Vegetarians fall into four distinct types. The largest group are lacto-ovo-vegetarians; they do not eat meat but consume eggs and dairy products. Lacto-vegetarians avoid both meat and eggs but consume dairy products. Vegans consume no animal products of any kind; not even honey. A fourth group consists of those who occasionally eat fish but no other meats; though are not technically vegetarians, this group, along with vegetarians who make occasional lapses, supports the market for vegetarian food products and restaurants. Various polls estimate that from four to ten percent of the American public are vegetarians, while a full third or more of the consuming public goes meatless (or avoids “red” meat like beef and pork) often enough to constitute a part of the vegetarian market. The level of serious vegetarianism tends to be higher among females than among males; up to twice as high by some estimates.
At one time, vegetarians were considered to be part of a counter-culture fringe, but no longer. Some indications that vegetarianism has joined the mainstream include the prevalence of vegetarian items in the prepared meal section of supermarket freezer cases (Lasagna Primavera, Vegetable Chili, Bean and Rice Burritos, Veggie Loaf), the wide availability of soy milk and packaged tofu (bean curd), and the popularity of vegetable and soy burgers in many venues, including franchised fast food outlets. Vegetarians usually want the food they eat to also be organic and natural, whenever possible, and to be free of chemicals, ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms, and additives. Natural specialty food producers manufacture many products that look and feel like meat—from hot dogs to chicken strips to meatballs—out of strictly vegetarian materials, typically using textured soy protein (which is also available as a cooking ingredient for home use).
Vegetarians become vegetarians because they oppose the slaughter or agricultural exploitation of animals, for health reasons, or sometimes for religious reasons. Many immigrants from India bring their vegetarian foodways to the United States; religious Jews who follow Kosher dietary laws know that vegetarian foods are safe for them to eat without risking combining meat and dairy products or ingesting proscribed foods such as pork and shellfish. Vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular with American teenagers, particularly among girls. Vegetarians in the United States have their own web sites, magazines, social networks, restaurant and food product guides and even dating services.
Vegetarian restaurants, available in both general and ethnic formats, are only the tip of the iceberg in vegetarian dining; the wide popularity of salad restaurants, buffets at natural foods stores, and even all-you-can-eat restaurants gives vegetarians (at least those who don’t object to meat being served to others at the same venues) considerable options when they dine out. Chinese and other Asian restaurants may offer vegetarian menu sections. At events, conventions, meetings, banquets, and even in general menu restaurants, vegetarians are finding more and more choices that fit in with their dietary regimes. Gone are the days when the vegetarian had to settle for canned peaches, a clump of cottage cheese, and a soggy piece of lettuce.