Power to the people: How alternative proteins can reinvigorate European grocery

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Could alternative protein innovation revitalise grocery retail in Europe? ©iStock
Could alternative protein innovation revitalise grocery retail in Europe? ©iStock

Related tags Veganism Vegetarianism

Increasing numbers of Europeans are adopting vegan and vegetarian diets. As power continues to shift from big brands to shoppers, food makers and retailers are stepping-up their response to this long-term trend and building excitement in the European supermarket space.

Europe is witnessing a rising tide in demand for meat-free products.

According to data from market researcher IRI, 39% of people across seven European countries now purchase vegetarian food. IRI interviewed 2,600 shoppers in Italy, Greece, Spain, Germany, France, the UK and Holland. They charted a 26% increase in the number of people buying vegetarian food over the last three years.

The Vegan Society revealed are now 542,000 vegans in the UK alone – more than three times as many as a decade ago. With nearly half of these aged between 15 and 34, the meat-free trend looks set for long-term growth.

Why the interest?

Vegan Society spokesperson Dominika Piasecka suggested that there are “numerous”​ factors prompting people to switch to a lifestyle free from animal products. Not least among these is a re-evaluation of stereotypes surrounding vegans in popular culture, with veganism no-longer viewed as an “extreme lifestyle”​.

The reasons behind the rise of veganism are numerous: the positive portrayal in the media has contributed to its changing image; documentaries on the shocking realities of animal agriculture have gained prominence; peaceful activists are educating the public about veganism on the streets and in schools; delicious vegan recipes have multiplied online and on social media as society becomes increasingly health-conscious; and top vegan athletes keep proving that you can be fit and healthy on a plant-based diet,”​ she told FoodNavigator.

“The image of veganism is undergoing the most radical change in its history, shedding some tired old stereotypes.”

Andy Grout, head of Bridgethorne Research, also believes that attitudes to health and wellness are supporting sales of alternative protein products.

“The increasing profile of the health benefits of veganism and vegetarianism and the advantages of embracing a healthier diet has clearly fed through to the shopper. This places the onus on suppliers not only to meet this demand but also to understand it or risk being left behind,”​ he suggested.

Shoppers in the driving seat

Power has shifted to shoppers ©iStock
Power has shifted to shoppers ©iStock

Grout explained that trends such as the rise of the alternative protein sector demonstrate how power has shifted from branded food manufacturers and retail multiples to shoppers.

“In recent years the melting pot of short and long term trends has created an environment where the shopper has taken control. The power shift has been steady and sustained, away from the major brands and suppliers, who used to hold all the aces, through the major retail multiples and now to the shopper,”​ he told FoodNavigator.

This shift is underpinned by socio-demographic factors, like the ageing population and rise of single occupancy households. Technological developments have also acted as an accelerator, providing consumers with more choice and independence than ever before.

Answering the alt. protein call

Empowered shoppers are thus coming to shape the food sector based on redefined understandings of health and wellness and increased concern over sustainability and animal welfare.

Quorn was an alternative protein pioneer but competition is heating up in the category
Quorn was an alternative protein pioneer but competition is heating up in the category

“This has manifested itself across all categories, including the rise of free from, gluten-free and vegan products, for example. It is actually evidence of brands recognising changing consumer and shopper demands and acting upon them,”​ Grout observed.

This has benefitted brands such as Monde Nissin-owned Quorn Foods, which saw sales rise by 16% last year. But, while Quorn can be viewed as a pioneer in the sector, it is not the only European food maker tapping into the meat-free trend.

Companies like Wessanen, Orkla are focused on cashing in on this sea-change in European shopper behaviour and are increasingly defining their corporate strategy around a desire to deliver healthy sustainable foods.

Giants like Nestlé and Danone have also stepped up their responses.

Speaking at Nestlé’s investor day last year, EVP of strategic business units, Patrice Bula, identified alternative proteins as an important growth area. The company is using innovation to meet the need with its core brands, through initiatives such as rolling out an almond-based milk alternative under its Coffeemate brand. The group is also growing its ‘meat analogue’ business through brands like Garden Gourmet.

Meanwhile, French dairy major Danone amplified its presence in the alternative protein space when it acquired US-based WhiteWave Foods, which operates under the Alpro brand in Europe. 

The mainstreaming of alternative proteins can also be seen in the retail space, with almost all the major retail multiples stepping up their own brand offerings of vegetarian and vegan food choices.

The Vegan Society’s Piasecka believes that this creates a virtuous cycle of sorts, whereby more consumers are enticed to eat alternative proteins due to increased ease and availability.

“The food industry has been very responsive to the recent spike in the number of vegans. There is now a vegan alternative to every product you can think of – ranging from meat alternatives, vegan cheese, dairy free ice cream or yogurt, vegan mayonnaise, and even eggs. We hear about a new exciting vegan product hitting supermarket shelves almost weekly, which shows the demand for such products is going through the roof.”

IRI’s Livio Martucci, who analysed the shopping survey, believes that innovation around healthier options, including alternative proteins, could in itself be a galvanising force to re-invigorate the European food supermarket space.

“Vegetarian food is no longer a niche market to be profiled at the back end of a supermarket aisle. There is a huge opportunity here for manufacturers to innovate and for retailers to give more shelf space to healthier food options, including own label ranges. Ultimately, a focus on health could bring people back into stores and stop shoppers drifting into bio stores and street markets for their healthy food choices.”

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