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updated 9/17/2004 12:13:47 PM ET 2004-09-17T16:13:47

Americans are — slowly — turning vegetarian.

Vegetarian food sales doubled since 1998, hitting $1.6 billion in 2003. The market is forecast to grow another 61 percent by 2008, according to Mintel, a global market research firm. That growth is giving an extra kick to the expanding business of organic produce and natural foods companies, and forcing mainstream food producers to scramble for a way to love veggies.

What's in the way of faster change? Meat. A recent poll found 81 percent of the consumers surveyed said "a healthy diet should include meat."

Chalk it up to U.S. consumers being a nutritional nightmare when it comes to diet and lifestyle. Studies show more than one-third of the U.S. population is trying to reduce the amount of meat in their diet. They are occasionally consuming vegetarian foods or drinks, citing health concerns like increased risk of stroke, high blood pressure and cancer as the reason for the shift. Nearly 65 percent of adults and 15 percent of children ages six to 19 are deemed overweight.

A 2001 study by the soy industry-supported United Soybean Board found that 72 percent of consumers reported having changed their eating habits because of health concerns. But many find making diet changes challenging, and they remain lukewarm about vegetarianism, with only a small percentage regularly eating vegetarian foods.

Part of the problem: myths about the dangers of a vegetarian diet. Some 66 percent said they agreed with the inaccurate statement, "vegetarian diets require added supplements," Mintel reported.

Still, market research shows that the number of consumers who lean toward some sort of vegetarianism is increasing across all age groups. The Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that 2.8 percent of adult Americans consider themselves vegetarian, up from 2.3 percent in a 2000 survey. Another 6 percent to 10 percent of the population said it was "almost vegetarian" and another 20 percent to 25 percent are "vegetarian inclined," or intentionally reducing meat in their diet, according to VRG. Predictably, women have a higher interest than men in consuming vegetarian foods and drinks, according to the Mintel survey.

The exhaustive Mintel report defined vegetarian foods as those items that directly replace animal or meat-related products, such as soy milk and textured vegetable protein.

Major companies like Kraft Foods, Kellogg, General Mills, ConAgra Foods and Dean Foods, which once resisted the trend toward meat substitutes, are now taking the shift in American diets seriously. Most have either bought natural and vegetarian food companies, or have begun offering their own lines of meat substitutes.

Kellogg purchased Worthington Foods in 1999, adding the fast-growing Morningstar Farms brand. Kraft owns Boca Foods of Madison, Wis., and Dean Foods acquired popular soy milk producer White Wave in 2002.

New product flavors, packaging and wider distribution moved vegetarian foods out of the traditional health-food specialty store and into the mass-market channel. This shift, along with a steady barrage of medical studies and changes in U.S. government labeling requirements, has led to greater consumption, lower prices and further acceptance of vegetarian foods.

Soy protein, for example, has been shown to lower cholesterol, and food companies have latched on to this fact, claiming soy reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. Not surprisingly, soy and dairy milk alternatives showed the strongest growth of vegetarian foods from 2001 to 2003, increasing 68 percent to an estimated $301 million in 2003, according to Mintel. By far the largest segment is frozen meat substitutes accounting for 73 percent of vegetarian foods sales.

Interest in vegetarianism is highest among the youngest age groups (ages 25 to 34), according to Mintel. But their enthusiasm tends to decline over time for a number of reasons, including life-stage changes such as marriage, birth of children and new careers. As vegetarians age, they tend to regain interest in low-meat diets as a move toward healthier living.

The number of baby boomers ages 45 to 64 should increase nearly 30 percent between 2003 and 2008, helping fuel sales of meat and dairy substitutes. The baby boomer segment is showing an unprecedented interest in "food as medicine" products, including those that provide them with short- and long-term health benefits, according to research published in the 2001 HealthFocus Trend Report. The group also has tremendous spending power — $1.6 trillion — and owns 50 percent of all discretionary income.

So far, the most popular meat substitutes mimic the texture and taste of meat patties or links, eliminating the fat-laden calories and the corresponding bulging waistlines. But most consumers won't trade off the taste of cooked animal flesh for spongy vegetable protein, no matter how it is prepared. A good T-bone steak is hard to beat and even harder to fake.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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