When trying to find out how many vegans there are in the United Kingdom, you might well happen across wildly different estimates. There are some surveys that imply that around 3.5 million adults in the UK are vegan, but this is almost certainly an overestimation. Other recent research has put the figure closer to a figure of 600,000 adults. With such wildly different estimates, can we ascertain anything resembling an accurate figure about the number of vegans in this country?
In this article, we will introduce some of the research undertaken that attempts to ascertain how many vegans there are in the UK. We will also look at the recent trends in the number of people following vegan diets (hint: it’s going up, up, up!).
Number of Vegans in the UK
As we will see later in the article, the way studies are carried can have a big impact on the results of that research. Before we delve into population samples and confounding variables, let’s look at the number of vegans in the UK based on some of the more robust research currently available.
Findings from the Most Current Research
|Number of Vegans in UK||Who Did the Research (and for Whom)?||Notes|
|3,500,000||Professor Carolyn Roberts, Gresham College for Comparethemarket.com||No clear information about sample size or demographics, see details below|
|600,000||Ipsos Mori survey undertaken for the Vegan Society||Based on number of respondents who “never eat meat or animal products”; sample: 9,933 adult GB adults aged 15+ interviewed between 5th February and 4thApril, 2016|
|400,000||Ipsos Mori survey undertaken for the Vegan Society||Based on number of respondents who “never eat meat and avoid consuming or using any animal products”; sample: 9,933 adult GB adults aged 15+ interviewed between 5th February and 4thApril, 2016|
|165,000||England Marketing survey for RSPCA Assured||Sample: 3,000 UK adults who responded to a “nationally representative” online survey in October 2017|
Are There Really 3.5 Million Vegans in the UK?
Looking at the highest figure suggested in the table above of 3.5 million vegans in the UK, there are some reasons to treat this figure with caution. The number is quoted in various newspaper articles, such as in the Independent, which link to a page on the website of an insurance company, Comparethemarket.com. The survey appears to have gathered information about the environmental habits of people in the UK, and presents various statistics, including that 7% of respondents said they were vegan.
The problem is, the information is presented as an infographic rather than any kind of conventional research document or report. And there is no information given about the methodology undertaken and no details of the sample size or make up. There have been reports that the sample size was 2,000 people, but this is not presented on the infographic itself and cannot be reliably confirmed.
Not only that, the newspaper headlines claiming a whopping 3.5 million Brits are vegan have taken the 7% quoted in the info graphic and expanded it based on a rather arbitrary number of 50 million. We can only presume they chose this figure as an estimate of the UK adult population because it was easier to do the maths, rather than it being based on any robust estimate from, for example, the Office of National Statistics.
As such, while the figure of 7% of the population being vegan might be accurate, from a statistical point of view, there is really no way of knowing based on the available information. As such, we need to take it with a bit of a pinch of salt. A pinch of salt that may have primarily been designed to season a bit of publicity on the company that commissioned the “research”.
600,000 Vegans & Counting?
The figure of around 600,000 presented by the Ipsos Mori survey undertaken for the Vegan Society looks far more robust to us. Partly because they have defined the terms in more detail and partly because they have given details of the sample size and the basics of the methodology. In the technical note that accompanies the findings, they state:
Interviews were carried out on Capibus, Ipsos MORI’s face to face omnibus survey. 9,933 adult GB adults aged 15+ were interviewed between 5th February and 4th April 2016 in respondents (sic) homes using CAPI (Computer Aided Personal Interviewing) methodology. Data are weighted to age, region, working status and social grade within gender, as well as household tenure and respondent ethnicity.
It is, of course, possible that the aforementioned Compare the Market research also took these factors into account and had a decent sample size, but in the absence of any information suggesting that, we cannot assume that to be the case.
It is worth noting though, that even the 600,000 figure quoted might be a slight over-estimation of the number of vegans at the time of the research. This is because this figure is based on the 1.05% of respondents who “never eat meat or animal products”. And, as we will see later in the article, the particular definition of vegan used in a given piece of research can have a significant effect on the results.
Of that 1.05%, it is perhaps telling that only just over two thirds of them (0.70% of the total respondents) say they “never eat meat and avoid consuming or using any animal products”. That definition of a vegan would sit closer to the generally accepted one. In contrast, the 0.35% of respondents who “never eat animal products but do not avoid consuming or using items derived from animals” would not necessarily be classed as vegans in the eyes of many. So, if we take the 0.70% figure instead, the actual number of vegans in the UK based on this piece of research would be closer to 400,000 than 600,000.
Either way though, this is based on research carried out in February to April 2016. Since then, there has certainly been an increase in the number of vegans in the UK, as indicated by the trends information below. Before we delve into that too deeply though, let’s take a quick look at how the research methods a survey or study use can significantly affect the data that comes out of them.
RSPCA Assured: Is Research Assuredly Reliable?
We mention below that when assessing data from research studies, it is vitally important to find out who conducted the study and, usually crucially, who paid for it. In the case of the research that gave a very low estimate of the number of vegans in the UK (just 0.3% of consumers who responded to the survey, which we have expanded to approximately 165,000 people in the wider UK adult population), the research was funded by RSPCA Assured.
They are the so-called “ethical food label” of the RSPCA who focus on farm animal welfare. As such, it could be argued that they would stand to lose out financially if everyone went vegan and there was no market at all for “ethically” farmed meat, eggs and dairy products.
We are, of course, not suggesting for a second that the statistical books were somehow cooked to downplay the number of vegans in the UK in order to somehow benefit the organisation that paid for the research. Or even that doing so would even benefit them. For instance, would people thinking veganism is more popular than they state it is make people more likely to go vegan themselves? From a social psychology point of view, it is possible. But it would seem a rather convoluted mechanism by which to attempt to manipulate the public.
Which Research Should We Believe?
In an era when experts get something of a bad press in the media and on social media in particular, we are not here to disparage any of the research studies mentioned above. We are merely highlighting the fact that when it comes to estimating something as fluid as the number of vegans in a country, any figure that any report asserts should really be taken as a very broad estimate rather than a figure that is set in stone. And some media outlets would do well to make it clear to their readers that this is the case, rather than blurting out eye-catching headlines that make decent click bait but distort the truth.
Researching Vegan Numbers
Whenever you encounter newspaper articles about health or nutrition (or indeed anything relating to science, social science, or anything else which quotes research) it is a good idea to delve a little deeper than the headline and the words contained in the story itself. After all, many stories based on research papers in both newspapers and (especially) online are essentially just rehashed versions of the press release that was sent to the publication by whichever interested party might have funded the study in question.
In the case of news articles about the number of vegans in the UK, there are a few things we think it is important to consider in relation to the research:
- What definition of “vegan” has been used?
- What was the methodology and sample size of the research?
- Who conducted the research and who funded it?
Let’s take a look at each of these questions in turn to understand how it can affect the accuracy of the figures given.
1. Definition of Vegan
Depending on the specifics of a given piece of research there could be very different definitions of “vegan” used. A good study will clearly define the term “vegan” and how or why they came to that particular version. Possible examples of vegan that could be used in research include:
- A person who never consumes meat, dairy or animal food or drink products – This is a widely accepted basic definition of a dietary vegan, and variations of this are often used in vegan-related research.
- A person who never consumes meat, dairy or animal food or drink products, and who never buys or use products containing animal-derived ingredients – This expands the definition to include more people who might describe themselves as “ethical vegans”.
- A person who never consumes meat, dairy or animal food or drink products, and who never buys or uses products containing animal-derived ingredients or that have been tested on animals or which cause (direct or indirect) harm to animals – This version goes further still, and is veering a little more towards the “strict” end of the vegan spectrum.
- A person who only eats fruit and nuts that have fallen off a tree – Okay, no serious study will use that one!
The point here is that while the number of vegans in the UK can vary massively from one research study to another, one possible reason for this is the definition of what a vegan is. For instance, there are almost certainly lots more dietary vegans who simply don’t eat and drink animal products than there are very strict ethical vegans who go the extra mile to avoid all products that might have once been tested on animals. A study that used the former definition is likely to come up with a much greater number than a study that used the latter.
It is also worth considering whether a person answering a survey is self-declaring as a vegan or being assigned to that category by researchers. While, in theory, there shouldn’t be much difference between the two, in reality, the definition in the mind of someone self-declaring as a vegan might be very different from that in the mind of the researcher, especially given there are so many potentially grey areas.
2. Research Methodology
It is not practical for a research study to simply ask every person in the United Kingdom about their dietary and lifestyle choices. It would take too long and cost too much and more to the point would involve asking Piers Morgan if he is a vegan. Actually, that could be rather fun…
Having said that, the UK Government does ask certain information of the UK populace every 10 years in the form of the census. But, at present, this does not include any questions about the type of diet people follow or the lifestyle choices they make. There is an argument to include more questions in relation to such parts of life due to the potential public health planning benefits. But there are no thoughts for this to be included in the next census in 2021.
As such, in order to ascertain an estimate of the number of vegans in the UK, research studies generally take a sample and use the data to infer information about the wider population. The size of the sample is highly significant, as the greater the sample size, the more accurate a reflection of the overall population it will be. Of course, the greater the sample size, the more time and money it will cost the researchers.
As well as sample size, the diversity of the sample is also significant. For instance, if you had a sample of 2,000 people for a survey about veganism and all the participants were aged 20-35 and lived in Shoreditch, this would give a very different result to that gained if the 2,000 participants were aged 60-75 and lived in Grimsby. Neither, of course, would be representative of the general populace of the UK but trying to get as representative sample as possible is key to getting accurate results.
A system of random sampling from the wider population that includes people from various demographic groups and geographical locations is a way to give researchers the best chance of gaining robust data from which to draw meaningful conclusions about the overall population of the UK.
To give an example, if there was an online survey suggests that 48% of respondents class themselves as vegan, some people might erroneously presume that 48% of the adult population are vegan, giving a total of approximately 26 million plant-munching super heroes. But if the survey was on a site that was all about veganism (like this one), and the sample size was just a few hundred people, it is clear that both the sample size and the diversity of the participants mean that drawing meaningful conclusions about the wider UK population would be foolhardy.
3. Is There an Agenda?
In assessing the robustness and meaningfulness of a given piece of research, it is important to understand who undertook the research and, sometimes more significantly, who funded it. That gives you a good idea as to why it was carried out and what the aims of the study were, not least because there is no obligation to publish all scientific studies – for example, any that contradict what the researchers wanted to discover and “prove”.
As we outline in our article about choline, sometimes research papers or articles about them pop up that seem to suggest that something or other is harmful or should be avoided or consumed, only for links to emerge between the researcher(s) and what could generously be described as “interested parties”.
As any investigative journalist would tell you, following the money often leads to the real meat (substitute!) of a story. And, finding out who has funded a particular piece of research can shed some light on the ultimate results. It is not to say that scientists are corrupt or that their conclusions can effectively be bought. But there is a significant history of confirmation bias being present in certain research, which just so happens to skew results very slightly towards the interests of the people funding that research!
In relation to veganism then, if there is a research study banging on about how being a vegan is bad for your health, if it so happens that it has been funded by the Bacon and Egg Appreciation Society, you might have a legitimate cause for questioning the veracity of said research.
If on the other hand, the research was carried out by an independent body that was trying to ascertain the figures for purely academic reasons (for instance the nutritional science department of a respected university), the findings could be viewed with more confidence. This assumes that the research methodology is sound, of course, which you would expect it to be if carried out by a respected university.
Trends in Vegan Numbers in the UK
There is no doubting the fact that there is an upward trend in the number of vegans in the UK. There are numerous studies that show the number of people identifying as vegan has risen dramatically in recent years. And though the exact number of vegans does not always tally from one study to the next, the upward trend certainly is demonstrated by them all.
Moving away from surveys and other research studies, a good way in the modern age to gauge the popularity of a given subject is to check out the Google search statistics. As detailed on Google Trends, the number of vegan-related search terms in the UK were fairly steady from 2004 to around October 2013 when it started its upwards trend.
Vegetarian-related terms have remained more or less steady since 2004 and in May 2015, for the first time, there were more searches involving vegan-related terms than there were for vegetarian-related terms. Since about August 2017 there have been at least double the number of searches for vegan-related terms compared to those related to vegetarianism.
Statistics Supporting Upward Trend in Veganism
Other statistics that support the aforementioned upward trend in the popularity of veganism in the UK include the following:
- The number of people signing up to Veganuary in 2019 was over 250,000, up from 168,500 in 2018 and just 59,500 in 2017.
- Sainbury’s supermarket has witnessed a 24% increase in people searching for vegan products online in 2019 compared to 2018.
- Sales of meat-free products in Europe increased by over 450% in the four years running up to February 2018, according a report compiled by the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany.
- According to research from Euromonitor International, sales of plant-based meat alternatives globally reached a staggering $19.5 billion in 2018.
So, How Many Vegans Are There in the UK?
Based on the available information at the time of writing, and taking into account the variation in the definitions used and the research methodologies undertaken, it is essentially impossible to give an accurate figure for how many vegans there are in the UK.
Having said that, a loose estimate would be that, based on the upward trend and the time that has passed since the most reliable research carried out by Ipsos Mori, we would suggest there are somewhere between 750,000 and 1,000,000 dietary vegans in the UK and between 500,000 and 700,000 people who might classify themselves as “ethical vegans” or “lifestyle vegans”.
One thing of which we can be sure, of course, is that the number of vegans in the UK has been increasing in recent times and it is set to increase further over the coming years. Viva la vegan we say (even if we’re not exactly sure what that means)!