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We’re living in a golden age for plant-based foods. So why are vegetarians so unhappy?

By Richard Clarke, Managing Director, Ingredient Communications

Ten years ago, eating plant-based foods meant biting into a banana or chewing on a carrot. These days, it refers to the inventive, dynamic and fast-growing category of meat- and dairy-free products that fill supermarket shelves and shoppers’ baskets – and give livestock farmers sleepless nights.

An analysis by Food Ingredients First found that, between 2018 and 2023, the number of new products launched globally with the claim ‘Suitable for Vegans’ grew by an average of 26% per year. That’s good news if you don’t eat meat, right? Well, yes and no.

In fact, according to consumer research we conducted recently in the USA and UK, vegetarians are significantly less satisfied with the food products available to them than they were five years ago. In September 2023, the net satisfaction rate among vegetarians was +8%. In 2018, when we ran the same survey, it was +47%. Among vegans, it was a different story. Their net satisfaction has risen from +2% in 2018 to +17% today.

What’s behind this trend? Could it be that, in this golden age of plant-based foods, the needs of vegetarians have been neglected? Perhaps. Innovation efforts in the past few years have focused predominantly on 100% plant-based products. Many of these are fantastic, and for vegans, they’re a Godsend. It’s easy to see why they’re so much happier now than they were in 2018. I’m sure a vegan would tell you that it was about time their needs were served, and they have a point.

However, it’s also possible that, in the process of serving vegans’ needs better, brands and retailers have failed to give enough thought to those of vegetarians. And though it’s true that all vegan food is automatically vegetarian-friendly, this doesn’t mean all vegan food is automatically appealing to vegetarians.

In our survey, we didn’t ask specifically why vegetarians were so dissatisfied. Nevertheless, it’s possible to speculate that some vegetarians simply don’t want 100% plant-based, vegan products. We know that vegetarians want their food to be meat-free. But we also know they’re happy to eat dairy and eggs – and might even prefer to do so. By removing these ingredients completely, some vegetarians could find the end-product less appealing as a result.

This matters, because in both of the countries where we conducted our research, there are many more vegetarians than vegans. In the UK, YouGov data shows that 5% of the population is vegetarian and 2% is vegan. In the US, according to Gallup, 4% of Americans are vegetarian, and 1% are vegans. Put simply, in both the US and UK, vegetarians vastly outnumber vegans, yet it’s the vegetarians who are the least happy.

Although further research is needed, the findings from our survey suggest it’s a mistake to consider vegans and vegetarians as a single, homogenous demographic. Although there will be substantial crossover between the two, they are also distinct consumers in their own right. This means NPD targeting vegetarians specifically – for example, products combining both dairy and plant proteins – could give manufacturers and retailers access to a significant and currently underdeveloped opportunity.

Image credit: Stokkete/