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On Wednesday I suggested that there are 3.5 million vegetarians in Britain. That statistic came from Raw Food Health, but just how reliable is it? Just how many vegetarians are there really? How can we know for sure?

The short answer is that we can’t. Like any data of this type it is gathered by surveying small samples and extrapolating the percentages up to the whole population, meaning that, even assuming that people are honest, one sample of 1000 people may deliver different results to another. At the end of the day, unless you attach a “dietary preference” question to the census form, you’ll never have a completely accurate representation, but more some plausible results with a margin of error.

What is for sure is that vegetarianism in Britain certainly increased in popularity through the latter half of the 20th century, with a big boost in the 90s (partly boosted by the BSE crisis, it is popularly theorised). Whether the popularity of vegetarianism has now stagnated, however, remains as up for debate as a totally accurate number. According to consumer research company Mintel, while there just 0.2% of the British population called themselves vegetarian in the Second World War, that number rose to 1.8% in 1980. By around 2009, 6% of people responded affirmatively to the statement “I am a vegetarian“, the statistic I cited on Wednesday.

At the same time, however, the Food Standards Agency’s Public Attitudes to Food survey suggested that, although that many people may self define as “vegetarian”, they are actually not being strict in their observation of a meat-free diet. According to the FSA the number of properly strict vegetarians in Britain is actually closer to 3%, while 5% of people are partly or selectively vegetarian (pescaterians or people who don’t eat red meat).

However, since this survey was conducted in 2009, the FSA have also conducted an annual National Diet and Nutrition Survey. In each year of 2010, 2011 and 2012, this survey reported less than 2% of respondents that were vegetarians. If that is the case, the number of vegetarians in the country would amount to something closer to 1.25 million than 3.5, meaning a pretty wide margin of error.

So, how many vegetarians are there in Britain? Millions, but how many millions remains somewhat up for debate.

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