Is The Number Of Vegetarians On The Rise?
New veg products… veg options in restaurants… celebrities going veg… The number of vegetarians and vegans is certainly growing.
Or is it? While there are many exciting developments for plant-based eating, no research has shown a statistically meaningful increase in the percent of U.S. vegetarians and vegans. Studies over the past 15 years have generally shown numbers between 2% and 5% for vegetarians and 1% to 3% for vegans.
Why isn’t there an upward trend? Well, we actually don’t know whether there is or is not an increase in vegetarians and vegans. There might be, but as of right now, the “evidence” that people talk about is not real evidence. Here are the two main reasons why:
Definition of Vegetarian and Vegan
Some surveys ask respondents whether they have consumed specific meat, fish, dairy and egg products in the past month. Others ask about the past three months, or the past year. Others simply ask people whether they are or are not vegetarian or vegan. Since many people consider themselves veg even when they continue to eat meat or other animal products, the self-reported numbers are higher. And of course the time frame changes things too. We cannot compare results from research that assesses who is or is not veg in different ways.
Margin of Error
You’ve probably seen research results that say the numbers reported are plus or minus some percent. That’s because the survey only reaches part of the population. It lets us estimate the percentage you’d see in the whole population, but we can’t be sure the poll is getting at the exact number we’d obtain by talking to every individual.
You may see a survey that estimates that there are 4% vegetarians in the population, but it’s crucial to remember the margin of error. That 4% might really mean “between 1% and 7%” or “between 2 and 6%” depending on the sample. That’s why we can’t read anything into a survey that shows 3% vegans vs. 2% vegans a year ago: What if that 3% is really 1% and the 2% was really 6%? Then we don’t know what we thought we knew. Unfortunately, the cost to get enough survey respondents so that we could get the margin down to plus or minus 1%, for example, is prohibitively expensive.
In addition, phone surveys can yield somewhat different results than online surveys. Different research may choose the sample of people included differently. We can’t compare results from polls that use different methodologies to establish any trend.
Now you can see why we can’t say for sure that the percent of the U.S. population that is vegetarian or vegan is growing. We also don’t have any evidence proving it’s NOT growing or that it’s shrinking.
What can you do?
- It’s important that we be credible in sharing statistics about plant-based eating. Please keep these factors in mind when communicating research results and gently inform others when they make the common and understandable mistake of reporting a trend that isn’t proven.
- Remember that a lot of the growth in plant-based options comes from the much larger meat-reducing segment of the population. There is data showing the growth of the market share of plant-based foods, evidence of the growth in vegetarian and vegan eating. This group may actually be the biggest opportunity for saving animals lives.
- Measure your own results. By making sure that your organization’s or individual outreach are having the intended impact, you help bring us to the time when the data will point clearly to a rising number of vegetarians and vegans.
Faunalytics has many resources to help you be as effective as possible in moving more people to plant-based eating. Check out our resources on animals used for food to make sure you’ve seen our Faunalytics Fundamentals summary, veg recidivism study and other research that can guide your advocacy. Be sure to sign up for email updates to make sure you always have the latest on the best ways to help animals.
Animal Charity Evaluators recently published a blog post looking at estimates of vegan rates over time. It goes into far more detail about our ability to interpret trends over time.