The vegan superfoods to know in 2024

15 May 2024, 12:00 PM
  • The plant-based sector is chock full of buzzy food products. Speciality Food finds out which in-demand foods retailers should be stocking now
The vegan superfoods to know in 2024

The exact number of people in the UK who follow a vegan diet is always in flux, but trends in food consumption have given the industry a clear message: almost half of Brits said they were reducing their consumption of meat fairly often or all the time, according to YouGov’s latest research.

In Europe, the plant-based food market is expected to reach $13 million by 2028, according to Euromonitor. Vegan food is big business, but with countless new product launches and trending superfoods coming and going, knowing what to stock can feel like a minefield. Do customers want simple whole foods, or are they more interested in cutting-edge fake meat? 

“The market is diverse,” explains Declan Rooney, plant-based protein growth platform manager at Ingredion. “Some consumers seek alternatives that mimic traditional meat and dairy…other consumers look for natural options that solely use clean label ingredients.” 

What customers expect from their plant-based products is also varied, he says. “This ranges from seeking more adventurous tastes and textures, and trust and transparency, to health and nutrition, affordability, and convenience, as well as adapting well-known dishes.”

Scratch vegan cooking is in


On the whole, participants in the most recent Veganuary challenge preferred choosing to cook vegan meals from scratch rather than relying heavily on meat alternatives, such as sausages, burgers and nuggets, says Dr Toni Vernelli, international head of policy and communications for Veganuary.

And the sales data backs this up. “Sales of wholefood, plant-based products like tofu, tempeh and fruits and vegetables were very strong, with brands such as Tofoo and Better Nature Tempeh reporting huge year-on-year sales increases for January 2024 compared to 2023,” Toni says. Tesco also reported a big increase in sales of fruit and vegetables in January, as well as in plant-based protein sources like tofu, legumes and falafels.

This trend in consumer demand is being influenced by cost as well, as Toni notes that the cost-of-living crisis “motivated many to make their food budget go as far as possible,” thus leaning towards simpler ingredients like grains and pulses, which they can use to batch cook plant-based meals at home.

As awareness about ultra-processed food grows, health is becoming a greater deciding factor too, with Toni citing “a desire to cut back on processed foods” driving demand for real, natural vegan ingredients.

Where consumers stand on plant-based meat replacements

The convenience-factor can never be completely discounted. Heather Mills, a plant-based food and gut health expert and founder of VBites, says, “Consumers are also very busy, so this is why we offer products like ready to eat sausages that can also be warmed in seconds in their air fryer. Delicious foods that are easy, better for the planet and cruelty free.”

However, Cyril Carrat, general manager at KaTech by Ingredion, cites a recent report from The Good Food Institute (GFI) that claims consumers are unhappy with the taste, texture and affordability of plant-based products. “Yet the food and beverage industry is focussed on enhancing products, as evidenced by launches of multiple products including plant-based steaks, boiled eggs and sushi,” Cyril says.

“This therefore presents an opportunity for manufacturers to directly address consumer concerns to improve the taste, texture and affordability of these products,” he adds. This includes through technological advancements, like advanced processing techniques that retain the nutritional integrity of plant products and are more environmentally friendly, and deflavouring technology, which is used to remove undesirable taste profiles of plant products.

Whatever products they choose to eat, health is high on the agenda. “Health is one of the main reasons consumers eat more plant-based products, with over half of Europeans citing their overall health when making decisions about what to eat or drink,” Cyril says. “And a big part of meeting consumers’ health and nutrition demands involves manufacturers delivering a variety of plant-based protein content.”

Must-stock vegan ingredients

With these latest trends in mind, what should retailers be stocking now to cater to plant-based and flexitarian shoppers? Toni says consumers “are looking for versatile ingredients that are easy to cook, high in protein, and with a good, solid texture that can be used to give substance to vegetable dishes like curries, pasta, salads, burritos and bakes”.

Heather says functional foods are another stand-out trend. “Vegan foods that perhaps boost immunity, improve digestion, support heart health and more,” are in high demand. Natural products that promote good gut health are also worth stocking. “With such growing awareness of the gut microbiome’s role in overall health, vegan superfoods can include ingredients that support gut health now, such as fermented foods, prebiotics, and probiotics,” Heather says.

Tofu, tempeh and seitan

The new demand for natural products is driving demand for good old-fashioned tofu, tempeh and seitan. Tofu and tempeh, which are made from soya, offer a great source of plant-based protein, and they’re also a source of amino acids. Retailers might want to offer traditional silken tofu from the likes of Clearspring or flavoured versions like Taifun’s Wild Garlic or Smoked Tofu. Tempeh, though less well-known, is increasingly being sold in ready-to-cook pouches from brands such as Better Nature and Tempeh Meades.

Seitan, which shares similar attributes to tofu and tempeh, is made from vital wheat gluten, so while it’s not suitable for those with a gluten allergy, it’s a great protein source for soya allergy sufferers. Toni notes that while seitan is popular among vegans, it can be more difficult to track down. Stocking products like Biona’s Organic Seitan Pieces, then, might give fine food retailers an edge over supermarkets.

Beans, lentils and peas

Pulses, like beans, lentils and peas, are also a must-stock, with brands redefining the category by branching out to new formats, like quality jarred beans, and unusual heritage varieties. 

“Legumes and pulses, like lentils, chickpeas and butter beans, are having a renaissance as they are incredibly nutritious, versatile, satiating and affordable!” Toni says. A chickpea ‘tuna’ salad recipe from Veganuary continues to be one of the brand’s best-performing posts on Instagram whenever it is shared.

Ingredion also expects demand for pulse proteins to rise, such as those from peas, fava beans, lentils and chickpeas.

Some brands are using the growing demand for pulses to create innovative new products. The Good Pulse Company, which was featured in the EIT Food Accelerator Network’s new cohort of 58 ground-breaking start-ups, uses peas to create a healthier solution to plant-based cheese, resulting in a product that’s high in protein and fibre. And legumes aren’t just for savoury dishes. Foreverland Food, which was also chosen for the accelerator, is an Italian foodtech start-up using Italian carob to create a vegan, allergen-free chocolate alternative.

Whole grains

Another group of store cupboard staples that are crucial building blocks for vegan meals are whole grains. 

Quinoa has soared in popularity in Europe in recent years, but there are plenty of alternatives for retailers to explore with lesser-known but increasingly growing reputations, like buckwheat, farro, freekeh and teff. 

Each grain type has a unique history, different health properties and a variety of uses that in-the-know consumers are keen to explore. Just be sure you’re stocking whole grains and not refined grains to get all the good benefits. Explore all the grains you should know about here.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms seem to be sprouting up in just about every food category. Increasingly these fungi are being used medicinally as adaptogens that help the body adjust to stressors. Indeed, Mintel found that 35% of consumers are looking for food and drink products using healthy ingredients “based on ‘ancient wisdom’ such as Ayurveda and Chinese medicine”, so mushrooms certainly fit the bill.

You’ll find them in drinks, with everything from non-alcoholic cognitive cocktails to coffee brands like Oyl that hope to help Brits manage their energy levels, or Dirtea, which offers mushroom powders with calming, focus or immune-boosting claims.

Mushrooms are being used in a variety of ways in food and snacks, too, with meat replacements, like Fable, boasting a naturally meat-like texture and umami flavour in their product made from shiitake mushrooms, or mushroom-based crisps from Real Naturals or Other Foods.

Seaweed

Speciality Food recently explored the growing popularity of seaweed in fine food products thanks to the product’s health benefits, sustainable credentials, versatility and popularity in global cuisines. As well as being used to create vegan-friendly snacks like seaweed chips, brands like BettaF!sh use seaweed to flavour their plant-based fish products. The brand Impulse has also created a seaweed-infused tempeh product.

Mintel recently called kelp seaweed “one of the next big sustainable ingredients to watch out for in Europe”. The research group’s AI tool revealed that kelp’s prevalence in product launches in the food and drink industry rose steadily from 2005 to 2023, and there are more launches on the cards for 2024. “Food and drink brands have the potential to explore greater options with kelp; for example, in the snack category, creating seaweed-infused crispy seaweed chips or mixing seaweed into already popular items such as crackers or popcorn,” says Emma Schofield, associate director of Global Food Science for Mintel.

“Manufacturers can make seaweed more approachable for consumers and enhance its adoption by presenting it in familiar formats,” she added.

This trend is already well underway in the fine food sector, but retailers can expect to see it pick up steam in the coming year.

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