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  • Writer's pictureMike von Massow

Vegan virtue signalling complicates trend interpretation

Updated: Aug 12, 2019


Vegans and vegetarians have been getting considerable attention. The move to increasingly plant-based diets was reinforced by the newly released Canada Food Guide. The change in Canadian meat consumption is real but the truth is likely that it’s not due to vegans or vegetarians. The reasons are many (and we have an upcoming blog post that outlines them) but increasing number of vegans and vegetarians are an important contributor.

The percentage of vegans and vegetarians in Canada is generally thought to be around 8% but some estimates have it closer to 10%. What is worth noting, however, is that people who identify in a survey as vegan or vegetarian may not be abstaining from meat completely. There may be a temptation to say they don’t eat meat because of the perception that they shouldn’t be eating meat. This is called virtue signalling. Meat might still be a guilty pleasure, but they’d rather not talk about it.

There may also be an aspiration to be meat-free, but the individual has not yet managed to achieve that goal. The pressure to virtue signal could be even higher in today’s climate. This means that recent growth estimates may actually have higher proportions of virtue signalling than in the past, meaning that current estimates are more over-stated today than previously.

An array of food in bowls including a sausage dish, lemons, rice, parsley and calamari.

There are many people who do abstain completely from meat (for a variety of reasons) but there are also “meat minimalists” who are simply eating less meat. Some of those meat minimalists are responding to surveys and claiming to be vegans or vegetarians without actually being completely meat-free.

This is highlighted in a recent survey undertaken as part of the Food Focus research program. In the cross Canada survey, distributed in late 2018, 5.1% of Canadians identified as vegetarians and 2.8% identified as vegan. This is within the range that other surveys have found for Canada. What is notable, however, is that in another part of the survey, many of these vegans and vegetarians acknowledged eating some meat. One third of vegetarians and more than half of the vegans said they ate meat once in a while. This would seem to be counter to the definition of vegan or vegetarian and suggests either virtue signalling or an unfulfilled aspiration. This is not at all to say that these are bad or dishonest people, but it does suggest some inconsistency in how people define and represent these diets.

It is worth noting that 85% of Canadians suggested they were eating at least one meal per month without animal protein. This may also over-estimate the degree of meat minimization due to virtue signalling. However, the change is real. There also exists some social pressure to reduce meat consumption. It is important to understand the reasons for the change but we should also take some survey results with a grain of salt. Without careful analysis and consideration we may misunderstand meat minimizing behaviour and respond inappropriately.


Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. “Vegan virtual signaling complicates trend interpretation”. Food Focus Guelph (13), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, March 4th, 2019.


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