28 January 2021, 08:20 AM
  • The number of plant-based shoppers is rising, but smart selling is required to make the most of your offering
The vegan question: capitalising on a fresh opportunity

2021 could be a landmark year for the vegan diet. In 2020, 400,000 people signed up for Veganuary – a huge jump from the 250,000 recorded in 2019. But 2021 is set to be even bigger, in part due to the impact the pandemic has had on consumers’ diets.

Research from Mintel discovered that for a quarter of Brits aged between 21 to 30, the pandemic made a vegan diet more appealing. Motivating factors behind the vegan trend vary, with some seeking out the health benefits of a plant-based diet and others more interested in reducing their impact on the environment. “At a time when many feel helpless about the state of the world, Veganuary offers people a way to take positive action,” Toni Vernelli, international head of communications at Veganuary, told Speciality Food.

Even before the pandemic, the plant-based food sector was on the rise. According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Britain has increased four-fold to 600,000 since 2014. The group also predicts that vegans and vegetarians will make up one-quarter of the population, and flexitarians will comprise half, by 2025.

In May, ProVeg International released the results of a survey of over 6,000 consumers, which found that plant-based cheese, ready meals, seafood and egg alternatives were among the biggest opportunities for the food industry.

“The rising popularity of vegan food provides an opportunity for independent retailers to stock more exclusive vegan products, such as artisanal nut-based cheeses, as well as products from new vegan companies that are just launching,” says Veganuary’s Toni. “These types of items generate a lot of excitement, and January is when there is the biggest audience experimenting with plant-based food.”

Large supermarkets have certainly taken note of the popularity of vegan products – Tesco has announced that it is investing in expanding its plant-based offering by 300%, and Asda is launching vegan-only aisles into 359 of its stores after having experienced a 275% rise in demand in recent months. In late 2020, Whole Foods Market revealed it is on the hunt for new vegan brands to add to its shelves in 2021 due to continually rising demand.

Brands have followed suit, launching a vast array of products to cater to this increased demand and offer options to vegans and non-vegans alike. “With more vegan alternatives on the shelves, both non-vegans and vegans have more choice. Particularly with Veganuary, where the messaging around the benefits of a vegan diet are more widely known, encouraging vegetarians, pescatarians and carnivores to make the switch for thirty one days,” says Chris Griffon, founder of YaconViva!.

Considering health

Throughout lockdown, consumers became increasingly aware of the link between the food we eat and our health. Products boasting health benefits as well as meat and dairy-free credentials, such as gut health improvement and an opportunity to reduce sugar consumption, are welcomed by British shoppers. This, coupled with people’s desire to experiment with new recipes while cooking from scratch, helped assist the growth of the plant-based sector in 2020. “Increased awareness on the importance of looking after your health, and the natural world, are the key driving forces behind the growing vegan movement,” Alan Bird, commercial director of Purition, tells us.

“Enhanced interest will always influence others too, so the more popular veganism gets, the faster it will grow. There are also key calendar moments and events, such as Veganuary, where we do see a surge in sales of our vegan range.”

“I think the global pandemic has contributed towards the interest in plant-based diets. In lockdown, people were either incredibly health-conscious or they were slipping into indulgent snacking habits. Those who have been eating more unhealthily may now try to reverse any weight gain as we start leaving our homes more and look to a vegan diet as a way to get back on track.

“Consumer trends are influencing the younger generation where there is a high concentration of vegans and flexitarians, particularly on social media with influencers and celebrities offering tips and recipes for plant-based foods. The conversations are louder, and I think many are inspired to try a vegan diet by these tastemakers. It’s also not the case of 10 years ago where there were little-to-no options available. You can now go to a restaurant and have the choice of five or six dishes, rather than just one or two.”

Catering to all

Interestingly, many of the new plant-based launches the industry has witnessed weren’t necessarily created with vegans in mind. After all, plant-based burgers that replicate the look, texture and taste of meat are a bit of a touchy subject for many vegans. And yet for those who are looking to simply reduce their meat intake, make healthy food swaps, or are just interested in a plant-based diet and food, it’s an ideal combination: a product that replicates meat yet is potentially better for the environment, animal welfare and our health.

What’s more, with increasingly creative recipes like BBQ pulled jackfruit and ‘chuna’ (chickpea tuna, that is), and a growing number of chefs and social media influencers developing plant-based recipes, the days of meat-free meals consisting of potatoes and lettuce (or so some may think) are long gone. Offering shoppers a number of options so they can choose what fits their tastes and lifestyle best is key to success.

“We understand that food is a very personal journey.” agrees Gem Misa, co-founder of Fullgreen. “As consumers we’re constantly figuring out what we like to eat and what works for us – it’s an ever changing experience and one that’s very much based around dietary preferences, needs and experiences. For us, it’s about being transparent with our products with clear and concise information like macros and portions of veg so customers always have quick and easy access to nutritionals and can make informed decisions based on that.”

Education is key

While the food and drink industry has seen a boom in product launches onto the UK, particularly in recent years, there is still a job to be done in terms of education and ensuring that shoppers are fully aware of the impact of their decision – whatever their chosen approach may be.

“As a brand we realise we have a responsibility to educate our customers on the power of a plant based diet,” says Gem. “Our mission has, and always will be to encourage people to get more healthy fruit and veg onto their plates, and we maintain a helpful, supportive and inspiring tone throughout all of our marketing communications to ensure consumers get the information they need.”

While the numbers don’t lie – the UK is indeed experiencing a boom around plant-based food and drink, with record numbers of consumers adopting a vegan lifestyle, the meat industry could still welcome back some of the consumers who have moved towards plant-based diets through clear communication. A recent report from AHDB found that consumers are ‘sleepwalking’ away from eating meat, and are doing so not because of a conscious desire to eat less meat but because they feel uninspired by the meat, fish and poultry options available to them. The industry body’s message behind the report was for retailers to entice ‘unconscious reducers’ back to eating more meat by expanding their range available.

“How unconscious reducers think and feel about meat isn’t any different to those people who are actually increasing their meat consumption – they’re not turning away on purpose so there is a chance to re-engage them with the category,” Kim Malley, AHDB senior retail insight manager and one of the authors of the report, explained.

Retailers should maximise POS messaging to provide a balanced service. “The biggest opportunity is at point of purchase,” says Kim. “The key thing the report highlights is those people are wanting a better in-store experience. There could be simple messaging in-store to remind people why they enjoy meat, give them a bit of inspiration and remind them it’s versatile and convenient.” She also advised that while the plant-based industry is excelling in terms of innovation, the meat industry is lagging behind when it comes to creating exciting new products to entice shoppers – as well as producing eye-catching packaging for its products.

By offering shoppers a considered selection which caters to all – whether they be plant-based, vegetarian, flexitarian or meat-eater – and ensuring that customers are educated around all of the options available to them, independent retailers can be confident that they are not only catering for a growing trend but providing a responsible service, too.

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