How Many Vegetarians Are There?

By Charles Stahler

 A 1994 National Roper Poll sponsored by the Vegetarian Resource
 Group (VRG).
 Document Sections:
    * Not an Easy Question to Answer
    * Changing Attitudes Toward Vegetarianism
    * Growing Demand for Vegetarian Foods
    * Results of Earlier Polls
    * Beyond Marketing
    * Vegetarian Resource Group February 1994 Roper Poll
    * Discussion of Results
    * About this Article
 Not an Easy Question to Answer
 How many vegetarians are there in the United States? After "What do
 I eat?" this is one of the questions most commonly asked of The
 Vegetarian Resource Group.
 At least once a day, a reporter, a student doing a paper, a market
 researcher, or a curious member calls VRG to ask us the number of
 vegetarians living in the United States. Americans (and we suspect
 also Canadians and other people in western cultures) worship
 statistics and exactness. Even though there will be one answer this
 week and another answer next week, people like specifics.
 However, the answer to "How many vegetarians are there?" has to be
 given in general terms. We can relate the different pieces of
 information known and then the answer can be interpreted according
 to the specific need(s) of the person inquiring.
 Unfortunately, statements are often taken out of context and
 repeated until they become truth. Because one person may be allergic
 to a certain food, people will then expand that to the idea that no
 one should eat that food. We caution readers not to do this. Please
 understand that in science and life, though we generalize to give us
 guidance, one has to look at the details of each situation, and then
 make a judgment as to what the answer is under those circumstances.
 Changing Attitudes Toward Vegetarianism
 The attitude towards vegetarianism in the last twenty years has
 certainly changed. In the 1970's and early 1980's when we did
 outreach booths, often people would ask us, "Why be a vegetarian?"
 We almost never hear that question now. Instead, people come by and
 say, "I wish I could do that." They are looking for information on
 how to eat more vegetarian meals. Working at a booth today, we often
 have pleasant conversations with lawyers, bankers, C.P.A.'s,
 construction workers, or men and women in motorcycle jackets with
 Proof of this trend toward vegetarianism can be found in the grocery
 store. Where Heinz used to be the only vegetarian baked beans
 available, now there are several varieties on the shelf, from
 Campbell's to store brands. As we previously informed our readers,
 Archer Daniels Midland and Green Giant (Pillsbury) are introducing
 the vegetarian (vegan) Harvest burger in about half the supermarkets
 across the country this year. Where before you couldn't find Mexican
 food, cakes, or breads without lard, almost all supermarkets now
 have choices which are animal-free. If you think back a few years,
 you will realize the magnitude of this change.
 For those readers over age 30, could you imagine eating yogurt as a
 child? Did you even know what it was? Though probably not one of
 their best sellers, most stores in major metropolitan areas also
 carry tofu today. And some supermarkets even have their own brand of
 dairy-free ice cream.
 Growing Demand for Vegetarian Foods
 Businesses will supply products which customers buy. The changes
 that have been happening are due to the public's demand for more
 vegetarian foods. According to a 1991 Gallup Poll conducted for the
 National Restaurant Association, about twenty percent of the
 population looks for a restaurant with vegetarian items when they
 eat out. About one-third of the public would order non-meat items if
 they were listed on the menu. This twenty to thirty percent of
 people interested in eating vegetarian food is fueling businesses'
 need to add vegetarian items to their offerings. Any company
 thinking about introducing new products will need to look at this
 For specialty products and options in restaurants and supermarkets,
 we can see there is a pretty hefty customer base. This is probably
 why so many businesses are jumping on the bandwagon to add meatless
 selections. On the other hand, this number is still far from the
 majority. That is why a fast food place may be hesitant to add a
 vegetarian burger, or why a centerpiece of an advertising campaign
 may still not be vegetarian oriented.
 When making a marketing decision, a business will have to decide
 whether this vegetarian-oriented population is their customer base
 and if they want their business. If the answer is yes, they will
 cater to them. If the answer is no, they may make different
 decisions. In a similar fashion, though most of the population still
 eats animal products, many natural foods stores decline to carry
 meat because the purchase of meat does not fit into the buying
 habits of most of their customers.
 Results of Earlier Polls
 This twenty to thirty percent of the population interested in
 vegetarian foods is consistent with the findings of different polls.
 For example, in a Gallup Poll done for Hippocrates magazine in 1989,
 when asked to describe themselves, about 34% of people said they
 were a "chicken and broccoli type;" 12% "brown rice and vegetables
 type;" and 10% "pasta and salad type." Only 35% said they were "meat
 and potatoes type." Five percent were "burgers and fries type,"
 while 3% were "pizza and soda type."
If you add the brown rice and vegetables people with the pasta and
 salad folks, about 22% would actually be looking for vegetarian
 items. This is close to the 20% figure in The National Restaurant
 Association Poll. If you note that only 35% were meat and potatoes
 people, no wonder food companies are adding so many new "light"
 Yet on the other hand, the majority of these people with an interest
 in vegetarianism are still consuming mostly animal-based diets. So
 there are numerous markets for businesses. They need to figure out
 which market to concentrate on, and how they will reach it. For
 enterprising businesses, there is no question that there is money to
 be made by marketing vegetarian products if done in the right way to
 reach that audience.
 Beyond Marketing
 For marketing purposes, as explained above, there is poll
 information available about the number of vegetarian-interested
 people. But The Vegetarian Resource Group wanted to know how many
 actual vegetarians are out there. This will give us a baseline to
 follow trends over the next hundred years and more. Past polls have
 given some indication, but because of the way the questions were
 asked, we didn't have an accurate answer.
 Most polls have asked people whether they consider themselves
 vegetarian. In a 1977-1978 United States Department of Agriculture
 Nationwide Food Consumption Survey, of 37,135 people surveyed, 1.2%
 answered yes to "Are you a vegetarian?" However some of these people
 also reported eating flesh during the three days on which dietary
 information was obtained. Recent answers from other sources have
 been around three to five percent or above. Vegetarian Times
 magazine reported 7%, or 12.4 million vegetarians, after asking
 people, "Do you consider yourself a vegetarian?"
 These polls about the trends of the number of people being
 vegetarian are important because they indicate that there is
 currently a very positive image about vegetarianism. More and more
 people want to be called a vegetarian. The drawback in these types
 of polls is leaving it to the respondents to define vegetarian. So
 the answer is not really indicative of the people who do not eat
 meat, fish, or fowl and are actually vegetarian.
 In one major poll, a question started, "Most people eat quite a lot
 of meat. But some people are vegetarian..." Another question stated,
 "During the 1960's and 1970's many young people got involved with
 alternative lifestyles and activities. Regarding the following list,
 which activities did you participate in?" Among the answers were
 smoked marijuana, dressed like a hippie, or became a vegetarian. So
 another problem associated with past polls was how the question was
 asked. Certainly there was a bias.
 This Roper poll was a nationwide cross section of 1,978 men and
 women 18 years old or over. Individuals were interviewed
 face-to-face in respondents' homes. The sample interviewed in this
 study is a representative sample of the population of the
 Continental United States, age 18 and up -- exclusive of
 institutionalized segments of the population (Army camps, nursing
 homes, prisons, etc.). Validations were conducted by telephone on
 all interviewers' work.
 Following are the statistics gathered by the poll:
         Never Eat:     TOTAL   MALE   FEMALE   BLACK   INFLUENTIAL
         Meat             6%     5%      7%       6%        10%
         Poultry          3%     3%      3%       1%         6%
         Fish/Seafood     4%     3%      5%       3%         4%
         Eggs             4%     4%      5%       4%         5%
         Honey           15%    15%     15%      20%        12%
         Eat Them All    75%    77%     74%      70%        71%
 Discussion of Results
 Marketing purposes aside, The Vegetarian Resource Group wanted to
 find out the number of people in the country who are vegetarians,
 that is, do not eat meat, fish, and fowl. We already have an idea of
 the number of people who consider themselves vegetarians. In our
 Roper Poll question, we asked, "Please call off the items on this
 list, if any, that you never eat. Meat. Poultry. Fish/Seafood. Dairy
 Products. Eggs. Honey. Eat Them All. Don't Know."
 Please note that the key word is never. Our numbers could be very
 different if we omitted the word never. Instead, our results were
 mostly as we suspected.
 The most surprising aspect of our survey is that up to one half
 million people in the country may be vegan. That is they never eat
 meat, fish, fowl, milk, dairy, or eggs. It is astounding that this
 number could be so high in our animal-product-based society with
 daily messages to eat some type of animal product.
 Please note that because this is a poll, and we could not ask every
 person in the country, we are not saying there are 500,000 vegans.
 We can have some confidence in saying there are between negligible
 vegans and 700,000 vegans in the country. Rather than a specific
 number, what the poll tells us is that though vegans are not yet a
 major percentage of the country's population, there is quite an
 interest in veganism. The Vegetarian Resource Group has some proof
 of this since we have sold over 26,000 copies of our Simply Vegan
 book. However, remember these figures are not for marketing
 purposes, as many more people may have a vegan-style diet, but may
 not be strict vegans.
 We can be 95% sure that 0.3% to 1% of the population is vegetarian.
 That is, they never eat meat, fish or fowl. This is much lower than
 the three to seven percent who consider themselves vegetarians, or
 the 20-30% who buy vegetarian products, but still a pretty high
 number, which translates into approximately one half million to two
 million vegetarians, as we suspected. Taking into account other
 polls we have looked at, we believe this figure as reflective of the
 number of people who never eat meat, fish, and fowl, and is probably
 Though the number of vegans as a percentage of vegetarians seems
 potentially high, we have been warned against using the statistic in
 this way. Because of the numbers we are dealing with, at this time
 we would probably have to do a prohibitively expensive poll to
 really find out that information. However, our educated guess is
 that if you only define vegetarians as people who never eat meat,
 fish, and fowl, and vegans as individuals who never eat meat, fish,
 fowl, dairy, or eggs, there could be a high percentage of vegans in
 there (5%-20%), since most people don't fall into the never
 About six percent of the population never eats red meat; 3% never
 eat poultry; 3% never eat dairy products; 4% never eat eggs; and 4%
 never eat fish/seafood. As would be expected, the figures for not
 eating these foods among "influential" people are greater.
 (Influential people being politically and/or socially active.) For
 example, while 6% of the general population never eat red meat, 10%
 of "influential" people never eat red meat. We suspect the
 "influential" category being a higher percentage would also pertain
 to vegan versus vegetarians. Among the leaders in the vegetarian
 movement we know, there is a higher number of vegans versus what
 might be in the general vegetarian population.
 As far as numbers for never eating red meat, the percentages were
 pretty close between male and female, and black and white. The
 biggest difference was between the South (4%) and The West (10%);
 Conservatives (5%) and Liberals (9%).
 However, the difference is not as great as you may think. You can't
 assume just because a person is vegetarian-oriented they will have a
 certain political ideology.
 About this Article
 This article was originally published in the July / August 1994
 issue of the Vegetarian Journal, published by: The Vegetarian
 Resource Group P.O. Box 1463, Dept. IN Baltimore, MD 21203 (410)
 For questions or comments on this article, please contact Brad Scott
 at This article may be reproduced for non-commercial
 use intact or with credit given to The Vegetarian Resource Group.
 The contents of this article, as with all The Vegetarian Resource
 Group publications, is not intended to provide personal medical
 advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health