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Sylvain CharleboisCanadians love meat but other sources of protein are emerging as potent alternativesDemand is up for vegetable proteins like pulses, as well as for fish and seafood. Loblaw has even started selling cricket flour and is trying to make insect consumption mainstream.

That’s led some people to believe that vegetarian and vegan segments of the Canadian population are on the rise.

Not so much.

According to a recent poll conducted by Dalhousie University, the number of vegetarians and vegans has remained the same. But the number of Canadians who follow specific dietary practices is clearly on the rise.

Results suggest that 7.1 percent of Canadians consider themselves vegetarians and 2.3 percent vegans. These numbers are fairly consistent with several other polls conducted over the last decade or so. Vegetarians maintain a meat-free diet while vegans also abstain from any animal or animal-derived products, including dairy, eggs and even honey.

But even if these percentages are not shockingly high, things may get more complicated.

Poll results show that 32 percent of Canadians observe some sort of committed dietary regime. This number is one of the highest we’ve seen in recent years. Women are 1.6 times more likely to consider themselves vegetarian or vegan than men. Level of education also seems to be a significant determinant. People with an university degree are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans than those with a high school diploma.

Consumers living in British Columbia are 1.6 times more likely to identify as vegetarians or vegans than consumers living on the Prairies or in the Atlantic region. Wealthier people also seem to commit more to specific diets. Consumers who earn more than $150,000 a year are twice as likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans as consumers earning less than $80,000.

And consumers under 35 are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans than consumers who are 49 or older. Three times is a lot.

Experts argue that the rise of speciality diets is due to consumers associating vegetarianism and veganism not just with animal welfare, as they did in the past, but also with healthier and cleaner products. Others are rejecting industrialized agriculture altogether.

Health appears more and more to be a factor. The poll suggests that more than 12 percent of Canadians are diabetic. Consumers aged 49 and up are twice as likely to adopt a diabetic diet over time than those under the age of 35. As our population gets older, it’s difficult to see how that number could drop any time soon.

Questions concerning allergies also garnered interesting results. Almost 12 percent of Canadians mentioned having allergies and more than 20 percent of households with more than two children said they had to constantly watch for allergens. These are alarming results.

For years, allergens have been a nightmare for food companies and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Of the 35 food recalls issued by federal regulators so far in 2018, almost a third were due to ingredients not on labels. Oddly, consumers in the Prairies are two times more likely to suffer from food allergies than in Quebec.

Religious beliefs also lead a small segment of Canadians to choose specialty products like halal or kosher foods. A total of 2.3 percent of Canadians mentioned eating halal foods regularly while less than one percent choose kosher products. Halal and kosher foods aren’t always easily available but this could change with our immigration ambitions. 

This is just one survey and it only polled 1,049 Canadians. Results must be taken with a grain of salt, no pun intended.

Still, these results point to much more heterogeneous food demand. No wonder Air Canada offers 18 special meal options for international flights. Catering companies and restaurants also know that serving patrons is becoming more about customizing servings than delivering a standardized meal.

So if you have no specific dietary needs, you’re still in the majority. But with a younger generation seeking more dietary nuances, this could change over the next decade.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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