Vegan on a budget: Is it really cheaper?

Some people mistakenly believe that a vegan lifestyle is one that is only accessible to the middle and upper classes, or to those who are rich and privileged. This is based on the idea that factors other than ‘price’ are at stake when comparing the cost of a diet: such factors include time, effort, education, and difficulty.

It is true that adopting a vegan lifestyle in an omnivorous world can be difficult - to do so is to accept that one forms part of a minority rather than part of a majority. It does involve reeducation, readjustment and effort. However, the key factor that shoppers consider before and after arriving at the checkout - especially during a cost of living crisis - is price.

And by the metric of price, is it not true that plants have always been cheaper than meat, and that, by extension, a vegan diet is cheaper than an omnivorous one? 

The short answer: it depends. The long answer? A vegan shopping basket need not be any more expensive than one belonging to an omnivore. Cheap vegan food is everywhere to be found.

Is vegan food expensive?

Recent research from the University of Oxford suggested that it is possible to reduce the cost of a food shop by up to one third by adopting a vegan diet. Furthermore, an Ipsos Mori study in 2018 generated similar findings: according to their results, lower income households were more likely than medium or high income households to adopt a flexitarian diet, whereas higher income households tended to adopt more omnivorous diets. In other words, those with less disposable income not only know that ditching meat and dairy is more wallet-friendly, but they also put this into practice.

But is being vegan on a budget realistic?

The previous studies do not necessarily paint a comprehensive picture. Notably, the Oxford study did not take into account the cost of meat and dairy alternatives. A 2022 Food Spend Report that did account for this found contrasting results: it estimated that vegans were actually spending 28% more on groceries than the national average. This report also suggested that the average shopper spends about £21 a month on meat, whilst those following a vegan diet supposedly spend roughly £35 a month on meat substitutes.

A possible explanation for such findings, borrowing Andrew Anthony’s eloquent words, is that veganism is undergoing a “gastronomic revolution”, leaving in its wake the ascetic image of simple vegan abstinence of days gone by. With ever-growing options for alternative meat and dairy products - and a market expected to be worth $160 billion by 2030 in the US alone - vegans of the 2020s increasingly enjoy an abundance of choice when they arrive at the supermarket, the local fast-food joint, or even the great British pub. It is perhaps unsurprising that vegans are spending more money to sample the vast swathes of new alternative products.

The large and growing range of new options especially benefits vegans who are new to the diet - a demographic of considerable size. Ipsos Mori’s study estimated that only 34% of vegans had been following the diet for 2 years or more, demonstrating that a large section of the community are newcomers who are likely to opt for the familiar textures and flavours of plant based meat alternatives, perhaps even regardless of their price.

Sezeryadigar/Getty Images Signature via Canva Pro

Sezeryadigar/Getty Images Signature via Canva Pro

Is vegan food cheaper in the cost of living crisis?

The cost of living crisis affects all consumers, albeit unequally. This is no more apparent than in the dairy sector. Bloomberg recently announced that plant based milks were gradually becoming as cheap as, if not cheaper than, cow’s milk. Citing data gathered by Assosia - which looked at own brand milks across four of the UK’s main supermarkets - Bloomberg found that the price of cow’s milk had jumped by 36% between Jan-Oct 2022, coming in at £1.10 per litre, whereas soya and almond were priced at £1.07 and £1.05 per litre respectively. Data from the Grocery Price Index 2021-2022 (GPI) corroborate these findings, showing that while cow’s milk had increased by 29.5%, soya, almond, and oat milk had only increased by 17.6%, 8.3%, and 6.7% respectively.

Moreover, the GPI provides further data to suggest that vegan products are experiencing lower rates of inflation than products from the animal agriculture industries. Vegan mayo experienced a 7.3% rise; ‘standard’ mayo increased by 15.6%. Beef mince (15.4%), chicken breasts (19.4%), and eggs (14.1%) all rose significantly, whereas tofu (8.5%), lentils (7.4%), and vegan sausages (8.8%) rose by much less.

Cost of living: Can vegans get cheap protein?

Using recent data from trips to the Co-op, Brendan Montague at The Ecologist provided a promising analysis of protein content against price, across various vegan and non-vegan products. He found that per £1, at the top end, dried split lentils provided 69g of protein, peanut butter provided 26g, and mushy peas provided 22g. For non-vegan products at the top end, semi-skimmed milk provided 24g, chicken breasts provided 21g, and tinned mackerel provided 18g. These findings go some way towards showing that basic vegan foods can get you more protein for a lower cost than both meat substitutes and various meat and dairy products.

Have the days of rice and beans returned?

Overall, the picture looks quite positive for the vegan community. It is clear that while a vegan diet containing few meat and dairy substitutes can help to reduce a shopper’s spend, this may prove difficult for new-ish vegans, for whom the familiarity of new plant based alternatives to meat serve an important purpose. That said, vegan products are encountering weaker rates of inflation, which bodes well for the community as the UK approaches a likely recession. As purse strings tighten, it may be time to say a temporary farewell to some of the more expensive vegan alternatives, but the current economic situation should by no means deter vegans from enjoying their cheaper lifestyle.

To get you started on your eating well for less journey check out 8 cupboard staples every vegan should have. If you are looking for an easy and relatively cheap vegan meal while out and about read vegan meal deals for lunch on the go.

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