Vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based foods are a rapidly growing retail market. The number of people who consume plant-based and flexitarian diets (adding some dairy, fish, and meat) was reported in 2019 as 65 percent to 90 percent up in several countries (to 12 percent in Australia and 17 percent in the U.S.), while 20 percent of Canadians call themselves vegans or vegetarian. 

The UK and Germany reported sales for plant-based and vegan foods of 18-20 percent in 2018. According to the Mintel Global New Product Database in January 2019, the UK was the nation with the highest number of new vegan food products launched in 2018, toppling Germany from its number one spot. 

The UK Vegan Society says demand for meat-free food increased by 987 percent in 2017, while a Vegan Society survey in 2018 found that the number of vegans in the country had grown fourfold in four years from 150,000 to 600,000 (1.16 percent of the population). UK retailer Waitrose said vegan and vegetable food sales jumped by 85 percent in 2018, while Sainsbury’s announced a 65 percent increase in sales. 

U.S. researcher SPINS flagged that plant-based snacks will grow by an annual compound growth of eight percent between 2017-18 to $4.28 billion, accelerating to an estimated US$6 billion by 2020.

According to a webinar from Euromonitor International in May 2019 on the driving forces behind plant-based diets, meat reduction is a bigger story than meat avoidance. Reasons for interest in plant-based foods are climate concern, health ambitions, and animal welfare. Price is an issue for meat substitutes that are on average 43 percent more expensive per kilogram.

Euromonitor said that globally, “Vegans are 2 percent; Once-in-a-while-vegans 7 percent; One-meal-vegans 17 percent”, while ‘Flexivegans’ are targets for vegan labeled packaged food that makes it easy to try vegan without having to learn all about it.

Ecovia Intelligence, a market research firm based in the UK and organizer of the Sustainable Food Summits, believes 2019 will be the year that plant-based products become mainstream in the food industry. Large operators are investing in plant-based foods to capitalize on the veganism trend and surging demand for sustainable foods.“In the UK, Pret A Manger plans to buy Eat and convert the chain’s 94 sandwich stores into vegetarian outlets. McDonald’s recently launched the Big Vegan TS in the German market, and Burger King launched a meatless Whopper in the US. In Canada, A&W has introduced its Deluxe Veggie Burger made with vegetables and Portobello mushrooms, while Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, has recently launched its Garden Gourmet Incredible Burger in Europe, made from soy and whey protein.

Plant-based diets are linked to better health 

Leading academics and industry groups have pointed out that people who adopt a plant-based diet should consume more whole foods: fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, and less over processed food.

Vegan and plant-based diets, including the Mediterranean Diet, have been linked in many studies to better health and a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cataracts, and some cancers.   These diets are rich in whole diverse foods with minimal processing to provide all the critical nutrients needed for good health, such as a high content of fiber, folic acid, vitamins B12, C and E, potassium, magnesium, zinc and an unsaturated fat content.

A recent study in the Journal of American Cardiology in April 2019, Dietary Patterns and Incident Heart Failure in U.S. Adults Without Known Coronary Disease, found that the plant-based diet, which was rich in vegetables, fruit, beans, and fish, can slash heart failure risk by 41 percent.

One issue is that conventional food suppliers, some who are major meat and dairy manufacturers, along with giant supermarkets, are using vegan and the friendlier plant-based food branding to launch over processed products that mimic the taste and texture of meals with meat, dairy, and eggs, but may not be all that healthy. 

Plant-based processed foods may also contain GMO soybeans, canola oil, and oats, chickpeas and other ingredients that are known as healthy, but if coming from intensive agriculture they might be loaded with glyphosate, unless they are organic and non-GMO certified.

Looking at reports and websites that quote ten leading industry associations and highly qualified dietitians and nutritionists including academics since 2015, only one gave full support for the ability of vegan diets to meet all the critical nutrients needed for good health, the British Dietetic Association. One academic said a vegetarian diet that allows milk or eggs is generally safe, while one dietician backed a plant-based diet supported by animal proteins.

Writing on the mindbodygreen.com website, U.S. registered holistic nutritionist Michelle Strong said that vegans and vegetarians are not getting enough protein, eat far too many grain products (consider healthier sources such as quinoa), poor quality substitutes are often used to replace meats and that they are missing out on the health benefits of animal-based protein.

Professor Mary Fewtrell, of Paediatric Nutrition at University College London UK, warned in 2017 that in some cases, a poorly managed vegan diet could lead to death for young children. Professor Fewtrell said it is difficult to ensure a healthy and balanced vegan diet in young infants. Parents should understand the severe consequences of failing to follow advice regarding supplementation of the diet.

In August 2017, the UK’s largest organization representing dietetics and nutrition, the British Dietetic Association (BDA), said that a well-planned vegan diet could “support healthy living in people of all ages” in an official document signed by its CEO, Andy Burman. The BDA renewed its memorandum of understanding with The Vegan Society to state that children and adults can enjoy a balanced vegan diet, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding if the nutritional intake is well-planned.

UK-based functional nutrition therapist Vanessa Kahler (B.Sc. Hons) told BBC News in 2017 that: "Vegan is a plant-based diet with high vegetables but also large amounts of cereal grains (both refined and unrefined) and legumes, both of which are low in bio-available nutrients and high in anti-nutrients such as phytate. On the other hand, “whole food animal products such as organic meats, fish, and shellfish and eggs are among the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat.”

U.S. registered dietician Sharon Palmer, writing in Today’s Dietitian in April 2018, said: “Most respected sources place great emphasis on supplementing the vegan diet with adequate B12 sources. The Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (VNDPG) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that all vegetarians (including vegans) should include a reliable B12 source in their diets, such as fortified foods or supplements.

“It's crucial for health care professionals—as well as clients—to understand the significance and intricacies of sufficient vitamin B12 intake for vegan diets because deficiency of this essential micronutrient is serious business. Though some bacteria in the small intestines produce B12, it isn't enough to maintain adequate status in humans.”

In February 2019 the German Nutrition Society supported vegan and vegetarian diets while cautioning about some negatives of the diet, including a lack of essential vitamin B12.

The German association previously cited other "potentially critical nutrients" that may be a challenge to get in a vegan diet including omega-3s found in fatty fish (It is now known chia seeds are also a rich source of Omega- 3s) and minerals such as calcium, iron, iodine, zinc, and selenium.

Australian accredited dietitian Nicole Dynan, the founder of The Good Nutrition Co., spoke with SBS News in January 2019. She recommended that new vegans limit the number of faux-meat products they incorporate into their diet. "They can definitely be incorporated as part of the diet, but I wouldn't rely wholly and solely on them because they can be quite high in sodium and be detrimental to your health in the long term," she said. "Mostly having plants and legumes, more whole foods like that, is the way to go."