Vegans are rare? I think not!

I’ve often encountered the belief that while vegetarianism is a relatively wide-spread and well-understood concept, veganism is “out there”, and vegans are a rare lot. Truth be told, I used to believe that myself.

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When I flew to New York a while ago, the flight attendants informed me that the airline I was using did not provide vegan meals. Further inquiry brought to light that all of their vegetarian meals are considered vegan1.

The whole incident led me to google for the percentage of vegans in the U.S. and Europe, and guess what? Seems like vegans aren’t as rare as one might think.

If you embark on this journey for truth yourself, be prepared to find many, many conflicting sources of information. It’s best to keep in mind that many websites quote other websites that quote articles on studies conducted nearly a decade ago. Sorting through this deluge of distractions can be fairly daunting.

It seems, though, that the amount of vegetarians in the U.S. is generally believed to make up around 3% of the population, while in the UK I’ve usually seen numbers between 5% and 7%. Vegans are often believed to make up around 1.5% and 3-4%2 respectively, which would give a vegan to vegetarian ratio of about 1:2 in either country. And that would confirm the common belief that vegans are rarer than vegetarians.

Except that these studies might well be quoted wrong in most instances.

The wikipedia article on veganism has rather more detailed numbers on vegans in the UK, but the article that really illustrated the problem well was one about a 2006 study conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group in the U.S.

They took a rather more strict approach to conducting the survey, and didn’t ask whether or not someone considered themselves vegetarian or vegan, but which foods they never ate. The beauty of this approach is that it avoids personal interpretations of what vegetarianism might be, such as considering fish to be vegetables. Turns out that about 2.3% of the subjects never consumed meat, poultry or fish/seefood and would therefore be vegetarian. That number looks very close to the 3% of vegetarians often quoted for the U.S.

On the other hand, 1.4% never consumed meat, poultry, fish/seafood, eggs or dairy, and can therefore be considered vegan3. At first sight, that shifts the balance only slightly from the 1:2 ratio above.

Here’s the cinch, though: anyone in the second group of people would also be in the first group of people, based on the questions asked. If you look at the other percentages in the linked article, you’ll note that they must allow one person to be in several groups at the same time — otherwise people who never eat meat or fish, but do eat poultry, would fall off the grid.

If that’s the case, and those 2.3% vegetarians should be listed as vegetarian or vegan, with 1.4% being vegan — then that would leave a sad 0.9% of the population “pure” vegetarians. Now the ratio shifts to roughly 3:2 vegans to vegetarians. Yes, that’s more vegans in the U.S. than vegetarians.

I find it quite likely that a similar process is the reason why the 2007 DEFRA study in the UK quoted on Wikipedia arrives at 2.24% vegans in the UK, as opposed to 2.7% vegetarians, while other studies came up with other results. The sum of both percentages would correspond to the roughly 5% of vegetarians+vegans found in other studies, but the ratio of vegans to vegetarians shifts dramatically4.

So are vegans a rare breed? Not likely!

And that’s an important realization, because it means that there is statistical evidence that it’s a good idea to cater for vegans — we make up at least the same number of people as vegetarians. Better yet, all vegetarians can consume vegan food, while the reverse isn’t true. If you’re in the catering industry, you’ll do your business a favour to consider vegan options rather than vegetarian options.

  1. Though something upset my digestion a bit, so I’m not entirely sure that’s actually true — I’m lactose intolerant, and usually “detect” even the smallest quantitiest of dairy products. []
  2. Some studies suggest there’s less than 1%. []
  3. With the possible exception of honey. []
  4. As a side note, PETA‘s insistence on writing about vegetarianism while describing it to exclude dairy and eggs may well have contributed to the confusion. I wish they would stop that and call veganism by it’s name. Follow the link for commonly accepted definitions of various types of vegetarianism. []