According to the Vegan Society, a staggering 7.2m British adults currently follow a meat-free diet – an increase of 40% over the past 12 months. What’s more, they predict that 13 million Brits will be meat-free by the end of 2021.
That accords roughly with a 2018 Harris interactive survey of 2,000 people suggesting 7.8m UK consumers were either vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan, so the Vegan Society may even be underestimating the figures.
The figures suggest the plant-based phenomenon represents more than a mere fad. Even big meat processors are succumbing to the lure of the category, with ABP announcing the launch of its Dopsu range of frozen plant-based chicken, lamb, pork and beef packs aimed at consumers looking to reduce their meat consumption.
While the decision to go vegan or vegetarian has traditionally been driven by consumer concerns relating to animal welfare or environmental issues, other factors are increasingly coming into play.
According to Olivier Chevalier, senior product manager for functional proteins at ingredients specialist Beneo, the demand for meat-free products is ‘principally being driven by their perceived health benefits’.
Chevalier points to a Health Focus International Global Trends Study from 2020 that found 70% of consumers worldwide agreed that long-term health was a key driver for them wanting more plant-based nutrition.
Whatever the reasoning behind the choices, however, the boom in plant-based food isn’t just driven by consumers completely abstaining from meat.
Mixed diet households and the rise of the flexitarianism lifestyle, where semi-regular or occasional meat-free meals are taken, also account for a significant portion of the plant-based market.
To illustrate this, Nielsen data from March 2021 indicated 2.4m (9%) of British households include a vegan or vegetarian. It also suggested that 27% of the nation’s population had replaced meals containing meat with vegan or vegetarian alternatives at least once a week.
This, of course, has an impact on the type, taste and consistency of plant-based products coming to market.
“Given the growth of the category is coming from the increasing number of flexitarians as well as vegetarians and vegans, it is important that products are appealing to meat eaters also,” says a spokeswoman for Baxters Food Group.
In 2020, the company created a plant-based soup range consisting of Jackfruit, Three Bean & Chipotle; Sri Lankan Sweet Potato; and Butternut Squash & Lentil Dhansak variants. It also boasts 12 different vegetarian soups and in January 2021 added four plant-based variants to its existing four flavours of Super-Licious Pots microwaveable soups.
“Adding more flavour and texture are also key priorities, particularly when tapping into the flexitarian market, as this is often a barrier for those looking to switch to a plant-based option,” says the spokeswoman.
“We’re continuously looking at different flavour combinations and formulas to make our products appeal to everyone.”
Beneo’s Chevalier agrees that taste and texture are increasingly important in the meat-free market. Again, he cites the Health Focus International Global Trends Study, which found that 60% of consumers who chose plant-based options did so as a taste preference.
“As the consumer palate for plant-based foods continues to evolve, a wider variety of meat alternative foods are now being created,” says Chevalier.
“To meet growing demand, producers are wanting even more versatility when it comes to fine-tuning their plant-based product’s organoleptic profile (its taste, sight, smell and touch) and its texture.”
However, ingredients expert, George Perujo, product management, Europe, Middle East, Africa and India at ADM Human Nutrition, believes this is an area where consumers are asking for more than the market currently delivers.
According to his company’s research, 50% of flexitarians say meat alternatives could taste better, while 20% claim textures could be more appealing.
“For food and beverage manufacturers, this reveals an exciting opportunity to exceed consumer expectations by offering plant-forward protein solutions that achieve an authentic, meat-mimicking sensory experience,” he says.
“It’s this authenticity that makes all the difference for consumers who are thinking of making meat alternatives a part of their routine, and formulators have little room for error if they want to win.
“Fortunately, there are high-quality ingredients and solutions already on the market that can help them get it right the first time.”
It’s not just consumer demand for better taste and texture that’s driving innovation in the plant-based market, however. As the plant-based trend has gained traction over the years, consumers are increasingly moving on from the traditional meat-free options and looking for convenience, as Baxters’ spokeswoman explains.
“People used to associate plant-based with purely eating plants but today consumers are looking for meat and dairy alternatives, with the flavour, texture and nutrition these provide, from plant-based alternatives.
“The desire for more convenient plant-based products, in particular in the food-to-go channel is also growing and will continue to as the nation moves out of lockdown.”
Plant-based snacking is a growing trend, according to Yves Vantomme, product strategic manager for plant nutrition at Glanbia Nutritionals.
“Our latest research into consumption habits reveals almost 8.1% of people look for claims a product is plant-based when selecting a healthy snack, rising to 12.5% of 25- to 34-year-olds,” Vantomme says.
ADM’s Perujo says innovations in plant-based food and beverage technology have already ensured the boundaries between what’s good for you and what’s indulgent are blurring when it comes to snacking.
“This aligns with changing consumer perceptions of health, which prioritise long-term, sustainable lifestyle changes over extreme restriction or elimination of entire food groups,” he explains. “It’s here that manufacturers can win with plant-based snacking solutions that stand out to consumers.
“A strong flavour profile packed into a compact bite creates a sense of indulgence, comfort and diversion that’s not only permitted, but even beneficial.
“For active individuals and athletes, snacks are also ideal for providing nutrition on the go, supporting them in achieving their performance goals and feeling their best, whether pre-, during or post-workout.”
Plant-based and the pandemic
COVID-19 has in some cases incentivised consumers to pursue healthier lifestyles, which seems to have had an effect on consumer demand for plant-based foods.
Perujo says his company’s research found that 20% of Europeans are planning to include more plant-based foods in their diets since the pandemic. He adds that in the UK and Germany specifically, 35% of consumers who identify as flexitarian say they’re now actively trying to consume more plant-based alternatives to meat products.
Clearly, this widening demand offers food manufacturers plenty of opportunities – but also challenges.
“Following the transformation in grocery shopping habits, witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, NPD needs to stand out from the crowd to be selected,” says Michael Holton, brand manager at Addo Food Group-owned Wall’s Pastry and Pork Farms.
“Demand for plant-based NPD has never been higher as consumers continue to search for new and sustainable alternative proteins to incorporate into their diet, helping them to support the growing need to tackle the climate emergency, whilst offering their family’s healthier tasty alternatives.”
Holton observes that as the nation emerges from the third national lockdown, manufacturers are responding to this change in demand. They are diversifying and experimenting with many new entrants to the alternative proteins market, providing consumers with a wider choice and flexibility.
“The market is witnessing a rise in products manufactured using new consumer favourites, including pea protein, cultured meat, and mushroom-based proteins,” he says, “all of which not only deliver a closer taste and texture profile to their traditional protein counterparts, but also provide an easier manufacturing process and a reduced risk in allergen contamination.”
Holton also claims that in the chilled savoury pastry category, plant-based products and meat substitutes are now the fastest growing area – increasing 152% year-on-year and now worth £20m. “The chilled savoury pastry market will always experience a strong demand for traditional meat-based products.
“However, just like the entire grocery market, the category is starting to feel the effects of the plant-based boom. This change in demand cannot be met without quality products that have a high-quality taste, smell, and texture – aligning closely with their meat counterparts.”
The expansion of the plant-based category and the variety of products available means the technical challenges are similarly varied.
According to Madeleine Bills, product development and innovation specialist at Olam Cocoa, getting the taste profile right for products such as plant-based ice cream is far from straightforward.
“One challenge with creating plant-based ice cream is ensuring consumers are not missing out on the creamy indulgent texture of an ice cream made with dairy,” she explains.
“Cocoa ingredients can play a vital role here. We’ve been working closely with customers to replicate the taste and texture consumers enjoy, using cocoa butters alongside other fats like coconut oil to add creaminess to plant-based ice creams.”
Getting a rich cocoa taste can also be a challenge, adds Bills. She says the key is identifying the right cocoa powder to patch the base being used for plant-based ice cream.
“Often when it comes to ice creams, manufacturers are looking to create a distinct milk or dark chocolate flavour and selecting the right cocoa powder can help with that, too,” Bills explains.
“More common plant-based ice cream bases like almond, cashew, and oat milks have a mild flavour and go well with light cocoa powders, while red cocoa powders are a better match when using milk alternative bases with stronger off flavours, such as hemp.”
So, it seems current and emerging trends require plant-based food manufacturers to be every bit as flexible as the dietary habits of the consumers who buy their products.