Fitting Vegan Specialty Foods into a Budget-Friendly Diet

Author: Suraj Sunkara, Graphics: Bella Aharonian


Vegan speciality foods have emerged as a huge trend in the past few years that has prompted the immense growth of a vegan lifestyle. However, many vegan specialty foods are still very expensive, which can make budgeting difficult. Keep reading to learn how to build a friendly budget for a vegan lifestyle in Berkeley, an already expensive place to live!

The vegan lifestyle has been growing in popularity over the past decade. Whether it be for health, animal welfare, or environmental reasons, many people have switched over to either full or partly vegan lifestyles. Furthermore, there has been a shift not just culturally but in the industry as well towards veganism. This is represented through the emergence of vegan specialty foods. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have rapidly grown, and they are not just riding the tailwinds but also helping cultivate the vegan trend.

These trends are especially pronounced in Berkeley as many students and individuals within the community are very conscious about the environment and society. San Francisco was even declared the top vegan-friendly city in the U.S. by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) for having such a variety of vegan options available. But Berkeley is not a cheap place to live, and vegan specialty foods are still pretty expensive since they are relatively newer products and have a smaller market. In this article, I will focus on trends for vegan specialty foods and how to incorporate them into one’s diet while maintaining a friendly budget. , 

Vegan vs. Non-Vegan Price Trends

Although the prices for many vegan specialty foods are trending downwards in the long-term, vegan specialty foods are still more expensive currently than their non-vegan counterparts. 

Product CategoryNon-Vegan*Vegan Counterpart*
Milk (100 fl. oz.)Dairy Milk – $3.52Oat Milk – $7.67
Burger Patties (10 oz.)Beef Burger – $5.12Impossible Burger – $8.33
Cheese (10 oz.)Cheese – $4.73Dairy-Free Cheese – $7.12

(*note that the prices of the products may have changed since the publication of this article)

Based on the table using Safeway price data, vegan specialty foods can be almost twice as expensive as their non-vegan counterparts if not more than. But why are vegan specialty foods that much more expensive? 

Lack of Scale

Many plant-based food companies are relatively new players in the market and thus have not yet reached economies of scale. Economies of scale are essentially the cost advantages one gains when production becomes efficient. For example, although there is a large demand for plant-based meats, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods do not yet have the capabilities to meet all this demand. These companies are simply not large enough and do not yet have optimized supply chains. Their supply chain is limited by the fact that the plant-based meat industry is still only a fraction of the total meat market. Their current scale limits their ability to negotiate raw material prices and the infrastructure available to them. For example, the soybean proteins that Impossible Foods use as a base for their burger is just a byproduct of the soil industry. The soybean plant itself is optimized for oil and animal feed, not for Impossible Burgers. Despite this, we have already seen the economies of scale coming into effect. For example, the price gap between Burger King’s Impossible Whopper and their regular Whopper has dropped significantly from its introduction and will likely continue to fall as time goes on.


High R&D costs in this industry can have a huge impact on a company’s financial performance leading them to markup their prices. As plant-based products are a new trend, plant-based product companies have to continuously spend money to create new products that taste better than their competitors. Companies also have to spend a lot of marketing money on their products to gain loyal customers who will stick with the brand their whole lives. Beyond Meat, for example, has to spend large amounts on marketing campaigns to convert meat-eaters into consumers of their products.

Minimal Subsidies

The government provides huge subsidies to the meat and dairy industries. According to recent studies, the U.S. government spends up to $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries with less than one percent of that sum going towards aiding the production of fruits and vegetables. These agricultural subsidies allow meat and dairy producers to keep the prices of their products significantly lower than they would be. While many people have advocated for cutting meat & dairy subsidies and increasing subsidies for fruit and vegetable products, there seems to be no indication that the government will do so in the near future. There, however, is the possibility that this will change along with the shift in political power as Biden does have a record of policies supporting animal protection. Decreased subsidies for meat coupled with increased subsidies for vegetable products could lead to increased vegan-meat consumption as the prices would be more equal.

Price Premium

Finally, there is simply a price premium for these vegan specialty foods. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods aren’t even able to meet the existing demand for their products. Why would they decrease the price of their burgers if there is already a surplus of people willing to buy their products at the current price? Reducing prices would simply cause them to lose revenue while not increasing the number of products sold, thus affecting their ability to reach a greater scale in the long-run.

How do Berkeley Students approach these Decisions

Wanting to get a different perspective as to how current vegans at Berkeley make decisions related to their diet, I reached out to a few of my Vegan friends. They both mentioned that they tried to plan their meals with as many veggies as possible to keep their costs low. They had a very similar mindset when it came to vegan specialty foods: they only buy them every once in a while as they are very expensive but do really enjoy eating them as it adds a little diversity to their diets. They suggested that people enjoy them in moderation but to be conscious of the price and not go overboard. Overall, they suggested maintaining balanced diets with a variety of different fruits and vegetables. They encouraged treating specialty foods as supplements—not replacements—for one’s diet.

How Nutrition Experts suggest making these Decisions

Wanting to get an expert’s opinion about how Berkeley students should approach these kinds of decisions, I went to Berkeley’s drop-in nutrition counseling to speak with registered dietitian Elizabeth Aong. Below are some excerpts from the transcription of our interview:

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge in living and switching to a vegan lifestyle?

Recently, a lot more students have been interested in eating plant based diets. Berkeley students especially are more concerned about social issues and how food is produced in our country, contributing to this trend. However, when students switch into a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle, they get into a mindset of what not to eat—they end up not eating meat but just eat other parts of meals they used to eat in larger portions. They are too focused on cutting/cycling through the same things and don’t think about the nutrient components. When you don’t eat meat, you are missing out on proteins and have to find other plant based proteins to supplement your diet. If you are not getting enough proteins, you will end up being a lot more hungry throughout the day and snack a lot more. Remember, just because a food is vegan does not mean it’s healthy.

Q: What are your thoughts on vegan specialty foods?

Because vegan specialty foods are prepared and packaged foods, they are going to be at a higher price. Furthermore, just because it’s vegan/plant-based does not mean that they are healthy—be sure to check ingredients as many companies may up the amount of add-ins or fats to make the foods more appealing. A lot of the time, people equate a vegan lifestyle with eating less calories but eating healthy is not exclusive with eating less calories. While a vegan lifestyle has less environmental impact, it is not necessarily healthy, so be sure to avoid processed foods when you can. Although vegan specialty foods can be used to supplement your diet, don’t let them replace other healthier foods. [Author’s note: this will also keep your spending low as a lot of other foods in vegan diets are incredibly cheap compared to non-vegan alternatives.]

Q: How should Berkeley students approach decisions related to creating diversified vegan diets?

There are so many plant based proteins that you can supplement with packaged foods every once in a while. One difficulty of switching to a vegan diet is adapting to the mindset to spread protein intake throughout the day vs. eating it in large chunks as you would in a meat diet. Try to rely on beans and legumes more (really underappreciated and underused in the American diet) as they are significantly cheaper than vegan specialty foods. Finally, many people are oftentimes afraid to get comfortable with using sauces and condiments to dress things up. These are relatively inexpensive goods that can add a significant amount of flavor to your diet.

That’s it for the interview with Elizabeth! The most important thing to take away from this interview is that we have access to such helpful resources in the first place. If you ever need assistance in meal planning, budgeting, or anything related to food and healthy eating, check out the UHS nutrition services that we can access for free! 

Take Home Points

From my conversations with Elizabeth and my vegan friends, the general consensus is that while you can supplement your diet with vegan specialty foods, be sure to not to go overboard as they are quite expensive and might not be as healthy as you think they are. However, this might change in the future as the industry grows and develops new products at cheaper prices. If you enjoy these foods in moderation, complement them with other legumes and vegetables, and incorporate spices and sauces into your diet so you can create a healthy, diversified, and budget-friendly diet!

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