Is 'Vegan' a Dirty Word? Study Finds It Turns Some People Off

5 min read

Dec. 13, 2023 – Going vegan isn’t just good for the planet – the diet has been found to help you lose weight and lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, some kinds of heart disease and cancer, and high blood pressure. Giving up all animal products can also improve your gut microbiota and help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar. And the latest research suggests you’ll start to see benefits in just 8 weeks. So why is it that only about 1% of Americans say they follow a vegan diet?

It may just be the word “vegan.”

In a new study, researchers at the University of Southern California set out to learn how vegan labeling influenced consumers. They offered more than 7,000 people a choice between two gourmet food gift baskets. One included meat and dairy, and the other held exclusively plant-based foods. The basket without animal products was chosen just 20% of the time when it was labeled “vegan” – but when it bore labels like “healthy” and “sustainable,” more than twice as many people in the study selected it. 

Why Veganism Gets a Bad Rap

“There’s a perception that vegans are judgmental and joyless, and vegan diets are boring,” said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, PhD, one of the researchers. A vegan herself, she sees it in her own life. “If I eat with somebody and I say I’m vegan, some people feel defensive. They feel like I’m questioning their food choices. They apologize for eating meat in front of me or make jokes about it.”

While people talk about “meatless Monday” and vegetarianism as simply a dietary choice, veganism gets tied up with morality and ethics. 

“Taking an ethical stance against consuming animals goes against normative ways of thinking and acting,” said Daniel Rosenfeld, a sixth-year PhD candidate in social psychology at UCLA. He’s done research into the link between masculinity and meat-eating, and why meat eaters expect vegan food to taste bad. “It seems moralistic, and anything that seems moralistic can make people feel threatened on their own sense of morality.”

In some ways, Rosenfeld said, veganism may threaten a person’s identity. The concept of carnism – a belief system that tells us it’s fine to eat certain animals – isn’t something most of us think about. But that’s how an omnivore knows it’s acceptable to eat cows, but not dogs.

“When people are exposed to veganism, through increasing sales of products or meeting vegan people, it sends a signal that maybe carnism – eating animals – isn’t so dominant anymore,” he said. Therein lies the threat. “People like to hold on to longstanding social norms, especially if you’re in the dominant group.”

This has led to veganism taking on political implications. 

“Not political like as in right vs. left,” said Ann Kronrod, PhD, a marketing researcher who focuses on linguistics. Some people may feel that vegans want everyone to give up animal products, or that being vegan requires a level of activism, she explained. “The feeling is that this is a limitation to freedom of choice.”

The Politics of Veganism

Those political effects are linked to people’s motivation for adopting a vegan diet. This goes much deeper than simply preferring vegetables. Ethical veganism focuses on animal welfare – people give up all animal products in order to help prevent exploitation of other living creatures. In surveys, as many as 90% of vegans say they do it for the animals.

For some, it’s also about stopping climate change. According to the United Nations, about one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gases come from agriculture, the bulk of it from livestock. Studies have found that a vegan diet reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 70% or more, compared to diets that feature meat. The need to eat fewer animal products for the sake of the planet is receiving global attention: Last week at COP28, the annual United Nations climate meeting, more than 130 countries signed on to a declaration committing to integrate food into their climate plans by 2025. 

It's clear that far more than 1% of people care about these issues. But they don’t necessarily want to commit to going vegan. In addition to the negative undertones of the word itself, saying no to animal products of all kinds, all the time, can feel restrictive. Plus, some research has found that if a vegan diet isn’t well thought-out, it can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

“People do want plant-based, healthy, sustainable choices, but they don’t want to accept the baggage they think comes with the label,” said Alicia Kennedy, author of No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating.

That’s borne out by the study from USC. Removing the word “vegan” from the gift baskets had the most dramatic effect among devoted red-meat eaters, compared to people who called themselves healthy eaters. 

“Because veganism has such a deep connotation as something that doesn’t just mean eating a certain way, but living and believing a certain way, that can make it difficult for someone who doesn’t think of themselves as aligned with the ideology to even eat a salad without meat and cheese in it,” Kennedy said. 

Selling the Vegan Diet

Getting people to eat more food free of animal products could improve the health of both humans and the planet, and it might be as simple as dropping the word “vegan” or similar terms, like “meat-free.”

“Meat-free implies it’s a terrible thing, meat,” Kronrod said. “Maybe I don’t want to take a stand, even if I do prefer vegetable-based products.”

The nonprofit World Resources Institute put together a guidebook for the food industry to help companies move consumers toward eating more plants. One section suggests removing certain words from menus, explaining that “terms highlighting the absence of meat in a dish – vegetarian, vegan, or meat-free – are particularly unappealing to most people.”

One case study in the guidebook showed how in 2017 the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s sought to boost lagging sales of a meal they’d labeled “meat-free sausages and mash.” The company changed the name to “Cumberland-spiced veggie sausages and mash,” and sales shot up 76% in 2 months.

Similar changes are afoot in American fo­­od retailing. At this summer’s Fancy Food Show, there were plenty of new vegan products, but many didn’t use that word on the label, according to Axios. “The term ‘vegan’ is really more faux pas now unless it's associated with the lifestyle," one retailer said.

Even global mega-corporations are jumping onto the don’t-say-vegan bandwagon. Earlier this year, Swiss food giant Nestlé introduced vegan versions of their iconic Toll House chocolate morsels. The word “vegan” doesn’t appear on the packaging. Instead, they’re called “plant-based.”­­­­

“If you think about names, what you call yourself, how it defines who you are, I think the definition of vegan, the way it is today – it’s more than just a food choice,” Kronrod said . “It’s a decision of who do I support? Or who do I not?”