How much effort should brands invest in the plant-based trend?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags vegan plant based Veganism Veganuary

Vegan nuggets, vegan nachos, vegan Magnums, vegan mayonnaise, vegan cream cakes, vegan Bounty bars and vegan Krispy Kremes... more food brands and retailers than ever hanker for a slice of the plant-based pie.

This is particularly the case during the Veganuary event, which encourages people to follow a vegan lifestyle for the month of January. But is the plant-based, meat-free and vegan phenomena a gimmicky fad that ignores the nuances of what constitutes a sustainable and heathy diet? Or one that will continue to allow food brands swathes of exciting innovation opportunities?

According to Callum Saunders, Head of Planning at marketing agency ZEAL Creative, Veganuary continues to grow and remains a viable avenue for brand activation. The annual event, which claims to have inspired more than one million people in 192 countries to try vegan ‘is no passing fad’, ​he told FoodNavigator. “Not only has the groundswell of continued awareness of plant-based and veganism made this a prime opportunity for consumers to try new food brands, products and servings; it’s also a key event in the retailer calendar.”

Yes, the total vegan population remains comparatively small. In the UK, for instance, depending on the data you look at, this is anywhere between 1-6% of the population. But ‘flexitarianism’ -- those consumers wishing to cut their meat and dairy intake for health and environmental reasons -- is a behaviour claimed by a far bigger audience segment (14%, according to YouGov in 2019) and opportunity. 

“Veganism is on the rise, but strategically, vegan food brands need to think wider than veganism,”​ pointed out Saunders. “The greater commercial opportunity is to aim for the bigger pool of flexitarians, rather than ‘winning’ with the far smaller segment of purely vegan consumers.”

'A food brand is not just for Veganuary'

While Veganuary is the perfect time for vegan food brands to command the spotlight, it’s an opportunity to shine, rather than a ticket to automatic success. “Vegan and free-from categories are becoming increasingly crowded and competitive, which is a good thing for consumers. But if a dog is not just for Christmas, then a food brand is definitely not just for Veganuary: the need to plan for success ‘beyond’ that first month of the year is critical.”

Food brands activating well are those seeking to normalise vegan food and make it more accessible, he explained. “Cauldron is an established brand, yet is currently using Veganuary to activate with shoppers, using shopper communication in store to reassure on taste credentials and overcome perceived barriers.  This strategy is more effective with a mainstream food audience, than the more radical approach taken with niche players trying to ‘recruit’ food shoppers into a certain way of life.”

Plant proteins ‘not aligning’ with consumer demands

Julian Mellentin, director at food analysts New Nutrition Business, makes that point that flexitarians have always existed. They’re called omnivores, he says. He believes consumers want more options to make vegetables more interesting, tasty and convenient.

But too often the plant-based trend ignores what consumers demand. Take the ‘noisy minority’ plant-based protein area. According to Mellentin, plant-based proteins and plant-based meat substitutes are a ‘struggling niche’ which lost market share in 2020. It’s a sector also blighted with problems of taste, texture and poor nutritional quality. Even if these are overcome, the sector will only remain a 'big niche', he believes.

“New product developers have done a great job over last seven or eight years making vegetables more convenient,”​ he told FoodNavigator. “That totally aligns with what consumers want, and that area is in growth.” 

In the US, for example, Green Giant has made vegetables more convenient to US consumers by offering innovations such as riced cauliflower and sweet potatoes toasts. The Caulipower brand, which sells frozen pizza bases made of cauliflower, is now a 100 million dollar business in the US.

“But what gets all the attention is plant-based proteins, and that's a different thing altogether because if you buy something which is made of vegetables, you'll get all the nutrients with it,”​ said Mellentin. “But if buy plant-based protein I'm going to get an isolate which has had all its nutrients stripped off it and shipped around the world.”

He adds that the “plant-based meat substitute business is not driven by consumer pull; it's driven by investor push”. 

“Most people want to incorporate more vegetables into their diets, but plant-based meat substitutes as they stand are entirely contradictory to consumer wishes,”​ he said.

“Plant-based meat substitutes are not traditional, not familiar, with no backstory of traditional usage, taste problems, texture problems, ingredients lists that might have 20-25 items. Consumers have been telling us for 20 years they want short ingredients lists and things as natural as possible.” 

According to Neilson data, in the UK in 2020 sales of meat substitutes increased 28% to a value of £117 million pounds. In comparison, sales of meat grew to £438 million. 

"That's pretty amazing when you consider the media has been relentlessly negative about meat for the past 40 years. People have been told meat gives you cancer, heart attack and is full of fat and a disaster for the environment... Still people are choosing it.”

Meanwhile, there are many other alternative proteins that he expects to come into commercialisation in years to come - the likes of duckweed and proteins from fermented algea – which could displace displace soy and pea. These proteins, he said, have 'genuinely' good environmental and health footprints. “Most of the plant proteins at the moment lack true environmental and nutrition credentials.”

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