Moving To Plant-Based: What Does The Data Say?

As we come to the end of ‘Veganuary’, the popular trend whereby individuals adopt a vegan diet for the month of January, fast food outlets and shops have begun to scale down their vegan and vegetarian food options. An initial reaction to last month’s activity by the casual observer could be that everyone is turning vegan, or at least, considering eating less meat and making more plant-based choices. Are they right? Lyndsey Kramer analyses information from ‘Google Trends’ and the ‘National Diet and Nutrition Survey’ to see just how popular it is becoming.

Image Credits: Gary Knight

The reasons why people reduce their meat intake or switch to vegan and vegetarian diets are varied, reflecting a combination of people’s political, environmental philosophical or health ideals. Whatever the reason people turn to plant-based diets, I thought it would be interesting to try and understand any growth seen in the numbers of vegetarians and vegans. In this article, I discuss some ways this could be attempted, through statistics such as the National Diet and Nutrition Survey 2008 – 2019 and Google trends data. Through this, I hope to illustrate ‘what is happening’ rather than ‘why it’s happening’!

Methodology  

The difficulty with using the National Diet and Nutrition Survey 2008 – 2019 (NDNS) to identify any trends in veganism and vegetarian diet choices is that it lacks consistent statistics specific to vegan and vegetarian diets. The NDNS did ask about vegan and vegetarian diet choices in years 1 – 3 (2008 – 2011 in the survey) but did not continue this line of questioning in the rolling surveys which spanned the full period of 2008 – 2019. Nevertheless, it is possible to reflect on trends even with the limited resources provided by the NDNS. 

For instance, the NDNS does provide a source of UK representative statistics on the types and quantities of foods consumed by individuals, and in their own words: ‘is designed to assess the diet, nutrient intake and nutritional status of the general population aged 1.5 years and over living in private households in the UK. A representative sample of around 1000 people (500 adults and 500 children) take part in the NDNS RP each year.’ (2020:6). The survey is therefore comprehensive in this specific area. However, it is not as helpful in understanding recent shifts in diet. As the concept of ‘Veganuary’ first emerged in 2014, knowing how many people have made the switch to vegan and vegetarian diets would arguably be just as relevant now, if not more, as it was from 2008 – 2011 in the NDNS.

Feeling Hungry? Check out our vegan recipes perfect for Veganuary! 
Image Credits: Chloe D’Inverno

Through the use of the NDNS data, it is possible to investigate both the quantities and types of food people in the UK consume overtime. It is also possible to consider where and when food is consumed through ‘spatial’ and ‘temporal’ factors, such as location and meal-times. Furthermore, the survey provides details such as the company a person keeps when eating.  

In terms of diet changes in the form of plant-based alternatives to meat, the NDNS is also of some use. For instance, Stewart et al (2021), use the survey to illustrate how: ‘from 2008 to 2019 average meat consumption per capita per day decreased from 103.7g to 86.3g per day’ these figures include: ‘an absolute reduction in processed meat red-meat consumption of 13.7g’ and ‘an absolute reduction in processed meat consumption of 7.0g’ and ‘a 3.2g increase in white-meat consumption.’ (2021:699).  

The alternatives to eating meat include the consumption of plant-based, dairy, and fish products (this survey does not designate fish into the same category as meat). This suggests that food consumption has either decreased overall or has stayed consistent with meat being replaced by plant-based or dairy alternatives. However, the NDNS data states that their representative sample demonstrated: ‘little change in intake of fruit and vegetables’ (2020:7) in the period to 2017. Although this may be the overall trend, taking into account the categories of income and gender, women aged over 64 with a higher income are shown to eat more fruit and vegetables.  

When using statistical data provided by the NDNS (2020) and peer reviewed articles such as Stewart et al (2021), there is a lack of consistency. For example, Stewart et al (2021) argue that gender and income do not account for changes in diet choice, but the NDNS states: ‘There was evidence of greater intake of fruit and vegetables with increasing income in all age/sex groups except men aged 65 years’ (2020:9).

Check out another WILD article on what veganuary is: What is veganuary
Credit: Pixabay

Are vegan and vegetarian diets trending upward? 

A study commissioned by Eating Better in partnership with the WWF and conducted by YouGov (2019) demonstrates the rising awareness of the environmental impacts of meat consumption. This study provides a comparison point to earlier YouGov surveys, beginning in 2013. However, the focus on trends alone can beproblematic and unreliable as there is no indication of the underlying sample size or the sampling technique used. 

The Eating Better (2019) survey shows a 7% estimated increase in people who were aware of the environmental impact of the livestock industry. This awareness varies with age, in the survey it is 18–24-year-olds who are the most knowledgeable. Meanwhile ‘left-wing/centre-left voters’ and ‘those from a higher socio-economic background (44% ABC1)’ (2019:1) also show high awareness. The data in the Eating Better (2019) survey corresponds to the NDNS report discussed above, showing that it is older people who are more likely to eat less meat. In the Eating Better survey this is described as ‘65+ leading the way despite lower levels of awareness’ (2019:1).Without a baseline figure against which to measure, data is less useful as it is difficult to determine when a trend starts or what to compare it to. For example, it is difficult to understand if searches for ‘vegan food’ have increased without first establishing a starting number of searches. In the case of Google trends, no current number is given. By looking at Figure 1 below, it is established that searches for the term ‘vegan’ are trending higher worldwide than for the term ‘vegetarian’. 

 Figure 1. Created using Google trends.

A further problem is the absence of ‘status’ information. It is not possible to know who is doing the search or their age/gender/socioeconomic background, all of which could be valuable information.

For instance, if young women from middle income households happened to search for the term ‘vegan’ more than other groups, this could not be interpreted from Google trends. But don’t worry, not all hope is lost! Google trends use separate data to allow points of comparison between countries. However, caution must be exerted in data interpretation as a mere search of a certain term does not always equal intent. If a person researched ‘vegan’ simply for a definition of the term, this does not necessarily mean they are vegan or plan to switch to a plant-based diet.Insofar as it is useful, Google trends provides a way to compare how different search terms are used. In Figure 2, there is a comparison between the terms vegan and vegetarian and their Google trends in the UK: 

Figure 2. Created using Google trends

The trends for searches of both ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ in the UK reflect the rhythm of trends in the worldwide graph (fig.1). However, the peaks are higher in the UK graph, especially for ‘vegan’. Meanwhile Figure 3 compares search trends for ‘vegan’ compared to ‘plant based’. 

Figure 3. Created using Google trends.

This method can be used to examine trends in searches for different terms. Google trends also allow a degree of cultural difference, such as in the USA the term plant-based might have been used more commonly for longer, hence a comparison for that term’s use between the UK and the USA might demonstrate a different trend. 

Google trends is useful in providing temporal data over short periods of time (e.g. five years). Any historical data over a longer period could lead to questions of accessibility, as the internet has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. What is interesting in the five-year period in Figure 4 below are the peaks that coincide with ‘Veganuary’ each year in January.  

Figure 4. Created using Google trends.  

Then, Figure 5 demonstrates the most popular terms including the word ‘vegan’ in the UK. This provides data of interest; clearly the searches are centred on diet as opposed to philosophical and environmental issues. However, this is not to suggest that those are not also issues of concern. It is clear that the most popular searches are for food items, recipes and restaurants.  

Figure 5. Created using Google trends

Conclusion

Visualising trends is a practical starting point for further in-depth study. However, the problem with using Google trends as a methodology is that there is no provision of a base-line number from which to demonstrate numerical increases. Furthermore, there is no access to data relating to categories of identity such as age, class, gender and ethnicity. The lack of consistency in data about vegan and vegetarian diet choices provided by the NDNS (2020) over-time means that an explicit comparison of data from the earlier phases of the study in terms of vegan and vegetarian diets is not possible. While statistics and trending data are useful, they are only as good as the researcher gathering and analysing the information.

If you enjoyed this research based article and would like to know how you can get more involved in Lyndsey’s research, check out the information above! The research network is an interdisciplinary academic network, so it’s for anyone from any subject area who is interested in academic research in any aspect of veganism and vegetarianism as social movements. By joining, you can get involved in discussions on research interests, compare them with other intellectuals, hold events and provide opportunities for collaboration.

Usually research networks are only open to Postgraduates and academic research staff, so this is a rare opportunity for any passionate undergraduates interested in this topic to get involved and make connections, especially if you might be interested in pursuing a dissertation in this field of research.

About the Author: Lyndsey Kramer is a postgraduate student at York working towards her PhD in Sociology Research with a keen interest in the social movements behind vegan and vegetarian diets. 

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