- The annual month of plant-based eating is upon us, but the smart money is following the crowd, not the vegan fringes, as this trend evolves. Anna Blewett investigates
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Stats suggest just 3% of the population identify as vegan, and yet the ripple effects from this category are felt across the whole population. Waitrose’s Food and Drink Report 2019 might have numbered flexitarians at just 21% but that figure already feels out of date. So where is the market at now?
“Veganism is certainly a trend affecting pretty much the whole population,” says Grenville Wall, consumer insight director at market analyst Kantar, which uses detailed weekly shopping diaries of 40,000 participants to track trends in behaviour. “This is a very strong, cohesive trend. There are pockets of strength: London and the South East, for example. You’re 40% more likely to have a vegan or plant-based meal in London than the rest of the country. We also see it as being sightly more affluent behaviour.”
But broadly, the data is very clear as to who’s involved in this macro trend, with a massive 86% of plant-based meals being eaten by non-vegans according to Kantar’s research, just as 89% of meat-free meals are eaten by non-vegetarians. “That suggests just how big the trend could be,” says Grenville, “because it’s everybody who takes one animal-based meal out of their repertoire rather than a smaller group with a very strict diet. It’s traditional meat eaters looking for alternatives who are shopping all these aisles.”
What does plant-based mean to your range? Whether you stock a whole host of ‘fermentinos’ on your cheese counter, or simply direct snackers to the accidentally-vegan Bacon Hoola Hoops in your kids’ picnic bags, your stance is likely still evolving. “Traditionally vegan foods have been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being bland or boring,” says Michael Ratheram of ‘healthier wholesale’ supplier Epicurium. “But certainly the NPD and challenger brands are surprising everyone and reinterpreting the brief.“ Flick to the plant-based section of any wholesaler’s listings and you’ll find a whole lexicon of brand names that conjure a healthier, alternative and more aspirational way of eating: VioLife, Qwrkee, Biona, Terra Vegane, Plenish, Naturli, Karma Bites, Not Guilty, Boundless… “They’re reinvigorating the vegan category to make it more exciting and engaging,” says Michael. “Particularly with millennials.” There are also plenty of challenger brands in the marketplace, with fleet-of-footstart-ups quicker to meet demand for novel ingredients or playful concepts. “Credit to Sainsbury’s, they’re probably furthest ahead with their ‘brands of the future’ initiative,” says Michael. “The rest of the major multiples are still trying to catch up, whereas the joy of working with independent retailers is they’re a lot more flexible and reactive to trends.”
Ready meals are currently a big battle ground, with supermarkets nailing the own-brand offer. But the sands may be shifting in favour of specialist indie retailers. “At the moment a lot of sales are driven by NPD,” says Grenville, “and a lot of that is driven by the fact most of us are new to this sort of diet. Lacking the knowledge to create plant-based meals, we’re turning to the manufacturers to help us. If you look at the diets of vegetarians and vegans there’s an awful lot more scratch cooking involved and very little use of pre-processed foods. “As this diet becomes more mainstream for all in years to come I think we’ll all learn to cook that way, so pre-made meals might drop a little in the future.”