A new survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group indicates that more than half of individuals who classify themselves as vegetarian say they are also vegans—those whose nutritional regime excludes all animal products, including honey.
Debra Wasserman, co-director of Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit organization that tracks vegetarian trends, said the figures are somewhat startling, and indicate a growing trend toward both vegan and vegetarian interest.
"There was a fairly large increase in the number of people reporting that they did not eat meat, fish or fowl in our poll in 2000," Wasserman said. "We do this every three years, so we were anxious to see if the jump we saw then was a fluke or real."
The new results affirmed the findings of the 2000 poll and indicated an increase in "true vegetarians," who never eat meat.
About 2.8 percent of those polled said they never eat meat, poultry, fish or other seafood, compared with about 2.5 percent in 2000.
Harris Interactive, a marketing research firm, conducted the survey for Baltimore-based VRG.
Based on U.S. Census figures, VRG estimates as many as 5.7 million American adults are vegetarian; about 2.4 million of them are vegan.
"That is a very significant jump," said Wasserman.
The numbers have meaning for natural foods markets and traditional grocers who provide vegetarian products to ever increasing numbers of consumers who are interested in vegetarian and organic products.
In addition to the true vegetarians, many people identified themselves as "almost vegetarian" and many would make vegetarian choices when they are available.
Wasserman said most supermarkets have made great strides in the past few years to meet vegetarian and vegan demands.
"It's almost everywhere in the mainstream supermarkets now," she said. On a recent trip to Amish Country in Lancaster, Pa., she found a local market well stocked with vegetarian and vegan alternatives.
Jack Wallace, general manager of the Strawberry Fields Natural Food Market in Urbana, Ill., said his business increases verify what pollsters are finding.
"Those are big numbers for vegans, because that is a very rigorous diet," Wallace said. "But we have seen our business grow about 8 percent a year, and in the past 15 years—we've been here for 30—it has about doubled.
"Since we're a university community, we are also seeing more and more younger people trying vegetarian dishes and asking for vegan alternatives," he said.
The best-selling vegan and vegetarian items on Strawberry Fields' deli menus are soy-based, from beverages to sandwiches made with barbecue tofu.
Although the percentage of people who say they never eat meat or related products is low in the United States, VRG estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of consumers are "a good market for meatless items."
Harris conducted the survey in February and polled 1,031 adults over age 18. VRG expected to release the results in May.
Based on figures from a Zogby Poll conducted in 2000 for VRG, about 4.5 million people indicated they were true vegetarians. That was more than double the number of people who claimed vegetarianism in a Roper Poll conducted in 1997—which showed 1 percent of consumers reporting they did not eat meat, fish or fowl.
Preliminary figures from this year's survey show that a higher percentage of women, 3.6 percent to 2 percent for men, said they don't eat meat, poultry or fish and seafood. The percentage was also higher for older Americans, with 3 percent of those 45 to 54 leaving meat off the menu.
The Western United States has the highest concentration of people who identify themselves as vegetarian, with 4 percent of both the general population and college graduates taking that label. About 6 percent of those polled said they "never eat meat."
VRG notes that many who self-define as vegetarian sometimes consume poultry or fish, and even red meat, but represent a large market, estimated at 9 million Americans, who are interested in vegetarian products.
Dan Luzadder is an Evergreen, Colo.-based freelance writer.