More restaurants offer vegetarian dishes today than ever before. This trend is fueled by a number of consumer preferences, including a desire for greater health and an interest in ethical food. One of the most influential drivers is the millennial generation’s fondness for vegetarian meals.
This year marks the first time the number of millennials (Americans born between 1982 and 2000) surpassed the number of baby boomers. They now account for a quarter of the U.S. population and are said to be more diverse and more educated than any previous generation. With tastes and preferences that differ from previous generations, millennials are poised to reshape much about our society, including what we eat.
Earlier this year, the Chicago-based food research firm Technomic surveyed 1,500 people online and concluded that in order to attract millennial customers, restaurants must offer vegetarian and vegan meals. The report showed 45 percent of younger consumers either regularly eat vegetarian and vegan food or follow a vegetarian diet. The number falls to 30 percent in older people.
“So it’s really important to offer vegetarian dishes to appeal to those (younger) customers,” said Anne Mills, consumer insight manager for Technomic.
Mills added that one reason restaurants include vegetarian meals is to eliminate the so-called veto vote.
“Otherwise if you have a vegetarian or vegan in the dining party, the party will have to make a decision not to visit that restaurant because there isn’t an option for that person,” she said.
Several chain restaurants popular with younger consumers have responded to millennials’ interest in vegetarian food. Recently, Chipotle added braised tofu, White Castle added a veggie slider and Subway added hummus to their menus. A desire to appeal to the young has also influenced the development of a new category in the food service industry – all-vegetarian fast food chains, among them Native Foods and Veggie Grill.
Meanwhile, meat-heavy fast food chains, such as McDonald’s, have struggled to remain relevant. According to an August report in Fortune magazine about McDonald’s declining sales, “The number of U.S. diners aged 19 to 21 who eat at McDonald’s each month has declined 12.9 percentage points since the start of 2011.”
Outside of restaurants, the push to add new vegetarian products can be seen on the trade show floor.
“Much of the innovation that is showing up at the expos is focused on special diets and a huge amount of that is in vegan diets,” said Eric Pierce, who heads data and insights for New Hope Natural Media, a major health food trade show company based in Boulder, Colorado.
Pierce said that between 2013 and 2015 approximately 70,000 new products were introduced at one of the Natural Products Expos (held annually on the East and West coasts). About 10,000 of those products made a claim about special diets, such as gluten-free, vegetarian or paleo.
In 2013, 6 percent of show products were labeled as vegan, he said, a figure that jumped to 11 percent this year. According to Pierce, the development of new vegan products is driven by several factors, including so-called millennial values, which include a distrust of large institutions, an interest in the environment and a desire for nutritious food.
With the number of vegetarian dishes on restaurant menus growing and the number of vegetarian products in stores on the rise, it seems logical to assume the number of vegetarians is also growing. But the numbers, which have remained relatively flat in recent years, don’t support that.
The Vegetarian Resource Group conducts regular polls to gauge the size of the vegetarian market. Their 2015 poll found 3.4 percent of Americans are full-time vegetarians. When broken out by age, 6 percent of vegetarians are 18 to 34, compared to 2 percent who are 65 and older. One conclusion we can draw is that vegetarians aren’t the only ones who eat vegetarian food. In fact, non-vegetarians probably eat more vegetarian food than vegetarians.
The appeal of vegetarian food to millennials, who are also known as Generation Y, has been showing up for a number of years, but the trend is becoming clearer as the generation matures and has increasing income to spend on food.
In July, Forbes published a column titled “Food brands must embrace new value equation to win with millennials,” in which columnist and millennial marketing expert Jeff Fromm said 20-somethings pay more for perceived values including nutrition, transparency and conscious capitalism. Fromm wrote that as the generation’s “spending power increases so will their spending on food by $50 billion per year through 2020, making this a crucial time for food brands to adapt.”
With $50 billion a year on the table, there’s a good chance we’ll see a lot more vegetarian food in the future.
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland and can be reached at: