Debunking the Myth That Vegetarian Options Are Expensive

©. Just dance

Canada's new national food guide is making some people mad. Among other things, the guide urges people to eat less meat, a tip that's getting meat-eaters in quite the tizzy. Recently, Sylvain Charlebois, a food distribution professor at Dalhousie University, argued vegan and vegetarian options are too expensive for plenty of people.

"For those of us in the non-elite masses, there is a significant difference between needs and wants. We all know we need to eat veggies and adopt a healthy lifestyle, but many do not for a variety of reasons; access, affordability and convenience are factors influencing consumer behaviour every day," Charlebois wrote. "While vegetarian and vegan options have been declining in price, their still-high costs make them inaccessible to many and, regardless of whether the impression is true or not, plant-based dieting is almost seen as an elitist way of life right now."

Charlebois echoes a pervasive myth that irritates me to no end: the idea that vegan and vegetarian options are more expensive than meat. I've had carnivorous friends tell me the same thing. They seem to imagine vegans and vegetarians scarf down expensive, soy-based versions of meat dishes all the time.

"Products that actively advertise as “vegetarian/vegan” tend to be expensive," Jessica Swim, a friend of mine, pointed out. "It’s all about marketing."

What many fail to understand is that most vegetarians and vegans aren't eating fancy processed vegetarian proteins, or Whole Foods-style organic meals. They're eating beans and rice. Take India, for instance, a country where 76 million people are living on less that $1.25 a day. India has more vegetarians than anywhere in the world — roughly 30 percent of the country doesn't eat meat.

And India is hardly an exception. Countries with more money eat more meat. In most places around the world, meat is a luxury.

That's because "growing" meat is expensive. You have to feed an animal vegetables (which you also grow) for years. Think about how many soybeans a farmer has to grow to feed a cow until it reaches maturity. Or look at a menu and compare the steak sandwich to the vegetable sandwich — you'll notice the former is almost always a few dollars more.

"I can’t tell you how many hundreds, probably thousands of times I’ve subsidized meat eater’s meals at restaurants when we divided up the bill evenly, even though my vegetarian sandwich was seven dollars and everybody else’s meat dishes were 10, 12, 15...," explained Paul Berolzheimer, my uncle.

And cooking at home is even cheaper.

"I can cook a vegetarian dinner that lasts days for what a pack of chicken breasts would cost me," said Sydney Shea, another friend of mine.

There are some exceptions to this rule, as a friend of mine pointed out. Maybe you're deep in the Arctic, where no plants can grow. Maybe you live in such a food desert that the local McDonald's is the only place offering calories. And of course, if you're seriously struggling to get enough food to survive, you can't afford to take on any dietary restrictions, period.

But for the most part, dish for dish, meat is more expensive than the vegetarian equivalent. Those pricey meat substitutes are the equivalent of eating sirloin steak, while canned beans are the cheap deli meats of the vegetarian diet.

This isn't to say everyone must become a vegetarian. People have all kinds of reasons for eating meat, from digestive disorders that make them unable to process vegetables, to a lack of food knowledge and willpower. But money just isn't usually the reason. Beans are cheaper than beef.