Lady Gaga may feel great in a dress made of meat, but millions of Americans don’t like to wear – and eat – any animal products. “The number of vegetarians in the United States has almost doubled since we started seeing it in 1994” and now stands at about 7 million, or 3% of the adult population, says John Cunningham, consumption research manager for the Vegetarian Resource Group. “But as a segment of the vegetarian population, the number of vegans is growing significantly faster.” Vegans — who avoid dairy products in addition to meat and seafood — make up almost a third of all vegetarians.
Among them are big businessman Russell Simmons, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, actor Woody Harrelson, and even boxer Mike Tyson, who once bit off a piece of an ear from a mammal that turned out to be human. “Every time a celebrity does something unconventional, it gets a lot of publicity. This raises 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 influences can spark an initial interest in veganism, a person needs to make some pretty serious commitments when transitioning to this lifestyle.
“The decision to go vegan and stick to that lifestyle is pretty fundamental to a person’s beliefs,” says Cunningham. Some do it out of concern for the welfare of animals and the planet, others are drawn to the health benefits: veganism reduces the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity, as well as the risk of cancer, according to a 2009 report by the American Dietetic Association. For these reasons, Cunningham and others believe that this is not just a passing fad.
How long a person stays vegan depends on how well they eat. Realize that there are good alternatives to meat that “have nothing to do with asceticism and deprivation,” says Bob Burke, director of Natural Products Consulting in Andover, Massachusetts.
Manufacturers took on this difficult task to make it possible. The vegan world is no longer limited to brown rice, green vegetables, and fake chicken; companies and brands such as Petaluma, California’s Amy’s Kitchen and Turners Falls, Massachusetts’ Lightlife have been making vegan burritos, “sausage” and pizza for several years. Recently, non-dairy “cheeses” from Daya, Vancouver, and Chicago have exploded in the vegan market—they taste real cheesy and melt like real cheese. This year’s Western Natural Foods Show featured coconut frozen desserts, hemp milk and yogurt, quinoa burgers, and soy squid.
Redcross thinks that vegan delicacies are not far behind non-vegan ones, she notes that restaurants with upscale vegan food are already popular in many major cities. “Being vegan just for the sake of being vegan is an idea that few people would like,” Burke adds. “For the rest, taste, freshness and quality of the ingredients are important.” Even foods that were originally non-vegan have moved on. Burke says: “There is great responsiveness and awareness on this issue. If companies can take one ingredient [from their product] and make it vegan instead of just natural, they do it” so as not to scare off a whole segment of potential buyers.
Some companies, on the other hand, are hesitant to call their products vegan, even if it doesn’t take much to do so. “It can scare away (primary) buyers who think, “Great! It will definitely taste like cardboard!” says Redcross. Manufacturers know that truly addicted shoppers will scrutinize nutritional labels for hidden animal ingredients like casein or gelatin, which is why some label the product as vegan-friendly on the back of the package, Burke says.
But Redcross says it’s not just vegans who buy these foods: they’re also popular with allergy sufferers, as their friends and family want to share meals with their loved ones who have food restrictions. So natural food sellers can help less knowledgeable shoppers identify which products are vegan.
“Give these products a try so that non-vegans can see that this is a real alternative. Hand them out on the street,” says Redcross. Burke suggests placing posters on store shelves that talk about interesting vegan products, as well as highlighting them in newsletters. “Say, ‘We have a great recipe for vegan lasagna’ or other food that is usually made with milk or meat.”
Sellers also need to understand that while many people go vegan for health reasons, it can be difficult to give up eating habits. “Snacks and desserts are what the vegan community misses the most,” says Cunningham. If you offer their vegan options, you will earn good attitude and customer loyalty. “Vegans are very passionate about desserts,” adds Cunningham. Maybe it’s time for a milk-free cupcake dress, Gaga?