New research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that people in the United States hold racial stereotypes about vegetarianism. The findings indicate that vegetarianism is perceived to be a “White” behavior.
“Vegetarian diets offer a lot of benefits — they can improve health, support environmental sustainability, and reduce the amount of suffering experienced by nonhuman animals,” said study author study author Daniel L. Rosenfeld, a PhD candidate at UCLA. “As plant-based foods (like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger) become more mainstream and propel cultural shifts toward more vegetarian lifestyles, it’s important to consider how racially inclusive these lifestyles seem.”
“For quite a while before conducting this research, I’d noticed that beliefs about race were intertwined with beliefs about vegetarianism. In many media instances, for instance, it seemed like vegetarians were stereotypically depicted as White people, especially white women who are middle-to-upper class.”
“Consider this: who comes to mind when you imagine the prototypical person who would order kale salad or eat a bowl of quinoa with tofu? Food is a clear marker of identity,” Rosenfeld explained. “And yet, despite these intuitions, there hadn’t been any research delving into the nature of stereotypes about race and vegetarianism. So I was motivated to fill that knowledge gap and see what was going on.”
To better understand racialized perceptions of vegetarianism, the researchers explicitly asked 1,853 adults from the United States how strongly they associated vegetarianism with white people, Black people, Latino people, and Asian people. They found that participants associated vegetarianism most strongly with white people, followed by Asian people, and least strongly with Black and Latino people.
Rosenfield and his colleagues also observed implicit associations between vegetarianism and whiteness. In a second study, which included 192 Black and 194 white adults, the researchers used the Implicit Association Test to demonstrate that participants unconsciously associated vegetarianism with white people.
“We found that people in the United States hold strong stereotypes about race and vegetarianism,” Rosenfield told PsyPost. “Namely, people associate being a vegetarian with being white. It’s worth emphasizing that this is a belief people hold, not necessarily a reflection of reality. There have been many surveys in recent years finding that white people are actually less likely to be vegetarians than are people of color.”
“This disconnect between stereotype and reality is rather striking, and is certainly worthy of deeper consideration. But we ought to keep in mind that stereotypes are powerful beliefs people have — and they’re powerful regardless of whether they reflect any degree of reality or not.”
In a third study, which included 403 Black adults, the researchers found that participants who were randomly assigned to reflect on their racial stereotypes about vegetarianism tended to feel less connected to the vegetarian community compared to those in the control group.
Interestingly, Rosenfield and his research team found evidence that a simple intervention could increase belongingness. Their fourth and final study, which included 592 Black nonvegetarian adults, found a slideshow about vegetarianism that included both Black and white people made vegetarianism more appealing to Black individuals.
But does the association between vegetarianism and whiteness exist outside of the United States? It might, but there’s reason to believe that the findings are culturally constrained — a topic for future research.
“Food and race are two constructs with deep roots in culture,” Rosenfield explained. “The meaning of food varies greatly across different cultures, as does the meaning of race — so we could expect that racial stereotypes about food will vary across cultures. Our research found strong stereotypes linking beliefs about vegetarianism to beliefs about White people, and it’s possible that this association may be the case in other cultures too, but we can’t make that assumption.”
“It’s important to conduct this type of research in other cultures beyond the United States to know for sure,” Rosenfield added. “Also important, within and beyond the United States, is now to find ways of making vegetarianism seem more inclusive to all people.”
“If strong racial stereotypes exist about vegetarianism, and if those stereotypes could deter certain groups of people from eating plant-based foods or if they could make people feel ostracized in certain spaces because of their race, then it’s vital to come up with ways to combat existing stereotypes and to change the narrative surrounding what it means to eat plant-based foods.”
The study, “Racialized Perceptions of Vegetarianism: Stereotypical Associations That Undermine Inclusion in Eating Behaviors“, was authored by Daniel L. Rosenfeld, Tiffany N. Brannon, and A. Janet Tomiyama.