Trend Watch: Is vegan food still on the rise in the UK?

28 August 2023, 10:00 AM
  • Opportunity knocks for indies who can offer low and no-meat and dairy dishes made from real ingredients, says Sally-Jayne Wright
Trend Watch: Is vegan food still on the rise in the UK?

In 2018, more new vegan products were launched into the UK than anywhere else in the world (Mintel). A feeding frenzy ensued where everyone from Tesco to Marks and Spencer launched their own ‘plant-based’ range. But in 2023, there are signs the bubble has burst. 

In June, Meatless Farm, supplier of meat alternatives to Byron Burgers, Itsu and Pret went into administration. Oatly, maker of the hugely successful oat milk, chose to withdraw its ice cream range from the oversupplied UK market. Heck reduced its meat-free range from 10 to just two products. 

What’s behind the flatlining of branded vegan sales? 

- The market is overcrowded

- Now that fake meat, cheese and fish are no longer novel, there’s scrutiny of their ingredients

- Consumers associate soya, included in many of these foods, with climate damage

- There are health concerns about ultra-processed foods, especially after a BBC Panorama documentary and a book Ultra-processed People by Dr Chris van Tulleken

- The cost-of-living squeeze. In December, Which? found plant-based alternatives could cost twice as much as meat

Are vegan foods ultra-processed?

Many shop-bought fake foods are. A typical fake meat burger contains pea protein, canola oil, coconut oil, rice protein, flavouring, methyl cellulose (a stabiliser) and potato starch and is, as one critic put it, ‘the equivalent of a Turkey Twizzler in vegan form’. 

What about plant-based milks?

More than one-in-three consumers buy these (Kantar). They’re classed as ultra-processed if they contain more than five ingredients, and additives such as vitamins count. Current legislation doesn’t allow organic plant-based milk to be fortified. Consumers are confused and some avoid milks with even rapeseed oil believing it to be inflammatory. 

Where does the term ultra-processed foods (UPFs) originate?

It comes from the Nova system of food classification which originated at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Endorsed by the World Health Organisation, Nova groups all food as: un- or minimally processed; processed culinary ingredients; processed foods; and ultra-processed food. It’s believed soaring rates of cancer, obesity and diabetes are associated with too high a proportion of UPFs in the diet.

I’m a fine food retailer. How is this relevant to me?

Consumers want food that’s good for the planet and also good for their bodies. Dezi Dalton of the Rye Deli says, “Staples that our customers return for are authentic curries. Drawn from my own heritage, these recipes were vegan generations ago and have a provenance. They pre-date the age of artificial additives and preservatives.” 

How do we make the most of the clean vegan trend?

1. Dump the rigid carnivore-versus-vegan thinking. Only 1-2% of consumers are full-time vegans but many more are flexitarian. Meat, but not dairy-free options, appeal to a wider proportion of customers.

2. Modern foodies love world flavours and often choose them on meat-free occasions. Offer dishes that have always been vegan whether a Japanese tofu, mushroom and seaweed broth or an Ethiopian stew.

3. Exotic flatbreads and toppings make vegan stews and soups more substantial.

4. Be imaginative with salads. Dezi offers broad bean and pea with lemon vinaigrette, edamame gluten-free spaghetti with fresh seasonal veg, and sweet chilli chickpeas. She replaces honey in recipes with agave syrup to make dishes suitable for all.

Our customers love meat. How do we make them feel less guilty about eating it?

Less but better is a good start. Sell them real stews made from wild British venison. Or put a cull yaw mutton curry on your menu; it’s made from retired ewes that have lambed for the last time. Eating goat meat from billy goats born into the dairy industry uses up what would otherwise be a waste product. Educate staff and explain on your socials why such meat is sustainable.

Whose branded ‘clean vegan’ ingredients do you like?

At IFE this year we tasted an excellent Malaysian curry containing jackfruit imported by Buckley and Beale. Sustainable jackfruit grows like a weed in India, doesn’t need irrigation, and would go to waste if not sea-freighted west by the Jackfruit Company. Adrian Beale says, “Forget canned jackfruit; it’s too waterlogged to take on seasonings and spices. Raw jackfruit sold in pouches can be marinated and works in everything from pulled pork tacos to shepherd’s pie.”

And whose meat-free ready meals are honest?

Christina Baskerville was ahead of the trend when she launched Easy Bean in 2008. She worked in tropical agriculture in Latin America and Africa, and learnt that pulses can be both nutritious and tasty. Colourful dishes made with 100% natural ingredients include French green lentil and sweet chestnut ragout, and Moroccan chickpea and aubergine tagine. 

We are also big fans of the award-winning frozen dahls made by Bini Fine Foods of Somerset. 

What’s the future of the clean vegan trend?

Delicious, hopefully. Helping to judge vegan ready meals at the Great Taste Awards this spring, I noticed a step up in quality. Whereas in 2021 and 2022, entries had been politically correct but monotonous eating, this year, much more care had been taken.

If we stick to real food, with culinary heritage - rather than edible industrial substances and fakery – the future should be tasty indeed.


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