Consumers’ continued migration away from meat-heavy diets is providing veteran plant-based protein brands like Alpro and Quorn with the demand to double their production and new product development efforts.
Over the past two years, Quorn, the mycoprotein-based meat substitute, has seen a 20% increase in sales. In 2013, Quorn posted a record turnover of £141M, ending the year with double-digit growth, and the company expects to top this for 2014.
Tim Finnigan, head of research and development at Quorn and one of the company’s founders, believes this is due to a “shift rather than a drift to more sustainable eating”, driven by a number of factors, ranging from the horsegate scandal, to concern for animal welfare, health and food safety.
“The business has always been on a growth trajectory, but something has changed in the past couple of years that has tipped people towards our products. What we’re seeing is a global transition to more plant-based diets,” he says.
Dairy-free giant Alpro paints a similar picture of building momentum for plant-based foods.
“We have seen a real shift in ‘free-from’ over the past few years. It has moved from a niche market sector catering for those with allergies and intolerances to one with more mainstream appeal, offering what consumers now see as healthy lifestyle choices. There is now increased demand from shoppers looking for these healthy plant-based options. One in five households now buys plant-based foods regularly,” according Vicky Upton, marketing controller with Alpro UK.
But, as Finnigan explains, this isn’t indicative of a mass-move to vegetarianism or veganism – it has more to do with people taking a ‘flexitarian’ approach. A flexitarian diet has received increased attention over the past five years. It is a diet high in plant-based foods, with the occasional inclusion of meat.
“It’s not about everyone becoming vegetarian. It’s about eating less meat,” Finnigan adds.
Consumer data seems to support this view. A survey commissioned by the Eating Better alliance and conducted by online market research firm YouGov, found that while 5% of UK consumers are eating more meat, 20% are eating less than a year ago. Meanwhile, 35% of respondents also say they are willing to eat less meat in the future, and Eating Better is keen to convert this intent to action.
To bring about a change in dietary behaviour, the alliance is calling on governments and public health bodies to implement a number of recommendations. These include updating the government’s Eatwell Plate to incorporate advice on eating less but better meat, ensuring the National Curriculum includes education on healthy eating and funding research to support successful behaviour change strategies.
Dietary change (Return to top)
The alliance would also like to see action from the food industry. “We would like to see food manufacturers assess the ways in which they can support dietary change to more plant-based and less and better meat eating through menu planning, reformulation, choice editing, support for farmers producing ‘better’ meat, and making low-meat/meat-free options more available,” said Sue Dibb, coordinator of Eating Better.
Eating Better is not the only non-governmental organisation pressing for political action to encourage the production and take-up of plant-based foods. The topic is also on the agenda at the European Natural Soyfood Manufacturers Association (ENSA).
Koen Bouckaert, strategic affairs director at ENSA, is critical of how little is being done to promote the uptake of plant-based foods among consumers and manufacturers, despite political rhetoric.
“To this day, only a few EU countries have adopted dietary recommendations based on both health and sustainability considerations. As a consequence, large audiences remain unaware of the environmental impact of their food consumption and of ways to make their diet more sustainable without compromising their nutritional needs,” he says.
In addition to raising awareness about the benefits of plant-based foods, Bouckaert said that EU governments needed to create a level playing field between milk and soy-based dairy alternatives.
“Products with a similar nutritional composition and usage occasion must be treated equally, which is the basic principle of fiscal neutrality. In some EU countries, soy drinks are subject to higher taxes or VAT rates than similar dairy products, which makes them more expensive and therefore less affordable for consumers,” he says.
Interestingly, not everyone agrees that government support and intervention is necessary.
Roger Roberts, food and drink industry specialist with PA Consulting Group, predicts that commercial pressures alone will drive the food industry towards a predominantly plant-based future.
“I think there is a strong argument to say that we don’t need to encourage people – it’s a bit ‘nanny state’,” he adds. “I believe the shift to plant-based foods will happen automatically, purely due to the economic and environmental benefits. There’s no way we can continue eating meat and dairy products as we are. The transition will be an inevitable result of the gross inefficiencies of animal-based production. The input costs will become so high that meat won't be able to compete and transferring to plant-based production will be how companies stay competitive.”
Serious money (Return to top)
In the US, serious money is already being ploughed into meat and dairy substitutes. IT billionaire Bill Gates is backing an egg-replacing start-up called Hampton Creek Foods, while faux chicken creator Beyond Meat has had investment from Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.
In Europe, however, there isn’t a huge amount of private sector led research and development into new dairy and meat substitutes.
One exception to this is Dutch business De Vegetarische Slager (The Vegetarian Butcher), which is using plant fibres, including pea, seaweed, soy and wheat, to create meat-like structures, imitating everything from smoked eel to bratwursts.
“Every product has its issues,” says the company’s chef Paul Bom. “So, for every product, we think about what taste and texture we want and we mix and match ingredients to achieve that.”
The company’s main target market is meat reducers rather than vegetarians, he claims. “50– 70% of Dutch people are wanting to eat less meat and they want to have something to replace it on the plate. We’re not going for the 4% of the population that is vegetarian, we’re going for that 60%,” Bom adds.
The business has high aspirations Bom says its aim is to become “the biggest ‘butcher’ in the world” and given how rapidly it has grown since it started in 2011, this doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
Vegetarian Butcher products are already on sale in The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and South Korea, and the firm has just signed a contract with an Italian supermarket chain. In addition, it has worked on projects to develop meat-free ingredients for food manufacturers.
For example, it has developed a meat-free meatball, chicken and mince inclusions for soup and a tuna substitute for sandwiches.
Of course, established players like Quorn are also busy on the new product development front.
“In the UK, next year, we’ll be having a big push on food-to-go, as consumers have told us there aren’t enough healthy snacks available,” says Finnigan.
Plant-based foods are clearly ripe for innovation, but the extent to which consumers will be happy to trade their fillet steak for a fake remains to be seen. Then again, if Roberts’ predictions of a future without animal-based production materialise, they won't have a great deal of choice.