On December 13, 2023 – Living vegan is not only good for the planet – it has been proven to aid in weight loss and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, some types of heart disease and cancer, as well as high blood pressure. Avoiding all animal products can also improve gut flora and help people with diabetes control their blood sugar levels. The latest research suggests that you will start seeing benefits in as little as 8 weeks. So why do only about 1% of Americans claim to follow a vegan diet?
It could simply be the word „vegan“.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Southern California aimed to determine the impact of the vegan label on consumers. They offered a choice between two gourmet gift baskets to over 7,000 people. One basket contained meat and dairy products, while the other contained only plant-based foods. The basket without animal products was chosen only 20% of the time when labeled as „vegan“ – but when labeled as „healthy“ and „sustainable“, more than twice as many people chose it in the study.
Why Veganism Gets a Bad Rap
„There is a perception that vegans are biased and joyless, and that a vegan diet is boring,“ said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, PhD, one of the researchers. She is a vegan herself and sees it in her own life. „When I eat with someone and say I’m vegan, some people feel defensive. They feel like I’m questioning their food choices. They apologize for eating meat in front of me, or make jokes about it.“
While people talk about „meatless Monday“ and consider vegetarianism simply a dietary choice, veganism is associated with morality and ethics.
„An ethical stance towards the consumption of animals goes against normative thinking and behaviors,“ said Daniel Rosenfeld, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in social psychology at UCLA. „It seems moralistic, and anything that appears moral can lead people to feel threatened in their own sense of morality.“
In a sense, veganism can threaten a person’s identity, according to Rosenfeld. Most of us do not think about the concept of carnism – a belief system that tells us it’s okay to eat certain animals. But when exposed to veganism by selling products or meeting vegans, it signals that carnism – the consumption of animals – may no longer be as predominant, and therein lies the threat. „People like to hold on to long-standing social norms, especially when part of the dominant group.“
This has led veganism to take on political implications. „Not politically as in right versus left,“ said Ann Kronrod, PhD, a marketing researcher focusing on linguistics. Some people may think that vegans want everyone to give up animal products, or that veganism requires a certain level of activism. „There is a feeling that this restricts freedom of choice.“
The Politics of Veganism
These political implications are connected to people’s motivation for adopting a vegan diet. It goes far beyond simply preferring vegetables. Ethical veganism focuses on animal welfare – people give up all animal products to prevent the exploitation of other beings. Even 90% of vegans state that they do it for the animals in surveys.
For some, it is also about combating climate change. According to the United Nations, about one-third of all human-induced greenhouse gases come from agriculture, most of which comes from livestock farming. Studies have found that a vegan diet reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 70% or more compared to a meat-heavy diet. The need to eat fewer animal products for the sake of the planet has attracted global attention: Last week, at the annual United Nations climate meeting (COP28), more than 130 countries signed a declaration committing to integrate food into their climate plans by 2025.
It is clear that far more than 1% of people are interested in these issues. But they may not necessarily want to commit to living a vegan lifestyle. In addition to the negative connotations of the word itself, it may feel restrictive to constantly say no to all types of animal products. Furthermore, some studies have found that an ill-considered vegan diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
„Although people want plant-based, healthy, and sustainable choices, they may not want to accept the baggage they feel comes with the label,“ said Alicia Kennedy, author of No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating.
This is evident from the USC study. Removing the term „vegan“ from the gift baskets had the greatest effect on committed red meat eaters compared to people who described themselves as healthy eaters.
Selling the Vegan Diet
„Meat-free implies that meat is a terrible thing,“ said Kronrod. „Perhaps I don’t want to take a stance, even though I prefer plant-based products.“
The nonprofit World Resources Institute has compiled a guide for the food industry to help companies encourage consumers to eat more plants. One section suggests removing specific words from menus and explains that „terms that highlight the absence of meat in a dish – vegetarian, vegan, or meat-free – are particularly unappealing to most people.“
A case study in the guide showed how the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s tried to boost the declining sales of a meal they labeled as „meat-free sausages and mash“ in 2017. The company changed the name to „Cumberland-seasoned vegetable sausages and mash,“ and sales increased by 76% within two months.
Similar changes are underway in the American food retail industry. At this summer’s Fancy Food Show, there were plenty of new vegan products, but according to Axios, many did not use the word on the label. „The term ‚vegan‘ is really a faux pas these days unless it’s associated with a lifestyle,“ said a retailer.
Even global megacorporations are jumping on the „non-vegan“ bandwagon. Earlier this year, Swiss food giant Nestlé introduced vegan versions of its legendary Toll House chocolate chips. The word „vegan“ is not on the packaging. Instead, they are called „plant-based.“
„When you think about names, about how you name yourself, how it defines who you are, I think the definition of vegan as it is today – is more than just a food choice. It’s a decision, whom do I support? Or who should I not be?“ said Kronrod.