.outlawzfood
According to current estimates, the primary market for meatless products in Switzerland is around 1% vegans and 5% vegetarians. In addition there are almost 25% flexitarians, who have not completely given up meat but consciously limit their consumption. Overall, this results in a sizeable volume of business. Today, the typical person who gives up meat tends to be young, female, well educated and in a higher income bracket. Not least due to this profile, vegetarian and vegan products represent a trendy lifestyle. The meat-free diet has a whiff of the avant-garde about it. There are some historical reasons for this.

Muesli avant-garde

There is a long tradition of consciously and voluntarily choosing not to eat meat. Until the 19th century, periods of vegetarianism were a completely normal part of life. For religious reasons, people fasted in the spring or abstained from meat on Fridays. Industrialisation and urbanisation then ushered in a form of vegetarianism that was increasingly motivated by health and ethical considerations. One should refrain from killing and eating animals for the health of one’s own body and mind. From 1801, this was the view of an early European vegetarian association based in London. At the same time, there was a fundamental change in the way meat was produced. From the rearing of the cattle to the slaughter and evisceration of the animals, to the sale and consumption of the meat, industrial standards and processes were established.
Bircher grater from the 1950s.
Bircher grater from the 1950s. Swiss National Museum
Portrait of Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867-1939).
Portrait of Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867-1939). Wikimedia
While meat became a mass-produced commodity, a vegetarian avant-garde voiced increasingly strong concerns about its nutritional and moral value. As part of the call for a return to an idealised natural lifestyle, vegetarian and vegan eating habits became increasingly popular in the ‘life reform’ movement in particular. Swiss physician and entrepreneur Maximilian Bircher-Benner played a prominent role in this. In his sanatorium in Zurich and with his Wendepunkt-Verlag publishing house, Bircher extolled the virtues of a meat-free diet. He believed the best nutrition came from raw fruits and raw vegetables, and the worst nutrition from meat, which was simply dead matter. It is a mark of the success of his work that his ‘apple diet meal’ has enjoyed an international career as Bircher muesli and is still considered a classic of Swiss culinary history.

Green food

One of Dr Bircher’s patients was a certain Ambrosius Hiltl. Hiltl was so taken with the health-promoting effects of the vegetarian diet that he took over an existing vegetarian hotel and restaurant in Zurich and gave his name to it. The ‘Hiltl’ is still a family-owned business today. In the 21st century, Hiltl has spread the idea of the vegetarian restaurant throughout Switzerland with a participation in the ‘Tibits’ chain.
J.C. Müller AG, Veget. Restaurant, A. Hiltl, Vegetarierheim, poster, 1932.
J.C. Müller AG, Veget. Restaurant, A. Hiltl, Vegetarierheim, poster, 1932. Swiss National Library, © Hiltl AG
In addition to the religious, health and ethical reasons for abstaining from meat, in the 20th century people began to be more aware of the environmental impacts of meat production. Since the 1970s, the much-publicised climate discourse has led to more and more people adopting a vegetarian diet due to environmental concerns. Today, the industrialised and globalised large-scale production of meat is responsible, among other things, for the emission of significant volumes of greenhouse gases and the clearing of South American rainforests. The vegetarian and vegan lifestyle is also trendy these days because the climate movement has brought together a young, avant-garde movement that is challenging and changing old habits. The real ‘green’ meal is now a meat-free one.

Meat – An exhibition on the Inner Life

Meat – An exhibition on the Inner Life
04.03.2021 30.06.2021 / Swiss National Library, Bern
In the exhibition ‘Meat – An exhibition on the Inner Life’, the National Library takes the current discussion about meat-based, vegetarian and vegan nutrition as an opportunity to explore historical, literary and artistic perspectives on this special substance. For a look at the exhibition, visit the website

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