A desire to cut down on meat, rather than cutting it out altogether, has given rise to growing numbers of consumers who identify themselves as ‘flexitarians’ - consumers who regularly replace meat for plant-based proteins for environmental or ethical reasons, and generally prefer quality over quantity when it comes to purchasing meat.
The figures suggest that this is not simply a short-term fad but rather a trend that has established itself over the past 25 years. According to FAOSTAT figures, Western Europeans ate almost 10% less meat in 2009 than in 1990, with per capita consumption falling from 95.5 kg to 87 kg.
For Laura Jones, global food science analyst at Mintel, this is a bonus for food manufacturers who have seen their consumer base grow from a handful of militant vegetarians to an ever-growing number of flexitarians.
“Many meat-reducing consumers have adopted a flexible attitude, choosing to limit meat, rather than eliminate it entirely. Launches of vegetarian and vegan products echo manufacturers desire to communicate the suitability of their products to the widest range of consumers,” she said.
But flexitarians, who still enjoy the taste of real meat, are more demanding when it comes to the taste, texture and appearance of plant-based products compared with strict vegetarians who have perhaps not eaten meat for many years.
With Mintel data suggesting that as many as one in eight UK shoppers is keen to replace half of their meat purchases for vegetable protein, manufacturers of meat alternatives have had to step up to the mark.
IFT nutritionist David Despain says innovation and NPD has been successful in keeping up with these demands.
“The food industry’s technological developments have made an impact by offering a greater variety of vegetarian prepared foods—in the form of shelf-stable, refrigerated, and frozen products, making them more available and accessible, and also bringing about improvements in taste and texture," he said.
Taste and texture are top priorities
The Vegetarian Butcher, a Dutch-based start-up which has since become a fast-growing brand with thousands of international distributors, is one such example. Bringing together a team of chefs and food scientists with the aim of replicating and even surpassing the taste of meat using soy and lupine protein, spices, umami and yeast, the ‘meatiness’ of its products has been praised by gourmet chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli.
While reducing the food industry’s carbon footprint and freeing animals from the food chain are number two and three in the main values of the company respectively, producing high quality products that even carnivores can enjoy remains the top priority.
“Our ideal is to have meat enthusiasts’ experience that they don’t have to miss out on anything if they take meat out of their diet for one or more days," says the site.
“That is why we always try to capture the flavor of real meat and why we distinguish ourselves with an entirely new generation of meat and fish substitutes that are indistinguishable from the real thing."
According to Euromonitor analyst Simone Baroke, the inclusiveness of flexitarianism means that the trend has lasting power.
“The concept is inclusive rather than exclusive; it is primarily about indulging diners in their new-found love of vegetables, rather than creating menus that eschew foods on the grounds of a dietary fad or a particular world view."
In 2013 research from Wageningen University revealed that more than 75% of Dutch consumers had at least one meat-free day per week – and 40% ate no meat at least three days a week.