Although the precise definition of vegetarianism is open to debate, the number of people choosing to exclude meat from their diets seems to have followed a steady upward curve over the past decade. A 2002 Datamonitor report estimated that there are around 12 million vegetarians in Europe, and a Time/CNN poll of 10,000 American adults the same year found 4 percent of the population (more than 11 million people) to be self proclaimed vegetarians.
Data from Datamonitor's ProductScan Online database suggests that launches of supplements mentioning the word 'vegetarian' in their marketing may have followed a similar curve.
In the US, Datamonitor identified 147 stock keeping units (skus) in the US in 2005, compared to 85 the previous year. The top year, however was 2003, when 172 skus were identified. In 1999, just 52 were identified.
In Europe, it identified 24 skus in 2005 compared to 15 the previous year and just five in 2003. However the 2003 figure represents a major dip from the 2002 figure of 21. In 1999 seven skus showed up.
Tom Vierhile, director of Productscan Online, explained the gulf between the figures for the two markets by ProductScan's more in-depth coverage of the US market.
NutraIngredients.com has identified more and more vegetarian supplement ingredients being offered by major suppliers. Lukas Christian, global product manager for beta-carotene at DSM Nutritional Products (which has a portfolio of non-animal alternatives to popular ingredients) said he believes the demand stems not so much from growing numbers of traditional vegetarians, but from people who are concerned about diseases in certain animal species.
He expects vegetarian ingredients to become more than a niche over the next five to 10 years, representing 30 to 50 percent of all ingredients.
Since 1999 there have been a number of animal health scares that have made headline news, such as foot and mouth disease in 2001, avian 'flu in 2005.
BSE has been a concern since the mid 1990s, but fears heightened in the US in 2004 following diagnosis of the disease in a small number of cattle there.
But Chris Olivant of the Vegetarian Society offered another explanation of the increasing numbers of vegetarian supplements coming to market. He told NutraIngredients.com that companies have been looking for more ways to differentiate themselves as the vitamin market has become more mature.
The viewpoint is certainly backed up by market research, which shows that supplement-makers have reformulated their products to meet the requirements of certain age demographics, such as the over-50s or young women, or to help protect against particular ailments like high cholesterol, osteoporosis or sight loss.
In this climate and with their numbers increasing - for whatever reason - vegetarians represents a slice of the population worth marketing to.
As to the kinds of supplements coming to market, Vierhile said: "Pretty much every type of vitamin or supplement was represented in the results."
However he added that herbal supplements appeared to be well represented.
According to Olivant, the most useful supplements for the vegetarians contain nutrients that may be limited in their diet, such as omega-3. He expects that supplements derived from microalgae, which are relatively new to the market, will prove popular.
He also has high hopes for vegetarian glucosamine. The usual source of the joint health ingredient is shrimp, but Cargill has brought to market vegetarian glucosamine hydrocholoride, derived from fungus.
For vegans, it is important that they supplement their diet with vitamin B12, which is found only in animal derivatives.