Just How Many Veg*ns Are There In The U.S.?
It feels like the veg advocacy movement is growing, doesn’t it? With so many companies jumping on the plant-based wagon as well, it may be tempting to think the number of veg*ns is growing in tandem.
The latest poll of U.S. adults on behalf of The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) showed that 4% were vegetarian when asked to report what foods they never eat. Half of the vegetarians or 2% of U.S. adults were also vegan. This result is consistent with VRG’s findings from 0.3-1% in its first poll in 1994 to a high of 5% in 2008. For our part, Faunalytics found that 2% of U.S. adults claimed to be vegetarian in 2014, from 1% in 2005.
It is difficult to know if a statistically meaningful increase in the percentage of U.S. adults who are vegetarian is occurring. One big issue is that, with a comparatively small percentage of the population that is vegetarian, it is cost-prohibitive to survey enough people to be sure that small changes are meaningful. Different methodologies increase the challenge, as some organizations ask people whether they consider themselves to be vegetarian, while others, including VRG and Faunalytics, ask specifically what foods people never eat. Comparing results based on different questions muddies the waters and makes it problematic to compare results. Even looking at VRG results across years is tricky, as the survey has moved from phone to online data collection, which can influence results slightly.
So What’s A Veg Advocate To Do?
These shifting methods and varying results bring up four takeaways for veg advocates:
Differentiate the Growth of Veg*ans and Veg Foods. Hold off on saying the percentage of vegetarians in the U.S. is growing until we are sure. Instead, advocates can point to the explosive growth of veg eating, which is documented and well-established. According to The Washington Post, “Market research firm Mintel found that the number of new vegetarian products introduced to the market doubled between 2009 and 2013.” According to Nielsen, sales of plant-based food grew 20% in the 12 months ending June 2018 and reached $3.3 billion. Charles Stahler, of the Vegetarian Resource Group, notes “The change in restaurant and supermarket food is both due to the vocal vegan minority and the greater amount of non-vegetarians who buy the items.”
Focus On Veg Retention. According to our groundbreaking study on veg retention, there were five times as many former vegetarians and vegans (veg*ans) in U.S. as there were current veg*ans in 2014. The leading reasons people went back to eating animal products were dissatisfaction with the food (including boredom due to lack of variety) and real or perceived nutrient deficiencies. Many people reverted in less than three months.
On the importance of retention, Faunalytics’ Research Director Jo Anderson notes that we’re seeing more and more evidence that people are eating meatless meals, “trying vegan” for a challenge, or reducing their meat consumption. “What’s less evident,” she says, “is whether there’s any increase in the number of full-time, long-term veg*ns, and that’s probably about the difficulty (and desirability) of maintaining a ‘pure’ diet for many people. For those of us who have been doing it for a long time, it can be hard to remember the early days of struggling to know what or where to eat, or how to tell the people close to us that we’ll no longer eat the foods we’ve eaten for years. The unclear growth of the veg*n numbers compared to other metrics is likely a testament to those difficulties.” For our part, Faunalytics is undertaking a longitudinal study of new veg*ns–to identify the strategies and habits that are the most helpful in maintaining a veg*n diet over time. At the same time, we continue to encourage ways of reducing animal suffering that are likely to be taken up by more people — whether that’s overall meat reduction, meatless days, or even meatless meals.
The good news is that about nine million people would be interested in resuming a veg diet, and 59% say they are likely or very likely to do so. Read or revisit this critical research, then review how you can strengthen your organization’s outreach or individual advocacy (or both!) to support people in maintaining and/or returning to plant-based eating.
Encourage Change In Many Forms. Vegetarians and vegans have been crucial to advancing plant-based eating in the U.S. and around the world. Advocates have asked for alternatives in stores and in restaurants and have been the early adopters for veg offerings. Veg advocacy remains crucial. However, it’s important to keep in mind that meat reducers, semi-vegetarians, and other people are making a serious impact. By eating more – but not necessarily all – plant-based foods, they are driving the big numbers that are causing shifts among manufacturers and food service… and, technically, they’re saving even more animals than veg*ns are with what they eat.
Remember that getting seven people to adopt Meatless Monday, for example, can be as powerful and maybe easier, than getting one person to go veg. There’s no one-size-fits-all for advocacy. The coexistence of so many vegan groups alongside reducitarian advocates and others allows us to help more animals faster. We continue to encourage ways of reducing animal suffering that more people are likely to consider, whether that’s overall meat reduction, meatless days, or even meatless meals.
Spread the Word with Restaurants. While the number of veg*ans may or may not be growing, demand for plant-based foods is increasing, with new offerings that meet that demand winning over even more people. VRG’s poll found that 46% of adults sometimes or always eat vegetarian (including vegan) meals when dining out. They estimate that translates to about 116.8 million adults. sometimes or always eating vegetarian (including vegan) meals. Twenty percent sometimes or always eat vegan meals, 50.8 million adults.
That demand is fueling growth in vegan, vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants. VRG notes that in 1993 the organization had 55 vegan restaurants in the U.S. on its national restaurant list. Now the directory includes more than 1,100. This does not count vegetarian restaurants that are not all vegan, but have some or lots of vegan options, or would be vegan if they didn’t serve honey. It also doesn’t include some chains, smoothie, and bowl locations. A restaurant consultant estimates that including those would bring the list to over 1,700 establishments.
The Hartman Group, a research firm, attributes interest in plant-based proteins to consumer demand for more and healthier protein, and an interest in novel food experiences, with a focus on sustainability, which they define as including both animal and environmental issues. (Advocates can use these points when reaching out to reducer populations.) Food distributor Sysco reinforces the interest in health and novelty:
Healthy diners aren’t the only ones jonesing for carrot bacon, zucchini noodles and roasted vegetable strudel. Millennials and Gen Zers, who have come of age during an era of explosive growth in the produce department, also tend to make healthier choices when dining out, both for themselves and for their budding families. Their desire for novelty, and the experience of trying a wider array of ethnic cuisines, draws them to relatively novel grains, pulses, seeds and produce that come with the territory.
“Plants Take Root on Center Stage,” Sysco Foodie
Sysco, along with industry associations and other leading companies, also recognize the bottom-line impact of the “vegan veto.” When vegan menu options aren’t attractive, one vegan may cause a group of two, four, eight or more to choose another place to eat:
For operators, failing to carve out some menu real estate for craveable plant-based fare means risking the veto vote and potentially leaving money on the table. The good news: food costs for plates that lean heavily on produce, grains, legumes and other plant-forward components tend to be lower than average, translating into higher margins.
Advocates can share these points, along with the recent announcements from Burger King and Pizza Hut to offer vegan options nationwide, to promote veg options to restaurants and other food service locations. Many organizations provide resources to help you with this type of outreach, or you might develop your own techniques and materials that work well in your local context. Examples include:
- Guide to Promoting Veg Options at Restaurants, Compassion Over Killing
- Vegan in Volume recipe book, Vegetarian Resource Group
- Lentil Loaf? Yuck! Increasing The Appeal Of Plant-Based Dishes
From Data To Lives Saved
VRG’s latest poll on U.S. adult veg*ns may not seem encouraging. We’ve also had advocates tell us that our data on the high number of former vs. current veg*ns can be downright depressing. These results should cause us to pause and consider our strategies, as Faunalytics has emphasized in the past.
However, there’s good news in the number of people trying veg and the growth in product and restaurant options. Our research suggests there’s an exciting opportunity in reaching out to the many people who have tried veg and may just need a little extra help to try again and make the change permanent.
VRG’s Charles Stahler notes that in their research, “People who tried veganism and didn’t continue may just not have been ready to commit yet. Our job as activists,” he says, “includes making it easier for them to stick with it. Everyone is different. Some become vegan overnight and some don’t. You can work with people with what works for them, without lowering the standards and without judging people.”
Focusing on retention, re-activating past veg*ns, welcoming different types of progress on veg eating and sharing the exciting news on the growing interest in plant-based foods can help us be even more successful. Data like the VRG poll and the Faunalytics retention study help us identify how we’re doing, what’s working and what’s not, so we can save more animals.
The infographic below, by Faunalytics’ Caryn Ginsberg, looks at the dynamics of the veg population in the U.S., in a shareable and eye-catching format. Download the full-size image and share it widely!