Vegan is going mainstream, trend data suggests

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Vegan is going mainstream, trend data suggests

Related tags Vegetarianism Veganism

The appeal and potential for vegan products is expanding beyond the small group of people who avoid animal products for ethical reasons to include the much larger base of consumers seeking healthier, cleaner foods, according to an industry expert. 

In the past, when manufacturers have thought about consumers who eat vegan, they have focused on the small niche group of vegans who make up about 6%* of the U.S. population, said Eric Pierce, director of strategy and insights at New Hope Natural Media, the host of Natural Products Expo West.

But, he added at Expo West March 7, “the reality is we are beginning to see a lot of opportunity that might not have been obvious at the beginning.”

He explained that recent research suggests 36% of U.S. consumers either prefer milk alternatives and use meat alternatives, which is substantially more than those who claim to be vegan.

These and other vegan products also appeal to vegetarians who make up 7%* of the U.S. population and “flexitarians,”​ or people who eat meat, but are eating less of it, Pierce said.

He notes 26%* of Americans said they ate less meat in the last 12 months, but he acknowledges other research places this number as high as 41%.

The addition of these consumers to the group of potential buyers for vegan products makes the opportunity for animal-free products much larger than it initially appears, he said.

Why the change of heart?

“The reason for the expansion appears to be the mitigation of the perception of vegan beyond its traditional stereotype of being all about animal welfare​” to the extent that flavor and taste might be compromised, Pierce said.

Twenty-three percent of consumers still associated vegan products with animal welfare, but that is no longer the leading association, Pierce said. Rather, the association of vegan with health food took the top stop with 35% of consumers making the connection.

In addition, 13% of consumers associated vegan products with cleaner ingredients, 12% with weight loss, 11% with environmental responsibility and 8% with social responsibility, according to data Pierce presented.

These shifting associations mean most growth of vegan products are not coming from vegans, but rather meat-eaters who are cutting back. This opens the door for more realistic meat alternatives, such as Beyond Meat’s Beast Burger, which might  be too realistic for vegans but appeal to those hoping to replicate the meat experience with plant-based foods, Pierce said.

Support from other trends

Increased interest in food from mission-based companies, millennial values and a desire to be part of a “food tribe”​ also are fueling growth of vegan foods, Pierce said.

He explained many vegan food manufacturers’ values appeal to consumers, who increasingly are questioning companies’ motives, pushing for higher order benefits and demanding social good.

In addition, the U.S. is “becoming a nation of food tribalists with cultures built around close-knit viral communities based on personal values and behaviors,”​ according to Pierce. Other examples beyond vegan, including the paleo and gluten-free movements.

In addition, millennials’ focus on preserving the environment for future generations and sense of social responsibility is contributing to the rise of vegan eating.

Finally, consumers’ slowly shifting taste preferences for more savory and less sweet flavors favor vegan foods which often draw from boldly flavored, global cuisines, Pierce said.

Media buzz

The vegan diet and products also are gaining traction on social and in traditional media, which further spreads awareness, Pierce said.

“Social media analysis shows incredible volume”​ for vegan related references to the point where “vegan and Coca-Cola are competing for space for who is getting the most social media messages and marketing,”​ Pierce said.

Research analysis shows vegan and vegetarian related content were mentioned 4.3 million times in 90 days, compared to 4.1 million references to Coca-Cola in the same time period, Pierce said.

He acknowledges that while half of the references to vegan are positive, about 14% were negative, which suggests vegan still has some bad connotations that it needs to overcome to realize its full potential. To mitigate this, he recommends using phrases like plant-based instead of vegan and placing vegan certifications on the back of packages.

Ultimately though, he said, “We see this as a strong investment opportunity for somebody looking at the products.”

* Source: Nutrition Business Journal Food Tribes Report Q1/15, N`200 general market consumers utilizing Google surveys

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Vegan stats

Posted by Sarah,

I was looking for vegan stats for 2015 when I ran into this article and found it stunning that 6% of the US was vegan and nobody was talking about it. But I believe I found where you got your information and I think the numbers are wrong, unfortunately. I believe it says 39% of the US eats no meat or less meat and of that 39% 6% are vegan. That brings us back to a much smaller number, unfortunately. I hope a study comes out soon with good news about the vegan population because it seems to be growing, but I can't find any real numbers above 3%.

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A Human Epiphany

Posted by Anne E. McGuigan,

I am looking for a human epiphany, an enlightenment as it were, an understanding that veganism and not harming other species is not about us and our comfort and our style and our status and the food we eat. It is a universal truth that we must do the least amount of harm possible. Tall order, I know, but one of which I believe we are capable.

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Posted by Beth Aaron,

On a planet that is 70% water and 30% land, now housing almost 7 billion consuming humans, and 64 BILLION so called farmed animals, eating animals as vectors for the better nutrients we can eat directly from plant foods, as THEY do, is the only way to ensure there's life left on it in the future. Animal production uses the lions share of grains, water, energy, leaving a legacy of toxins, viral infectious threats, methane gas, and preventable diet related diseases costing 17% of GDP.. Sure , people are reaping the economic benefits from disease care, at the cost of suffering and premature death of humans and sicker children.
Eating animals and their secretions causes death, eating nutrient dense plant foods restores LIFE! I choose LIFE.

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