ConText: Meat-Free

Meat-free? You mean vegetarian? Don't say that word! We do not utter the V-word any more - it has too many negative connotations…

Meat-free? You mean vegetarian?Don't say that word! We do not utter the V-word any more - it has too many negative connotations. There is a growing band of people who want to buy food that contains no meat, but who do not wish to be tarred with the "vegetarian" brush. For these people, the term to use is "meat-free".

How pedantic.

Supermarket chains across the UK are dropping the V-word from their products and replacing it with "meat-free", in deference to shoppers who don't want to be mistaken for beardy, sandal-wearing, brown-rice nibblers who spend all their time at peace rallies and folk festivals. Supermarkets want to, er, beef up the image of so-called vegetarian food and make it more palatable to people who want to have a healthy diet but don't want to be seen as hippies.

But it's only a word - what's the big deal?


It's a word that, for many consumers, comes with a lot of unsavoury baggage, conjuring up unwelcome images of bland tofu dishes and tasteless soya burgers. According to trade magazine Grocer, replacing "vegetarian" with "meat-free" on food labels has helped boost sales by 5.5 per cent in the past year.

So what are these meat-free products, and where can I get them?

Many meat-substitute products, such as Grassington's Red Onion and Double Cheese Sausages, are available in the UK, but you might be able to find Quorn products here, as they are the dominant meat-free brand. If the trend away from the V-word continues, however, all vegetarian products will now be labelled meat-free.

How do vegetarians feel about this?

By and large, the sandal-and-brown-rice brigade are happy with the development, because they are no longer ghettoised. The "meat-free" label is more inclusive, taking in vegetarians, vegans, people who eat no meat but do eat fish, and those who just want to eat less meat. The latter category are known as meat-reducers, and the new meat-free labels are aimed at them.

Why bother with all this label-changing for products with a minority appeal?

Last year, the UK vegetarian food market was worth £254 million (€341 million), and it's expected to increase. The influence of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is trying to persuade children to have a healthier diet, will also be felt. He's launching a range of sauces and salads, soon to be in Tesco.

Try at home:

"I suppose you'll be going off to Electric Picnic with all your meat-reducer friends and guzzling blueberry smoothies all weekend."

Try at work:

"I tried to get into that new meat-free restaurant, but they wouldn't let me in wearing sandals."

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist