02 January 2020, 10:55 AM
  • Innovation and fresh products are making the free-from sector an exciting place to be
Tapping into the power of plants

Veganism has had arguably the biggest impact on the food and drink industry. While there have been free-from products on the market for a long time now, the more recent developments in consumer diets to vegan, plant-based, flexitarian and anything in-between, has resulted in an influx of meat and dairy-free products. In fact, according to Mintel research, the share of meat-free new products carrying a vegan or no-animal ingredients claim almost doubled between 2014 and 2017. Growth is not slowing down anytime soon either, with figures from Mintel also showing that the UK was the nation with the highest number of new vegan food products launching in 2018, taking over the top spot from Germany.

It’s no longer a sector that’s dominated by those with intolerances or following a meat-free or dairy-free diet, there’s also a huge number of consumers who are reducing their intake of meat or dairy on a daily or weekly basis. This could be for a variety of reasons - ethical concerns, the environmental impact or health. With consumers across the board demanding alternative, quality products, the free-from sector has had to step up its game. Mark Banahan, campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society says, “We have seen veganism and plant-based food move into the mainstream with major companies putting out vegan alternatives like Hellmans’ vegan mayonnaise, the vegan Magnum ice cream and Greggs’ vegan sausage roll. Recognisable brands adding plant-based products to their ranges further normalises plant-based food to the consumer. There has also been a rise in meat alternatives like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger in the US. They aim to be indistinguishable from the real meat products, appealing to an ethical audience who want to stop eating meat but not lose the taste of it. Whilst being healthier than their meat counterparts, these are still often high in salt and sugar. To counter this there are also lots of ‘healthy’ vegetable-based offerings hitting shelves particularly in the ready meal market, with Marks & Spencer launching their Plant- Kitchen range to compete with Tesco’s already popular Wicked Kitchen range.”

Sean O’Callaghan, who blogs at Fat Gay Vegan adds, “Consumers are at the forefront of the vegan boom, using their buying power to force change in every corner of the market. Because people are voting with their wallets, big business is taking notice and the specialist food and drink landscape has changed forever. People have come to understand that meat is both unsustainable and cruel and therefore we are swamped with plant-based alternatives in every supermarket and high street restaurants in the UK as businesses rush to meet this compassionate demand. It is these meat analogues that are really showing how innovative plant-based foods can be. We now have families eating meat alternatives made from pea protein, soya, beetroot, jackfruit, seitan, and the old favourite, tofu, at multiple meals each week.”

In a market that is becoming saturated with new products, start-ups need to ensure that their offerings stand out. Food industry expert Jane Milton advises, “At one time it was so hard to get vegan products, particularly on the go or in restaurants, that people were prepared to eat almost anything. Now people want it to look and taste delicious, and also follow ‘clean eating principles’ that other foods are expected to - such as no chemical additives, preservatives or flavours - to be nutritious and to have a reasonable price tag, too. The bar is being raised constantly and so new vegan or plant-based producers can compete with the best products that are both functional and delicious, that have sustainable packaging, good flavour profiles and offer excellent value for money. New businesses entering the market benefit from the fact the market is already established so they don’t need to explain what vegan or plant-based foods are. I would still advise clients to label them as plant-based as they have wider appeal, while vegans will usually know how to read labels and check the ingredients so won’t miss out on them either.”

Plant-based milk alternatives have also changed the game with their popularity, with Mintel figures showing that sales of non-dairy milk grew 9.4% from £202 million in 2016 to £221 million in 2017. Also, one in 10 (9%) of Brits drank plant-based milk in the three months to February 2018, rising to 27% of consumers aged 25-34. Think back to a few years ago and Alpro Soya was the product that stood out among the limited offerings for those who chose not to drink mainstream milks. Fast-forward to today and the plant-based options are wide and varied, from Oatly’s hugely popular oat drink to Rude Health’s Tiger Nut drink. And it’s not just the big companies getting in on the action, for example Qwrkee, a new plant-based food and drink brand, launched its Pea M’lk, with the product being a finalist in the World Food Innovation Awards 2019. The brand also states that the product benefits from having one of the lowest environmental footprints in comparison to other plant-based dairy alternatives. And it’s not just milk alternatives, the market for dairy-free yogurt, cream, butter and cheese is also continuing to grow and have influence. The brand Nush, for example, makes Almond M*lk dairy-free yoghurt in a variety of flavours including Caramel & Hibiscus and Peach Melba, as well as offering yogurt in tubes that can appeal to children.

It’s not all smooth sailing however as the owners of the UK’s first bricks-and-mortar store for plant-based ‘cheese,’ La Fauxmagerie, opened earlier this year and shortly afterwards received a letter of warning from Dairy UK regarding the legal use of the words ‘cheese’ and ‘butter’ to describe their products. With so much change in a short space of time the industry has come up against new challenges, which will need to continue to be navigated in the future.

Ashley Pollock, assistant manager, Innovation, at Ayming, comments, “The diary sector has grown exponentially over the last few years and is also diversifying at a fast rate. What used to be alternative healthy nut or soya milk which could only be found at health food stores is now mainstream and dominating the milk aisles. This move towards non-dairy alternatives has created additional awareness in the meat sector, and there has been a rise in meatless meat, with even the likes of Burger King jumping on the bandwagon.”

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