22nd January 2021

To Veganuary – and beyond

More than a meat-free Monday… food of the future is created by humans, for humans.

By Mike Foster, Founder and Creative Director, Straight Forward.

Vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, seagan, paleo, pegan, flexitarian, reducetarian, beegan… ways to classify how humans eat are exponential, with meat reduction proliferating almost as fast as the array of products on offer. From Shroomdogs to vegan Magnums, jackfruit burgers to vegan Bounty bars, oat milk to fishless fillets, the race to capitalise on flexitarianism is in overdrive.

More than a third (38%) of UK consumers have reduced their meat and dairy consumption, and because flexitarianism is far more prevalent among younger consumers, plant-based produce stands to make progressive gains. And rather than limit exposure to the purely vegan population (4%), plant-based food brands are targeting larger mainstream pool of consumers who are dipping in and out of meat-free alternatives.

Veganuary claims to have inspired more than one million people in 192 countries to try vegan since its launch in 2014. It’s a popular activation platform for established brands, as well as an effective launchpad for innovation. A record 500,000 people have signed up to Veganuary 2021; double those who pledged last year. Indeed, 92% of plant-based meals in the UK are consumed by the 22 million non-vegan flexitarians in the market.

On the shelf

Demand for plant-based food is such that it accounts for a fifth of all retail food NPD, with supermarkets prioritising new and disruptive brands, making room for new vegan lines. In 2020, chilled and frozen plant-based ranges showed modest 3% growth in supermarket listings as retailers sought to limit ranges amid the pandemic.

Supermarkets scaled back ranges from established plant-based brands such as Quorn, which saw a substantial 30% decrease in listings across big four supermarkets over the past 12 months. However, new and disruptive entrants such as Naked Glory, Squeaky Bean and The Toofoo company were prioritised, with 15% more plant-based brands available to shoppers in 2019.

And proving that mainstream consumers are seeking out the category, Asda became the first supermarket to introduce dedicated plant-based aisles across its 359-store network.

Build a community

Yet the future pathway to mainstream consumer masses will not only be played out in supermarket aisles: Asda’s move came after searches for vegan lines on asda.com increased by 275%, demonstrating the importance of the omnichannel approach.

It often starts with small, niche brands that build community and relationships. The Vegetarian Butcher, which began collaboration with producers of vegetable protein and scientists in 1998, flourished off the back of crowdfunding and flagship products such as What the Cluck ‘chicken’ pieces, to the extent that it was acquired in 2018 by Unilever, giving the brand access to 190 countries.

Demystify ‘frankenfoods’

Once thought to be holy grail of plant-based eating, the Impossible ‘bleeding’ burger launched via US fast-food outlets in 2016. Made with protein from soy and potatoes, it’s flavoured with ‘heme’ (the molecule that makes meat taste ‘meaty’), which is made via fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. Some doubted whether this so-called ‘frankenfood’ would appeal to consumers. Would they be keen to eat ‘meat’ that was manufactured in a laboratory? But in a bold play for the mainstream, Impossible proved them wrong: at its retail launch in 2019 it outsold all ground beef at America’s top grocery stores.

Committed to offering ‘craveable and delicious’ products for meat eaters, without compromises on health or environment, the Impossible burger continues to be a hit. The Silicon Valley-based company, on a mission to ‘eradicate the meat and fish industries by 2035’, has now added pork and sausage to its portfolio of plant-based meat substitutes, while milk and fish equivalents are in development in its labs.

Indeed, animal-free dairy is high on the agenda, with vegan brands such as Brave Robot ice cream utilising Perfect Day science, which uses microflora (fungi) to produce non-animal whey protein that’s identical to what’s in cow’s milk, but made without using a single animal.

While the use of lab technology in food production might not sit well with some consumers today, for the sake of the planet, food companies must make it their goal to demystify and humanise the science so that it becomes as natural as eating the egg of a bird, or drinking the milk of another mammal. Indeed, if the 45% of the land surface of the Earth currently reserved for animal agriculture could be returned to nature, deforestation, antibiotic resistance and overfishing could be overcome, experts argue.

And with the likes of Impossible and Perfect Day recreating animal proteins at the molecular level via microflora such as yeast and fungi, meat and dairy no longer belong to animals but have become the product of human endeavour. These achievements have allowed humans to push the boundaries of food science to re-imagine how our favourite foods are created, while giving us the building blocks for the foods of the future.

Life on the veg

Of course, many consumers are convinced plant-based imitations are far healthier than the real deal too, with most products benefiting from the health halo surrounding the category. Yet, arguing against allegations of poor nutritional quality, makers admit that the Impossible burger was ‘never designed to compete with the health benefits of, say, broccoli.’

Nonetheless, as the plant-based category matures, consumers are beginning to diverge into two distinct camps – those that want a plant-based replica and those who want to eat plant-based food for the nutritional benefits of plants.

And just as the popularity of plant-based food continues to grow in awareness and popularity, for many the attraction of eating something that looks and behaves like meat has been usurped by a drive towards increased nutritional quality. The goal – and the challenge – is not only to attract committed meat eaters, but also to embrace those for whom the idea of meat is off-putting.

For consumers looking to stick closer to vegetable-led ingredients as opposed to products designed to mimic, many food producers have avoided direct comparisons to meat, instead making plants the unapologetic nutritional selling point.

Green Giant, for example, offers innovations such as rice cauliflower and sweet potato toasts, while the Caulipower brand (cauliflower pizza bases), is now a $100m business in the US. Meanwhile, The Curators made its category debut during Veganuary 2021 with burgers that boast a super-high mushroom content (86%), while The Vegilantes unveiled a masala-spiced jackfruit burger, products that are only possible because of the unique properties of plants.

Reach for ‘craveability’ 

Amidst the plethora of innovation, there’s an opportunity for brands not only to communicate the healthful and environmental advantages of a high-quality plant-based diet, but also to concentrate on the flavour and ‘craveability’ of their products.

It’s these benefits that will be key to growing habitual adoption of their products, not just during Veganuary, but all year round.

And in the future, food will be created by humans, for humans.