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OMG Vegans are getting slaughtered. I can't watch.

OMG, this is a terrible time to be a chicken!

BTW, I had no idea Vegetarians hated horses. That's right 50% of them think it's ok to eat Mr. Ed.

Vegging out

While it may feel as though the plant-based section of your local grocery store is always growing, and that more veggie offerings are cropping up on your favorite menus, the number of strict vegans and vegetarians in the US has actually been trending in the opposite direction in the last 4 years, according to new data from Gallup's Consumption Habits poll.

The survey finds that meatless dietary choices have fallen to their lowest popularity since the late 1990s, with only 4% of Americans identifying as vegetarian in 2023, and just 1% placing themselves in the vegan category. While it’s too soon to call time on whether we’ve hit “peak vegan” in the US, the fact that the figures have slipped at all is somewhat surprising.

Ongoing debates around the health concerns associated with meat-heavy diets, increased public awareness of the environmental impacts of the industry, and an ever-growing list of celebrities eager to espouse the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle have clearly not swayed the wider population away from meat… at least not full-time, anyway.

Part-time veggies

Although only a slim proportion of Americans identify as strictly vegetarian or vegan, there does seem to be continued momentum around temporary dietary changes, as projects like “Meatless Mondays” and “Veganuary” gather steam.

Indeed, since 2014, more than 2.5 million resolution-makers globally have signed up to participate in Veganuary, a non-profit annual event that challenges partakers to follow a vegan lifestyle for the entire month of January. This year, over 700,000 people signed up, with many more taking part unofficially, thanks in part to viral content on social media — posts with the tag #veganuary were watched more than a billion times on TikTok.

Indeed, surveys commissioned by Veganuary found that 7% of Americans, 9% of Germans, and 4% of Brits had participated in Veganuary for at least part of the month, which suggests that taking a break from meat, either for the planet or health reasons, is increasingly popular, even if the change is never made permanent. This is consistent with other data from a recent YouGov survey, which saw few people who had previously sustained a plant-based diet actually remaining veggie. The poll found that, while nearly 1 in 5 Americans reported that they’d been a vegetarian at some point in their lives, only 7% identified as a vegetarian at the time of asking (interestingly, a higher number than the Gallup survey).

The same YouGov study also found that what most compelled Americans towards vegetarianism was the associated health benefits. 55% of people placed those above moral (29%) or environmental (27%) concerns about eating meat.

Friend or food

The survey also revealed the factors that Americans consider when deciding which animals they believe are acceptable to eat. Topping the list was whether the animal is rare or endangered, but more generally the "pet factor" was a pretty good indicator of whether people feel comfortable eating a certain animal.

While 72% of current and former vegetarians and 89% of meat eaters considered it acceptable for other people to eat chicken, dining on dogs, cats, and guinea pigs was universally unpopular in both groups — although, strangely, more so for those who have never been vegetarian. For example, 37% of current and former veggies considered it okay for others to eat cats, compared with 15% of meat-eaters.

In fact, it was seen that consuming the more (conventionally) morally dubious animals was more strongly objected to by meat-eaters than by their vegetarian counterparts. The biggest discrepancy between what carnies and herbies considered acceptable, though, was seen for horses: 25% of meat-eaters were out-saddled by a whopping 51% of current or former vegetarians that considered horses okay for others to eat.

While it’s reassuring to know that veggies and meat-lovers can more-or-less agree on not eating dolphins, the larger question remains: what can effectively replace meat in a plant-based diet?

Turning a new leaf

Alternative vegan products — mostly soy, gluten, and plant protein fashioned into cow-less burger patties, pork-free sausages, and milk-that-isn’t-milk — have been leading the charge. Investment in veggie-friendly companies saw sales for plant-based foods grow 44% in the 3 years up to 2022, and some predict that plant-based food could make up to ~8% of the global protein market by 2030.

However, the plant-based “meat” market specifically has cooled. Despite US retail sales for plant-based meat doubling between 2017 and 2020, spearheaded by buzzy companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, purchases plateaued from 2020 onwards, with dollar sales actually shrinking slightly (-1%) between 2021-2022.

It's just not the same?

Beyond Meat burst into the field in 2009, having successfully harnessed a technology for realigning protein in plants, before pulling off 2019’s top US IPO — citing Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio amongst its star-studded investors. The company's share price was driven up 163% on its first day of trading, eventually going on to reach a peak market cap of $14bn.

But, per nature, what goes up, must come down: Beyond Meat just couldn't maintain its sizzle, as sales slipped, costs rose and optimism faded. By late last year the company was worth less than $1bn. A similar fate befell the Oprah-backed, oat-derived plant-milk brand Oatly: after the initial excitement of its own IPO, Oatly’s value steadily drained— as we noted later that year — before settling around its current valuation of ~$760m. So far, the next big category-defining vegan-friendly company hasn't hit the mainstream.

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