Vegans, you may not want to read this. There?s a growing band of people out there who call themselves vegetarians—but they eat meat at least some of the time. Others call them semivegetarians, pseudovegetarians or posers; take your pick. But increasingly, the people who manufacture and merchandise vegetarian foods are starting to home in on this group.
Way back when, in 1998, the market for vegetarian food was all about consumers who followed a strict diet based on politics or ethics—and it amounted to a measly $647 million, serving the 1 percent of Americans who ate no meat, poultry or fish. Now, retail sales of vegetarian food products are in the billions—$1.6 billion in 2003, to be exact, and they?re expected to rise to $2.5 billion by 2008.
The surge is coming from occasional meat-eaters who call themselves vegetarians, much to the chagrin of the movement?s true believers. The Vegetarian Resource Group estimates as many as 10 percent of all adults may be semivegetarians. In a 2002 study of 90 ?vegetarians? published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 51 said they occasionally ate fish, and 14 ate chicken from time to time. Fifty-three of them ate some form of dairy such as cheese or yogurt.
Then, there are those who would never call themselves vegetarians, but consciously try to limit the amount of red meat or other animal products in their diet—the semivegetarians. ?I really don?t categorize myself as vegetarian unless ? it?s easier to just say I?m vegetarian than explaining what I do and don?t eat,? says Kristin Mehus-Roe, 32, of Long Beach, Calif. While she gave up red meat completely seven years ago, she still eats fish and poultry. ?And there are exceptions,? she says. She?ll eat chicken sausage, which uses a pork casing, or cheese made with rennet.
Mehus-Roe straddles VRG?s defining line between ?almost vegetarian? and ?vegetarian-inclined?—people who ?usually or sometimes maintain a vegetarian diet,? a group that VRG says accounts for 20 percent to 25 percent of American adults. She also differs from most semivegetarians in her reasons for avoiding meat. ?I?ve always had concerns about the meat industry—whether animals are treated humanely or not.? Her other predominant concern, ?whether the hormones, etc., added to feed are healthy for us to eat,? is more aligned with the semivegetarian movement.
Veggies for health
Most observers credit health concerns for the uptick in purchases of vegetarian foods. In fact, VRG estimates that 35 percent to 50 percent of Americans are ?health conscious,? and include meatless meals in their diet two or three times a week.
Howard Rothman, a 50-year-old suburban Denver resident, is the poster child for this movement. ?I?m 6?2?, and when I got out of college I weighed 210, smoked cigarettes, didn?t exercise. When I moved to Colorado I was confronted with all these healthy people who skied all winter and hiked all summer. I decided I needed to change my lifestyle.? That was in 1977, and Rothman hasn?t eaten red meat since.
In the early days, Rothman says, it was difficult to adhere to the diet, especially during a brief period when he and his wife lived in Jackson Hole, Wyo. ?Everyone we knew not only ate meat all the time, but they killed it themselves and threw it in the back of the pickup truck.?
Nowadays, vegetarian food options are more widely available, and the rise of semivegetarianism is a substantial part of it, according to a November 2003 Mintel report.
Ch? Green, executive director of the Humane Research Council, based in Seattle, agrees. ?Consumption of red meat has been on the decline for years,? he notes. The majority of people perceive chicken and fish as healthier than red meat, he says. In addition, more people are becoming aware of food sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance.
And the trend is particularly potent among baby boomers.
?We?re getting into our 50s now and we have cholesterol and heart disease,? says Linda Olsen, consumer response coordinator at Gardenburger and a self-described baby boomer. ?Most of the people I talk to are either part-time vegetarians [or, on the other extreme, vegans],? she says. ?There is a large majority of people who eat meatless because of health reasons.?
While health concerns are the driving force for boomers entering the world of meatless options, consumers in other demographics have different motivators. Teens and college-age adults are more aware of ethical and environmental issues, Green says. ?They?re turned on by the compassion argument.?
A study by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals found that as many as 20 percent of college students label themselves vegetarian. A VRG/ Harris Interactive poll found that 10 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds said they never eat meat, compared with 2.8 percent of the general population.
Combine the forces of boomers and youth, and you?ve got a thriving market for vegetarian products. The number of people aged 45 to 64 will increase 30 percent between 2003 and ?08. And, according to Mintel, they have $1.6 trillion—yep, that?s trillion, with a ?t?—in spending power.
In the same report, Mintel found that at least 35 percent of adults aged 45 to 64 used vegetarian foods and milk alternatives regularly. In defining vegetarian food, Mintel excluded items such as fruits and vegetables, which do not directly replace a meat. Only adults aged 18 to 34 ate more vegetarian products, with 43 percent reporting regular consumption. Looking at all adult Americans, more than a third eat at least some vegetarian food, and 13 percent never eat red meat, Mintel found.
The manufacturing world has sat up and taken notice. Mainstream companies like ConAgra, Kraft and Kellogg have acquired such brands as Lightlife Foods, Boca Burger and Morningstar. Names long known to vegetarians—Melissa?s, Eden Foods, Imagine Foods—have posted double- and triple-digit growth in recent years. This consolidation is the other major driver, besides health concerns, in the industry?s growth.
And what growth it is. Beyond sheer sales figures, experts point to new product introductions, made possible by the larger companies? deeper pockets. In 2001, Mintel reports, there were 21 vegetarian food introductions; just two years later, there were 205. Many of these brands combine healthy food with the convenience that American consumers can?t do without. ?The rising growth of availability of [convenience foods] is huge,? Green says.
It is the ?occasional vegetarian,? Mintel says, who is the primary target now for these types of vegetarian food products. Gardenburger is a case in point.
?We do not have a product that we do not market to [both naturals and mainstreams] now,? says Gardenburger?s Olsen. ?Our new campaign is going to be geared to the Atkins diet, the Weight Watchers diet. We?re definitely going to go that direction in a big way.? Even the company?s advertising reflects the shift to crossover consumers. ?We?re changing our market style to nutrition and health, whereas before we had karma points.?
Let me introduce you
While meat analogs and prepared vegetarian entrees are gaining popularity, tofu still hovers out there as the great mystery unmeat—only 11 percent of Mintel?s subjects admitted to eating it regularly. Green notes that because meatless foods are becoming more recognizable—say, in the form of burgers and hot dogs, or soymilk that looks like dairy milk—more people are willing to try them. And sampling is critical. Fifty-five percent of consumers in Mintel?s study said they would eat more vegetarian products if they tasted better. Katherine Brodsky is a prime example. ?I don?t like most veggie burgers ? since they are not up to my taste measurements,? says the 23-year-old resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, who admits she hasn?t tasted them in several years but does enjoy tofu, along with a lot of potatoes and pasta.
If retailers and manufacturers could get someone like Brodsky to sample their newer products, she?d be their dream consumer. ?I tend to overspend on food if the taste is just right,? she says.
There is one caveat, however: Long-time vegetarians and semivegetarians are often reluctant to buy packaged or, as they see it, heavily processed foods. ?Not only do we not eat meat, but we tend to eat better; we don?t go for the easy, junky fast food,? says Denver semivegetarian Rothman. ?We generally don?t buy [prepared foods] at all.?
Naturals stores might consider using advertising to target the mainstream customer with vegetarian selections, because semivegetarians aren?t necessarily naturals customers already. Brodsky says she?s not sure how much natural or organic food she eats. ?I don?t specifically seek it out.?
Mehus-Roe acknowledges that she tries to buy natural or organic poultry and fish, but such foods only constitute about 15 percent to 25 percent of her diet. Rothman says his consumption of natural and organic foods has actually declined as they?ve become more mainstream. The trick, it seems, is to snare people who are on the first rise in the vegetarian learning curve.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 4/p. 24,26