25 January 2021, 08:25 AM
  • Thanks to a rise in comfort eating, the flexitarian trend has “faltered” during the pandemic, according to new research
Covid creates a “setback” for the flexitarian movement

Despite the popularity of Veganuary this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has appeared to halt the growth of a key target market of the campaign: flexitarians.

New research from Mintel shows that meat-eating habits among those who don’t strictly follow a vegetarian or vegan diet have increased, causing a setback for the plant-based industry.

But although the number of Brits actively reducing their meat intake fell from 51% in 2019 to 41% last year, a significant rise in the number of consumers who acknowledge that eating less meat has an impact on the environment – 25% in 2018 to 42% in 2020 – signals that this setback will only be temporary.

“Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the meat reduction trend was gaining considerable momentum,” says Edward Bergen, global food and drink analyst at Mintel. “The huge disruption, uncertainty and stress caused by Covid-19 have caused a relaxation around some health and ethics-driven habits among many people. It is not surprising that meat reduction has taken a temporary back seat, particularly given the increased desirability of familiar comfort food, and meat is seen to really deliver here,” he says.

In particular, sales of processed meat products rose 18% in 2020. The shift towards eating at home – and the long, hot summer – led to big rises across breakfast and barbecue favourites. Even canned meat, which has been in decline for years, had a resurgence, rising 22% in 2020 due to stockpiling.

But with the plant-based sector making strides in meat substitutes, Edward says this trend is likely to be “very short-lived” and new product developments will be on the horizon.

“The meat reduction movement is expected to rebound vigorously when the immediate risk from coronavirus has passed,” he adds. “We anticipate a flurry of new plant-based products, some of which will have been held back during the height of the pandemic, this will continue to drive plant-based usage in a market which is driven by innovation and newness.”

The rise of plant-based meat substitutes

Around half of all Brits eat meat substitutes, and Mintel’s research shows that the public prefers vegan meat substitutes to those that contain animal ingredients such as dairy or eggs. Although the figures are strongly skewed towards the younger generations, it shows broad appeal for meat substitutes beyond the current vegan population, which is just under 2% of the population.

“At Future Farm, we have seen that there is a growing appetite for meat substitutes from people who don’t identify as vegetarian or vegan,” explains Pedro Zuim, marketing director at Future Farm, a leading plant-based meat substitute maker based in Brazil which recently launched in the UK.

“I believe that this is due to a few different reasons. Firstly, we have no choice but to be more environmentally conscious than ever before, and many of us – whether we enjoy meat or not – wish to contribute in even a small way to a brighter future for the planet. Meat substitute products allow us to do this in a way that’s tangible and accessible, by simply making a switch in our usual food shop,” Pedro tells Speciality Food.

He also believes meat substitutes can offer the ‘comfort factor’ that consumers are seeking in meat products. “We know how our food should look and feel, and the emotions it can evoke. The new generation of plant-based meats tap into those senses, with all the seeming indulgence of meat but less environmental impact,” he says.

Mintel’s Edward believes that as interest picks back up in vegan meat substitutes, brands will have to cater to new trends and consumer habits. “Although lapsing during the Covid-19 pandemic, the meat reduction movement is expected to rebound, driven by its perceived benefits related to health, weight management, sustainability and money-saving. However, meat substitutes must really deliver on these factors to reap the rewards from this trend,” he says.

Pedro agrees that continued product development will keep flexitarians interested in the plant-based meat sector. “Research and development is key to the plant-based category, not sitting back on our laurels just because we have created a meatless meat, it’s building and growing on this, making every product better and better until we don’t need animal meat any more. We believe that the future of plant-based eating is more varied, more pleasurable and more accessible, and that’s incredibly exciting indeed,” Pedro says.

Andy Shovel, co-founder of plant-based meat substitute maker THIS believes that plant-based products will have to become more approachable to continue to attract flexitarians. “When we started THIS, eating plant-based seemed like an exclusive club so we’ve made our brand talk directly to meat eaters, not just vegans/vegetarians,” Andy tells Speciality Food.

“The future of plant-based also means that to appeal to this growing group of meat-reducers, customers need to feel like they’re not making any compromises when they eat meat-alts,” he adds. Despite the setback over 2020, the future looks bright for plant-based meat substitutes.

Image courtesy of Future Farm

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