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What do surveys reveal about the popularity of vegetarian diets in Finland?

This text is also published in Finnish. Tämä teksti on julkaistu myös suomeksi.

The vegan diet and new vegan foods have received a lot of media attention in recent years. The “veggie phenomenon” has grown at a rapid pace following many social media-driven events, such as Meatless October, Veganuary and the Vegan Fair (Vegemessut) (Jallinoja, Vinnari & Niva 2019a, Auvinen 2019). Many restaurants, from fast food chains to fine dining bistros, have also responded to the challenge with new vegan meals.

While in the past, especially in the vegan movement, there has been a desire for an ethically correct vegan diet, over the past few years, vegan activists have encouraged a shift to more flexible plant-based eating patterns alongside veganism (Jallinoja et al. 2019a). In recent years, the image of vegans has become more diverse, for example, in communities such as Facebook’s Chips and Beer Vegans Group (Auvinen 2019, Santaoja & Jallinoja, unpublished manuscript).

Vegetarian diets provide solutions to many of the problem areas of eating, such as health issues related to meat and animal fats, environmental problems caused by the production of animal-derived food, and concerns over animal welfare. Red meat in particular has been in the line of fire, as the carbon footprint of beef and its effect on climate change are large compared to the environmental effects of plant proteins, poultry, and fish (Clark et al. 2019, de Vries & de Boer 2010). Red meat has also been shown to be the most problematic in terms of health effects (Clark et al. 2019, World Cancer Research Fund 2013). Indeed, Nordic (Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2012), Finnish (National Nutrition Council 2014) and Dutch (Kromhout et al. 2016) nutrition recommendations call for a reduction in red meat consumption. On the other hand, vegan activists have criticized the rise in poultry consumption: many chickens must be killed to produce the same amount of meat as is found on one cow carcass.

In this review, I look at the popularity of vegetarian diets among Finns during the aforementioned “veggie boom” and the preceding twenty years. Hence, it is good to highlight some of the related milestones in the 2010s: The first Meatless October took place in 2013 and the first Veganuary in 2014. Posts on veganism and plant-based “milk” products increased markedly on Internet blogs at the beginning of 2015, and activity in discussion forums also increased during 2016 (Isotalo et al. 2019). At the same time, Kesko – a major retail conglomerate – reported a 47% increase in the sales of plant-based “milk” and a 305% rise in hummus and falafel purchases (Kesko 2017). The first Vegan Fair in Helsinki was held in January 2017.

But is veggie boom really “everywhere”? Has the number of vegans increased and has meat consumption really started to decline? This article seeks to answer the following questions:

    a) How has the popularity of vegetarian diets changed in Finland between 1997 and 2018?
    b) Are there any differences between men and women and between age groups?
    c) Based on the answers to the above, can one conclude there has been something of a “veggie boom” at some point after 2013?

This review analyses self-reported plant-based diets (see the challenges of self-reporting, e.g. Vinnari et al. 2008) and is based on previously published results on special diets among Finns (Table 1). In addition, I was able to complement the “Finland Eats” (Suomi syö) data (Jallinoja et al. 2019b) with new data for 2018 (Taloustutkimus). This report does not include studies where the proportion of vegetarians has been measured for one year only (e.g. Jallinoja, Niva & Latvala 2016, Niva & Jallinoja 2018). I have omitted from the analysis the study by Vinnari et al. (2010), since the results are based on household data, not individual-level data. In this article, I do not report in more detail the survey methods and characteristics of the respondents, as they are available in previous publications (see Table 1).

Table 1. Surveys included in the review

DataYearsReferences
The Adolescents’ Health and Lifestyle Survey (The Adolescent Survey1999, 2001, 2007, 2013Parviainen, Elorinne, Väisänen & Rimpelä 2017
FINRISKI1997, 2002, 2012Vinnari, Montonen, Härkänen & Männistö 2008
Meesters, Maukonen, Partonen, Männistö, Gordijn, Meesters 2016
Health Behaviour and Health among the Finnish Adult population (The Adult Survey) 2011–2014Helakorpi, Holstila, Virtanen & Uutela 2012
Helldán, Helakorpi, Virtanen & Uutela 2013a, 2013b
Helldán & Helakorpi 2015
Finland Eats (FE) (Suomi syö)2008-2016Jallinoja, Jauho & Pöyry 2019, I also report previously unpublished results
Finland Eats (FE)2018Previously unpublished results

Vegetarians and vegans in population surveys

A first glance at the results of the various data shows that the percentage of followers of vegetarian diets has been hovering around a few per cent for the whole period under review. The fact that the surveys have been collected with somewhat varying methods and study populations makes the comparison challenging. For example, when I compared the results of the Health Behaviour and Health among the Finnish Adult Population survey (2012, 2014) (hereafter the Adult Survey) with the results of the Finland Eats survey collected in the same year, the proportion of followers of vegetarian diets differed by age and gender. Thus, data collected by different methods do not appear to be fully comparable.

The differences between the surveys are also due to the fact that the diets have been labelled in different ways: in the FINRISK, the Adolescents’ Health and Lifestyle Survey (hereafter the Adolescent Survey) and the Adult Survey, the answer option was only “vegetarian diet”. In the Finland Eats survey, “vegan diet”, “vegetarian diet” and “diet that does not include red meat” were labelled separately. Thus, in most surveys, it is possible that some of those recording a vegetarian diet were vegan.

Because of these reservations, I decided to look at followers of plant-based diets by splitting the review into two partly overlapping sections. First, I looked at the 1997–2013 period in the light of the FINRISK and the Adult Survey, since these surveys have been collected around the same time. Then, I looked at the 2008–2018 period in the light of the Adult Population Survey and the Finland Eats survey.

Respondents to the Adolescent Survey were 12, 14, 16 and 18 years of age, and the FINRISK respondents were 15–79 years of age. The results of both surveys indicate that the proportions of vegetarians decreased between the first years of the 2000s and 2007 (the Adolescent Survey) and 2012 (FINRISK). Figure 1 also shows that the vegetarian diet was most popular among 16- and 18-year-old girls in 1999 and 2012.

Figure 1. Vegetarians in the Adolescents’ Health and Lifestyle Survey, in 1999, 2001, 2007 and 2013 (Parviainen et al. 2018) and in FINRISK Survey in 1997, 2002 and 2012 (Vinnari et al. 2008), percentage of respondents

Next, I looked at the proportion of vegetarians in the Adult Survey and the proportions of vegans, vegetarians and non-red meat eaters in the Finland Eats survey, both of which targeted the adult population. The results of the Finland Eats data for 2008–2016 have been previously reported among persons aged 15–79 (Jallinoja et al. 2019b), but for the purpose of this review, I calculated the results for respondents aged 15–64 to match the results of the Adult Survey data.

The results in Figure 2 suggest that the proportion of vegetarians remained fairly stable between 2011 and 2014. The difference between the Adult Survey and Finland Eats data is that whereas the Adult Survey only asked about a vegetarian diet, the Finland Eats survey asked separately about vegan and vegetarian diets. For this reason, I created a new variable that describes respondents who had chosen a vegan or vegetarian diet option (or both) in the Finland Eats survey. Thus, in Figure 2, the vegan and vegetarian diets, and at least one of the following, are reported for the Finland Eats material. Figure 2 shows that after 2014, all reported dietary restrictions on meat consumption increased.

Figure 2. Vegetarians in the Health Behaviour and Health among the Finnish Adult Population Survey (Adult Survey) (Helakorpi et al. 2012, Helldán et al. 2013a, 2013b, Helldán & Helakorpi 2015) and vegetarians, vegans and respondents who do not eat red meat in the Finland Eats survey (FE), from 2008 to 2018, among aged 15-64 years, percentage of respondents

I also looked at age groups separately for men and women in the Adult Survey data for 2011–2014 (Figure 3) and in the Finland Eats data for 2018 (Figure 4). The problem with an age-based analysis is that the response rate was low in the Adult Survey study, especially among young men. In any case, in both studies and in the results reported in Figure 1, young women were systematically more likely to be vegetarians compared to the other groups. The popularity of the diet that excludes red meat was slightly different: it was the most popular among young women, but, for example, 8.9% of women aged 55–64 years stated that they followed such a diet.

Figure 3. Vegetarians in the Health Behaviour and Health among the Finnish Adult Population survey (Adult Survey) from 2011 to 2014, by gender and age (Helakorpi ym. 2012, Helldán ym. 2013a, 2013b, Helldán & Helakorpi 2015), percentage of respondents

Figure 4. Followers of vegan, vegetarian, vegan/vegetarian diet or diet that does not include red meat, by gender and age, the Finland eats survey, in 2018, percentage of respondents

What can be concluded from the above figures? The proportions of vegetarians and vegans vary somewhat from year to year, but some of the variation may be explained by different research methods, the age distributions of the subjects, and random variation. However, the results of the Finland Eats data can be interpreted as an increase in the proportion of vegans and vegetarians between 2014 and 2016 and between 2016 and 2018. At the same time, the proportion of respondents who did not eat red meat also increased. In other words, after the so-called “veggie trend” began, the proportion of Finns who follow vegetarian diets and avoid red meat seems to have increased (see Jallinoja et al. 2019b).

Vegetarian diets and meat consumption in other studies

I have not found similar surveys repeated over several years in other countries. According to individual studies, the percentage of vegetarians and vegans in other countries is also a few per cent (see Jallinoja et al. 2019a summary table). However, Djurens Rätt, a Swedish animal rights association, has examined the proportion of vegans and vegetarians in the population in 2009 and between 2014 and 2018 (Djurens Rätt 2014, 2018) (Figure 5). According to these studies, the proportion of vegetarians in Sweden increased by the spring of 2018, while the proportion of vegans declined. It is possible that the phenomenon emphasizing the flexibility of vegan eating is channelled towards more permissive vegetarianism than tighter veganism. According to another Swedish study in 2019, 16% of Swedes reported being “flexitarians”, while 5% followed a vegetarian diet and 2% followed a vegan diet (Matrapport 2019).

Figure 5. Vegetarians and vegans in Sweden, from 2009 to 2018 (Djurens Rätt, 2014, 2018), percentage of respondents

Djurens Rätt also asked non-vegetarians whether their interest in choosing vegetarian food had increased or decreased over the past 12 months. The share of respondents who showed a significant or slightly increased interest rose from 26% to 47% between 2009 and 2017 (Djurens Rätt, 2014, 2018). However, the number of these people in the 2018 survey no longer increased (Djurens Rätt 2018).

Alongside the prevalence of vegans and vegetarians, it is interesting to look at the changes in meat consumption in Finland. The Natural Resources Agency’s Nutrition Balance Sheet shows that until recent years, total meat consumption had increased, and for the last three years (2016–2018), consumption has remained at about 81 kg per year (Natural Resources Centre 2019). In the autumn of 2019, the Pellervo Economic Research Centre predicted that meat consumption in Finland would start to decline (Arovuori et al. 2019). According to Swedish Jordbruksverket statistics, total meat consumption in Sweden has already begun to decline (Jordbruksverket 2019).

Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) data indicate that meat consumption had increased in Finland until recent years: according to the FINRISKI study, meat consumption among women in the two top education groups increased between 1997 and 2012. Among men, meat consumption in the lower third of the education classes increased in particular (Raulio et al. 2016). According to the Finravinto study, in 2017, 26% of women and 79% of men ate more meat than recommended (Valsta et al. 2018).

Conclusions

The results of this review show that at the beginning of the 2000s, the proportion of vegetarians decreased in all groups. The share of vegetarians, vegans and those avoiding red meat started to grow after 2014.

Based on these results, can it be said there has been a “veggie trend”?

Late-modern societies are characterized by a rapid cycle of dietary regimes (Jallinoja, Mäkelä & Niva 2018, Jallinoja et al. 2019b). At the same time, food choices are influenced by a number of long-term trends, such as the high value placed on health, naturalness and environmental issues (Jallinoja et al. 2018, Gronow 1997, Mäkelä & Niva 2015). It also seems that the same diets always resurface in slightly different versions and reflect the long-term developments mentioned above. For example, a few years ago low-carbohydrate diets received a lot of media attention (Jauho 2016, see also Knight 2012), but after 2012 the number of followers decreased (Jallinoja et al. 2019b). However, paleo and ketosis diets can be regarded as some kind of throwback because they also restrict the intake of simple carbohydrates.

Interest in vegetarian diets has also fluctuated, and the growing interest in vegetarian diets in the 2010s is not the first wave of vegetarian mobilization in Finland. The first increase in interest lies roughly between the last years of the 19th century and the 1930s: Finland’s first vegetarian cookbook was published in 1894, and by 1910 there were already four vegetarian restaurants in Helsinki. The first association, Finlands vegetariska föreningen, was founded in 1907. The Finnish Vegetarian Association, founded in 1913, justified vegetarianism by the unnatural and unhealthy nature of eating meat (Vornanen 2016, pp. 270–271; see also Auvinen 2019, 49–53) and it had 800 members (Vornanen 2016, p. 272). It is impossible to estimate how many Finns at that time followed a vegetarian diet.

In the 1990s, the vegan movement in Finland was part of the “fourth wave” of environmental protest that peaked in 1995–1998 (Konttinen 1999, see also Auvinen 2019, 65–67). The Vegan Association of Finland was founded in 1993 and the Animal Rights group (Oikeutta eläimille) in 1995. However, a study of household food choices between 1966 and 2006 shows that the proportion of non-meat households began to increase in the early 1980s, from being less than one per cent in the 1970, rising to 5.46% in 1985, 6.86% in 1998 and 5.81% in 2006 (Vinnari, Mustonen & Räsänen 2010). The impact of the animal rights movement in the 1990s may be reflected in the 1999 and 2001 figures of the Adolescent Survey reported in this review.

The results of this review for 2014–2018 suggest that as conventional and social media activity around vegan eating increased, a greater proportion of Finns began to adopt vegan, vegetarian diets or red meat-free diets. The followers of these diets – especially the vegan diet – were still very few in 2014, and despite the increase, the proportions were still low in 2018. An age-group analysis shows that the popularity among young women is well above these averages. Women are more likely than men to follow either a vegetarian, vegan (see also Vinnari, Mustonen & Räsänen 2010) or red meat-free diet.

Currently, social media plays a central role in spreading various food phenomena (Isotalo et al. 2018) and the Internet can even be considered an infrastructure for many contemporary social movements (Jallinoja et al. 2019a, Stolle & Micheletti, 2013). Social media, however, tends to produce only “instant moments of togetherness” and it is typically weak at generating long-lasting political activity and networks (Poell & van Dijk, 2015). Thus, diets and food phenomena are constantly challenged by critics and proponents of other diets.

In any case, it will be exciting to see how different diets limiting meat consumption evolve. Climate change, environmental problems and animal welfare are constantly on the public agenda, so the central argument for vegetarian diets is not going away anytime soon. In the autumn of 2018, the decision to start a weekly vegetarian food day at the garrison refectories of the Defence Forces sparked controversy (Jallinoja 2018). The same happened in September 2019 when it was announced that canteens providing food to students at the University of Helsinki would stop serving beef. At least for the time being, the question of meat and vegetarian food seems to remain a hot topic in both conventional and social media.

PIIA JALLINOJA

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Piia Jallinoja

Piia Jallinoja is a Professor of Health Sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere.