It was only a matter of time before somebody started posing the ultimate question: Have we reached a point where so-called veggie diets offer something for everyone?
Even by the standards of provocative headlines designed to grab readers’ increasingly fragmented attention spans, this one’s a little out there: “Should everyone become a vegetarian?”
That question appeared in Great Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, as part of the publication’s “Virgin Voters” series, in which the 18-to- 24-year-old population voices its concerns about the issues of the day.
The story prepped its sampling of young people talking about meat-eating and meat production by noting that vegetarian diets are growing in popularity, citing statistics that “12 percent of UK adults [are] following a vegetarian or vegan diet.” In line with those estimates, the London-based market intelligence company Mintel reported that 12 percent of the food and beverage products launched globally in 2013 carried a vegetarian claim, double the amount from just four years earlier.
By the way, although such data sound impressive, as if there’s a worldwide trend of people abandoning meat in their diets, Mintel’s Global Food Science Analyst, Laura Jones, noted on the firm’s website that “There has been considerable growth in the number of chocolate and sugar confectionery products carrying a ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ claim. Whilst just 4 percent of chocolate or sugar products launched in 2009 carried a vegetarian claim, this rose to 9% in 2013. Further to this, the number of chocolate and sugar confectionery products using a glazing agent boasted even larger growth, with 32 percent of these products carrying a ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ claim in 2013, up from 13 percent in 2009.”
Indeed, certain chocolate products traditionally use animal fat as one of the ingredients, and it’s relatively easy to re-formulate them to substitute vegetable oils, then add a label claim to that effect. But that’s not an indication that people are eliminating animal foods from their diets.
It’s similar to breakfast cereals boasting that they’re “cholesterol-free.” Marketers realize that “vegetarian” is trendy, so they find ways to slap a label claim on whatever products they can.
In Great Britain, as is true in the United States, vegetarian diets are most prevalent among the 16-to-24-year-old age group. That has helped fuel a meat-free category in the UK estimated to exceed a billion dollars and forecast to increase another 10% by the end of 2015. Perhaps more revealing, Mintel reported that 48 percent of Britons consider meat-free products as “environmentally friendly,” and 52 percent see them as “healthy,” according to a recent study.
But those statistics are what researchers call “soft data.” First of all, in any conversation about meat-eating, the reality is that many people who claim to be embracing “vegetarian” diets are merely cutting back on meat eating due to perceived environmental or health concerns.
More importantly, any and all self-reported survey data about people saying what they eat are suspect. Asking people what they eat is about as reliable as asking motorists whether they maintain the speed limit on the freeway: Many more will profess to behavior that is aspirational, not actual.
Green and growing
But what is also true on both sides of the pond is that young people prioritize environmental activism, and more importantly, they make the direct connection between protecting the environment with eating less meat. Despite the skepticism about the percentages of people claiming to be vegetarians, future voters — whatever the percentage that actually go to the polls — are increasingly drawn to politicians and political parties that stake out a definitive pro-veggie stand.
For example: The Green Party in the UK supports “a progressive transition from diets dominated by meat and other animal products to healthier diets based on plant foods,” according to The Guardian’s story, and “more sustainable methods of production, such as organic and stock-free farming.”
Unlike in the United States, the Green Party has serious clout in Great Britain, holding 54 (of 650) seats in the House of Commons and 105 (of 793) seats in the House of Lords.
The UK’s two leading political parties, Conservative and Labour, have not adopted defined policies on vegetarianism, but both strongly support sustainable farming — which is like supporting “family values.” Nobody’s against either of them.
Whether in Europe or North America, there’s a constellation of issues surrounding livestock production and meat-eating. In years past, health concerns and food safety would have been at the top of the list. Now, I would argue, environmental protection is No. 1 followed by animal welfare, with either food safety or health issues a distant third, depending on which (temporary) media scare du jour happens to be featured in the news cycle.
To today’s young people, who are now part of the third consecutive generation to come of age in affluent societies without noting even resembling food deprivation or shortages, it’s easy to embrace so-called “ethical concerns” about meat-eating. There are a wealth of vegetarian alternatives, and a mountain of conjecture blaming producers for contributing to global catastrophe.
Polling data on the prevalence of vegetarian diets should be placed in context. A significant percentage of young people aren’t going veggie, but a majority easily embrace a deep skepticism about meat production as an environmentally benign industry.
That’s a market trend that is going to be much more difficult to confront.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator