11 August 2020, 10:41 AM
  • Rachael Perrett looks at how demand from flexitarians is leading to a rise in sales and product development in the sector
Why the vegan-curious are driving meat-free sales

There’s no doubt that veganism is on the rise. What was once perhaps seen as a lifestyle for ‘hippies’, and more recently billed as a trend, is now driving innovation in the industry. Today, it’s looking more and more likely that this trend is here to stay, as plant-based food is being enjoyed by everyone from devout vegans to flexitarians – and it’s perhaps the latter that’s becoming a key driver of meat-free sales.

Driving forces
Vegan food is one of the fastest growing food categories, with sales of meat-free products rising to £816m last year. What’s more, there were an estimated 600,000 vegans in the UK in 2019, and that number is predicted to grow even further in 2020 as more people make different lifestyle choices for health and sustainability reasons, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic. But there’s also a growing sector of consumers who are adopting what’s become billed as a ‘flexitarian’ diet by cutting down on meat and dairy in favour of plant-based foods. These vegan-curious consumers are increasing their intake of vegan products, whether it’s one day a week or six, and it’s leading to a surge in meat-free sales.

It helps, of course, that the range of plant-based products on the market seems to be increasing week-on-week. In fact, figures from law firm EMW revealed a 128% increase in new trademarks registered for vegan food in the UK last year, with companies trademarking everything from vegan ice cream and cheese, to meat substitutes and plant-based condiments.

Needless to say then that the sector has grown exponentially, and this is only adding fuel to the fire: we’re seeing more vegan start-ups, an increase in innovative plant-based products, and vegan-only outlets and events.

But what’s perhaps most interesting is that many of these launches 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.

“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.”

Purition, which creates 100% wholefood shakes, provides each recipe in ordinary and vegan formulas, and recently revamped its vegan recipe to make flavours that originally weren’t available in vegan, due to high demand.

“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.”

Going mainstream
“There has been a rise in vegan-curious and flexitarian diets as awareness and education around the vegan diet becomes more mainstream,” Alan says. “There’s an intrinsic link between plant-based diets and healthy eating, not to mention the lessened environmental impact. As people become much more health- and eco-conscious, their consumption choices are evolving. A good example is the movement from milk to milk alternatives, which we’ve noticed more with our customers, who pick their favourite dairy-free milks to blend with Purition.”

Retailers have been noticing a shift in purchases, too. Stuart Buchanan, director of Essence of Thailand, which offers a range of vegan products in the fresh and grocery sectors, notes that, over the last 18 months, the company has seen a significant rise in the purchase of ingredients for vegan cooking in both sectors.
 
“We’ve particularly seen an increase in our sales of canned young jackfruit, which is used for creating recipes like vegan ‘pulled pork’. Alongside this, we’ve also seen an increase in people purchasing whole jackfruit to prepare themselves, and in response to a growing demand, we developed a fresh prepared jackfruit that was quick and easy to cook and have seen a fantastic response to this product. Additionally, we’ve seen a significant rise in the purchase of banana blossom – this is being used for recipes such as vegan fish.

“One thing that has certainly driven the trend is the growing number of vegan recipes that are featured online or in magazines, the involvement of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay promoting the benefits of a vegan diet, and the general news around vegan eating and meat reducing having a positive impact on the environment.

“Something that we’ve seen – for example, when we introduced the fresh prepared jackfruit – is that the easier it is for people to recreate vegan recipes, the more the demand is growing. This shows that there is certainly room for more brands to widen their product offering to include more accessible vegan produce.”

So what does the future hold?
For Purition, vegan sales are on an upward trajectory. Whilst Alan notes that the vegetarian range still reigns supreme, the vegan version was created to mirror this, and is showing plenty of potential for the future. And it seems that the wider the variety of products on the market, the more likely we’ll see an increase in vegan-curious consumers purchasing these.

“The vegan market will steadily grow as the movement continues to gain awareness and interest,” Alan says. “As more options are readily available, a wider range of people will explore vegan foods and I think the category will host a large amount of product innovation.”

As producers and brands look to develop new products in the future, and retailers consider what types of products to stock, vegan-curious consumers could be at the forefront of businesses’ decisions as people prioritise their health, animal welfare and the environment in the future.

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