Once dismissed as a trendy food fad and a fringe concern, veganism is now going mainstream.

Growth in sales of plant-based food jumped 20% in the USA between June 2017 and June 2018, according to research conducted by Nielsen on behalf of the Plant Based Foods Association. That equates to a value of $3.3 billion – a relatively small amount when compared with the level of overall food sales in the US, which run in excess of $50 billion per month for in-store sales alone.

 Google searches related to veganism quadrupled between 2012 and 2017.
Image: Google

In Europe, the growth in veganism has been even greater. Sales of meat substitutes grew by 451% between February 2014 and February 2018. Online, between 2012 and 2017, searches related to veganism quadrupled, according to Google. All of which seems to indicate significant changes in people’s dietary habits.

Some of the world’s largest food brands and producers are now throwing their weight behind this shift, keen to benefit from changing eating and food spending habits. Danone, the French producer perhaps best known for its dairy products, invested $60 million last year to expand production of plant-based beverages at its North American division. Additionally, one of the world’s largest meat producers, Tyson Foods, purchased a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, a company that makes meat-free burgers.

Fast-food giants are also starting to take notice. In 2017, McDonald’s introduced the McVegan burger in outlets in Finland and Sweden.

Increased interest in and consumption of meat-free food is, in part, thanks to campaigns such as Veganuary and World Vegan Month, which have been promoted successfully through social media. Veganuary is a UK-based registered charity that encourages members of the public to eat like a vegan each January as part of their New Year’s resolutions. Interest in Veganuary grew by 183% in 2018, with 168,500 people taking part, up from 59,500 in 2017. There were just 3,300 participants when the campaign started in 2014.

Veganism is a way of life that has long been popular with many celebrities, particularly Hollywood actors and music industry stars. Ariana Grande, Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, and Stevie Wonder are just a few. Earlier this year, Beyoncé used Instagram to announce she was adopting a vegan lifestyle, and invited her followers to join in. All 117.5 million of them.

 Beyoncé switched to a vegan diet ahead of her 2018 Coachella performance.
Image: Instagram

The surge of meat-free eating habits has even been felt in the gig economy. On-demand food delivery company Just Eat saw a 987% increase in demand for vegan and vegetarian choices in 2017.

The benefits of switching to a diet less reliant on meat are sometimes the subject of intense debate. Commonly asked questions include, “How can you get enough protein if you don’t eat red meat?” and “How can you get enough calcium if you’ve given up dairy?” These concerns can be addressed by careful nutritional planning. And according to researchers from Oxford University, “a global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruit and vegetables could save up to eight million lives by 2050”.

The researchers also predict potential cost savings of $700-$1,000 billion per year from easing the pressure on healthcare, plus a reduction in unpaid informal care and lost working days.

There are environmental dividends, too. The same switch could even help bring global greenhouse gas emissions down by two-thirds, reducing the cost of climate-related damage by around $1.5 trillion.

Dr Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, who led the study, notes: “Imbalanced diets, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables, and high in red and processed meat, are responsible for the greatest health burden globally and in most regions. At the same time the food system is also responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore a major driver of climate change.”