A recent study conducted in the German-speaking part of Switzerland found that 18 percent of those questioned identified themselves as “flexitarians” – or occasional meat eaters.
Three percent were vegetarian or fish eaters and one percent avoided all animal products, according to the survey done for 20 Minuten newspaper. The remaining two-thirds were regular meat-eaters.
Swissveg, the information centre for a plant-based diet, also estimates that around three percent of Switzerland's population is vegetarian. It says that while this figure has stayed roughly the same for 14 years, there is a growing awareness of the health benefits of a non-meat diet, leading many people – young adults and women in particular – to reduce meat consumption.
“As with all change in Switzerland this is no revolution, but rather a gradual evolution,” Swissveg spokesman Renato Pichler is convinced. “However, long-term it is unstoppable.”
Mirjam Hauser, a trends and consumer behaviour analyst at market research company GIM Suisse, sees the veggie trend as part of a broader move towards a more varied diet, with an increasingly international flavour.
“Immigration from the European Union is driving demand for a wider range of foodstuffs and menus, including ethnic cuisine, which frequently goes down well with the Swiss too,” Hauser tells The Local.
“When there is an influx of more well educated people to Switzerland they tend to be more food aware and eat more healthily, raising demand for meat-free dishes,” she says.
Zurich-based Spanish expat and vegan author Ana Ortega believes immigrants enrich Swiss society with their culinary traditions. “Cheese fondue, rösti and raclette are great Swiss dishes but not to eat every day. Why not bring in a bit more creativity? Why not add some colour and spices? Why not replace the old potato with the sweet potato, and the meat with some beans? And if it happens to be good for you, even better!”
Colour, spices, sweet potatoes and more are all available to diners in the Tibits vegetarian restaurant chain, with its many Asian-inspired dishes. And for those preparing their own meat- or dairy-free meals the range of ingredients available in Swiss shops has been steadily increasing.
Eva's Apples, the first vegan shop in Zurich, this month opened an offshoot in Bern. Products can also be ordered online. But Ortega says you don't have to go to these lengths.
“I wrote Vegan recipes for Newbies with the intention of showing society how easy it is to eat vegan,” Ortega tells The Local. “The ingredients you need for a vegan-based diet are already within everyone's reach at Migros, Coop and your local store and farm. You find chia seeds and even almond butter – something I am really crazy about now – in your local supermarket. It really is that simple!”
Swiss supermarkets say they are attempting to satisfy customers' appetite for vegetarian and vegan products, bringing out new lines and adapting vegetarian recipes to make them suitable for vegans.
“We want to offer our one million customers a day, including vegans, the products they are looking for,” Coop spokesman Ramon Gander tells The Local. “Although vegan food is a niche market, it is a trend that is likely to keep growing.”
Coop says it stocks over 200 own-brand products with the official vegetarian stamp, almost half of them vegan. Sales are increasing, with some vegan products recording double-digit growth in the past year, according to Gander.
It is not just supermarkets that are adapting to the changing eating habits. Swedish furniture retailer Ikea recently introduced a vegan version of its hugely popular Köttbullar meatball in its Swiss restaurants.
Despite the vegetarian trend, the Swiss meat industry association Proviande says meat consumption is stable, at around 52 kilos per head per year.
It is eager to counter the negative press the meat industry often gets by stressing the quality of Swiss production.
But the fact that its “Swiss meat – everything else is trimmings” advertising campaign is subsidized to the tune of 50 percent by the government, ruffles feathers at Swissveg.
The vegetarian information centre says subsidies to the meat industry cannot be justified given the ecological cost of meat production. But without the subsidies Swiss meat would become more expensive and production would no longer be economically viable.
Trends and consumer behaviour analyst Mirjam Hauser can foresee a drop in meat consumption, as more people adopt a flexitarian diet, but thinks this is not necessarily bad news for the Swiss meat industry.
“If in future people eat less meat, they will appreciate it more and demand better quality products,” she tells The Local.