Lady Gaga may feel great wearing a meat dress, but millions of Americans aren’t comfortable wearing—or eating—any animal products. “The number of vegetarians in the United States has roughly doubled since we started looking at this in 1994,” and now hovers around 7 million Americans, or 3 percent of the adult population, says John Cunningham, consumer research manager for the Vegetarian Resource Group. “But as a segment of the larger vegetarian population, the number of vegans is growing much more rapidly.” Vegans—those who eschew dairy, eggs and honey, in addition to meat and seafood—now make up nearly a third of all vegetarians.
Counted among them are business mogul Russell Simmons, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, actor Woody Harrelson and, yes, even boxer Mike Tyson, who once famously bit an ear off a mammal—who happened to be human. “Any time [a celebrity] does something that’s considered not traditional, it tends to get a lot more coverage. It heightens people’s awareness of what veganism is and what it means,” says Stephanie Redcross, managing director of Vegan Mainstream, a San Diego-based marketing firm that targets the vegan and vegetarian community.
While celebrity influence may spark a person’s initial interest in veganism, it takes a lot more for that person to commit to the lifestyle. “The decision to become vegan and stick with it is pretty fundamental to a person’s core beliefs,” Cunningham says. Some do it because of concerns for animal and planet welfare, while others are drawn by veganism’s documented health benefits—it’s associated with lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity, as well as lower overall cancer rates, according to a 2009 position paper by the American Dietetic Association. For those reasons, Cunningham and others believe it’s not just a fad.
How long a given individual remains vegan depends in part on how well he eats. It’s a matter of realizing that good meat alternatives are available, and “not so much about living like a monk and depriving yourself,” says Bob Burke, principal at Natural Products Consulting in Andover, Mass.
Manufacturers have been stepping up to the plate to make that epiphany possible. No longer is the vegan world dominated by brown rice, leafy greens and “chik’n”; brands like Petaluma, Calif.-based Amy’s Kitchen and Turners Falls, Mass.-based Lightlife have been quietly introducing vegan burritos, “sausages” and pizzas for years. More recently, nondairy “cheeses” from Daiya, based in Vancouver, and Chicago Soydairy’s Teese Vegan Cheese have exploded onto the vegan marketplace as the first true contenders with the flavor and melting characteristics of real cheese. At Natural Products Expo West this year, coconut-based frozen desserts; hemp milks and yogurts; quinoa burgers; and soy “calamari” made a splash.
Redcross thinks gourmet vegan foods aren’t far behind, noting that restaurants with high-end vegan fare are already popular in most major cities. “To be vegan for the sake of being vegan might appeal to a small section of the population,” Burke adds, “but for everyone else, taste, freshness and quality ingredients are important.”
Even products that weren’t quite vegan to start with are now going the extra mile. “There’s greater sensitivity and awareness about it,” Burke says. “If companies can eliminate one ingredient [from their product] and call it vegan as opposed to just natural, they’re doing that” so they don’t alienate a whole segment of potential customers.
Some companies, on the other hand, are reluctant to call out their product as vegan, even if it meets the criteria without any fiddling around. “It may turn off [mainstream] consumers who think, ‘Oh, great. It’s going to taste like cardboard,’” Redcross says. Manufacturers know that truly committed consumers will pore over the Nutrition Facts panel, looking for hidden animal ingredients like casein or gelatin, so some producers compromise by putting vegan claims on the back, Burke says.
But Redcross says vegans aren’t the only ones buying these products; people with food allergies have also embraced them, as have friends and family members who want to share a meal with their food-restricted loved ones. So natural products retailers may need to help less aware consumers identify vegan products.
“Sample these foods so people who aren’t vegan can see that it’s an alternative. Take it to the streets,” Redcross says. Burke suggests also using shelf talkers to identify interesting vegan products, and to further highlight those products in newsletters. “Say, ‘We’ve got a great recipe for vegan lasagna,’ or some other food that might commonly be made with dairy or meat.”
Retailers should also recognize that while many people turn to veganism for health reasons, it’s hard to give up comfort food. “The things that make the most buzz among the vegan community are snacks and desserts,” Cunningham says. If you can offer vegan versions of these foods, you’ll generate considerable customer goodwill and loyalty. “Vegans feel very passionately about their desserts,” Cunningham says. Hmm, maybe it’s time for a dairy-free cupcake dress, Gaga?