Vegetarian and Vegan Diets, Explained

September 26, 2011

Eating a plant based diet is quite popular today. Find out what it means to be a vegan or vegetarian and how to make these diets work for your store.

According to a study published by Vegetarian Times, 3.2 percent of U.S. adults, or 7.3 million people, follow a vegetarian-based diet. Approximately 0.5 percent, or one million, of those are vegans. Slightly fewer than twenty-three million people (about 10 percent of US adults) say they largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. To set the perspective about 1.3 percent of the population has a peanut allergy, and an estimated three million or 1 in 133 Americans has celiac disease and therefore cannot consume any wheat (or gluten) products.  For as much is going into these allergies in terms of new products, labeling, etc., not much is going on in-store to excite vegetarian customers.
What do you as a retailer need to know? Veganism is a few steps further than vegetarianism (some vegetarians eat dairy products, eggs and sometimes fish), and although the term was coined in 1944, the concept of eliminating all animal products can be traced back to ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean cultures. Vegetarianism was first mentioned by Pythagoras, around 500 BCE, the Greek philosopher and mathematician who promoted benevolence among all species, including humans. Followers of Buddhism, and Hinduism are also advocates of vegetarianism, believing that humans should not inflict pain on other animals.
So back to veganism, is a vegan diet nutritious? Yes, following a vegan diet can be very nutritious but definitely takes a lot of careful planning and preparation. Vegan diets include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans, which are low in fat, contain no cholesterol (only found in animal products), and are rich in fiber and nutrients.
Vegans get their protein from legumes including, beans, tofu, peanuts, and grains like rice, quinoa, corn, whole wheat breads and pastas. As well as nuts and seeds, like almonds, flax, cashews, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts and more.
How do vegans get calcium? Leafy greens like broccoli, kale, collard greens, as well as tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, fortified juices and soymilk contain a significant amount of calcium. According to the American Heart Association, studies show that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than non-vegetarians.
What about iron? Chickpeas, spinach, pinto beans, blackstrap molasses, and soy products contain iron (which is best paired with vitamin C rich foods for optimal absorption) Fortified foods, supplements or some sea vegetables, provide vegans with B12.
And what about omega oils we get from fish and other marine sources? Vegans will opt for flax or chia sees, or even hemp to get their fill of healthy omega-3s.
Overall a vegan (or even vegetarian) diet can be very nutritious but as mentioned can take a lot of planning.
Another interesting fact about vegetarian diets that the American Heart Association points out is that, many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer. That being said, vegetarian and certainly vegan diets are not for everyone!
Clearly the vegetarian, including vegan, population is significant (even those keeping kosher or halal choose vegetarian products) so creating displays, or even promotions with vegetarian products will attract customers attention – and even for omnivores, including more produce in their diet will only benefit their health.
For more resources on a vegan or vegetarian diet visit the USDA.