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It’s been clear to food and drink industry players for a little while now that flexitarians are the driving force behind the vegan trend. Now, after a Covid-related setback in 2020, flexitarianism is back on the rise. Just under half (49%) of all Brits are limiting their meat intake or not eating it at all, according to Mintel, up from 41% in 2020. In particular, the market researcher said there was a “significant” increase in the number of Brits limiting or reducing the meat they ate (38% in 2021, versus 31% in 2020).
It comes as sales of sausages, bacon and burgers dropped an estimated 4.3% last year to £2.76bn. Sales of meat remain 16% above where they were in 2019, but they are predicted to fall further in 2022. “While sales of processed meat still benefited in 2021 from more meals being eaten at home, they slipped back from their 2020 high,” said Richard Caines, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. “Meat reduction has returned to around the level seen in 2019, following a dip in 2020 when other priorities likely became more pressing in food and drink choices. This includes people seeking comfort and familiarity during the first Covid-19 lockdown.”
While the launch of many processed vegan meat substitutes marketed at the fast food crowd have drawn criticism this year, the popularity of meat alternatives continues to grow. Sales of meat substitutes were estimated to have grown by 9% in 2021, reaching £598m, according to Mintel.
Overall, more than half (53%) of all Brits say they enjoy meat substitutes, proving that they are popular far beyond the vegan and vegetarian markets. New product development and more retail space will continue to drive sales further, Mintel predicted, with Richard saying there is “vast further potential for meat substitutes’ growth”.
Nearly half (47%) of Brits see a positive link between eating less meat and environmental benefits, up from just a quarter in 2018, Mintel found, showing that green thinking is changing eating habits. Perhaps surprisingly, it is older generations who are most likely to see this link: 51% of those aged 65+ compared to 45% of 16–34-year-olds.
Helping the environment is seen as the top benefit from meat reduction, topping weight management, saving money, reducing risk of disease and feeling good. “More and more people are making a positive link between eating less meat and benefiting the environment,” Richard said. “Public awareness is likely to have been further increased by the COP26 conference.”
With sustainability becoming a longer-term trend for many Brits, Richard predicts this eco-consciousness will “lend ongoing momentum to both the meat reduction trend and the scrutiny of the sustainability of meat substitute products”.
Despite many meat-free Brits being persuaded to eat plant-based by the environment and animal welfare, seven in 10 vegans and a third of vegetarians say their health has improved as a result of their diet, according to research by YouGov.
This is certainly not a given, especially in light of the growth of processed vegan meat replacements, but with the health trend going strong, it will be a deciding factor for many consumers when choosing what to put in their baskets.
However, the health trend also offers meat producers a way to reach consumers. Richard explained, “Meat brands can fight back by drawing attention to the essential nutrients these foods can provide, in order to help to highlight and bolster their health credentials, whilst providing more details on the ‘how’ and ‘who’ of the farm to fork journey - which can also boost consumer trust.”
With the plant-based lifestyle only recently gaining mainstream attention, the majority of vegan eaters are new to the lifestyle. According to YouGov, 63% of vegans only stared eating plant-based in the last five years. Despite this, the overwhelming majority of Britain’s vegans (81%) moved to plant-based lifestyles from vegetarianism, so they were likely avoiding meat for much longer.