Let’s (not) talk turkey these holidays

It’s been billed as the most meat-free December yet, but vegan and vegetarian food isn’t just for Christmas. Just don’t shout about it, says David Burrows.

One in four millennials are either vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian, and 44% of all Brits are willing to cut their meat intake or have already done so. The shift is “massive”, said Gabriella Roberts, the head of nutrition at BaxterStorey, during a presentation at Food Matters Live in November. More and more people are going meat-free a couple of days a week, she explained. “It’s more than just a trend … it will become a bit of a culture.”

Whether it is health, ethics or a concern for the heavy environmental footprint of livestock farming, the move to meat-free meals continues to snowball. And every part of the food industry wants a slice of the pie.

Pret A Manger has led the way with its Veggie Pret outlets, but catering firms such as BaxterStorey, Sodexo and Lexington are constantly innovating in order to meet rising demand (and improve sales). It’s not straightforward, though. “When you’re cooking a piece of meat it’s relatively easy to get the flavour profile,” Roberts explained, but “trying to make vegetables and grains taste great isn’t as easy as people think”.

Food-to-go in particular is in need of some work. Research by the Eating Better campaign last year showed only 19 of the 535 options (3.5%) at major outlets were suitable for vegans. Given this group only accounts for about 1% of the population (542,000), 3.5% might not seem too bad. But that ignores the incredibly poor range of choice.

“Coming here from Portland is like stepping back five years,” Derek Sarno told me recently. “There are no current options other than falafel wraps and there’s only so many of those you can eat.”

Sarno is a chef and co-founder of the Wicked Healthy food blog. He is also Tesco’s chef-director of plant-based innovation – a new role to help the supermarket tap into the huge flexitarian market. Sales of vegetarian and vegan food at the supermarket have grown 40% in the past year but that’s nothing compared with the potential.

Next year is the one when plant-based foods will “really emerge” in the UK and across Europe, Sarno claimed, with vegetables “manipulated and twisted” to entice people to eat them. “I’ve been marketing plant foods to meat eaters for the past 10 years and that is the approach that will win,” he told me in an interview for Just-Food.com.

The stigma that vegan is healthy and therefore tasteless has stuck, and that means convincing a carnivore to go cold turkey on meat – especially at Christmas or when they’re eating out – is a tough ask. The rise of vegan junk food is doing much to overturn these perceptions. “The vegan junk food scene is so young, so there’s so much room for making things that no one has done before,” Tsouni Moss, who runs the Yes, It’s All Vegan Instagram account, said recently.

Foodservice remains a treat industry, so why not make vegetables and pulses indulgent? In fact, it’s not just recipes that need a revamp – menus and packaging could do with sexing up too. Recent research showed that students, for example, will choose significantly more vegetables if they come with indulgent descriptions.

The term “vegan” or “vegetarian” can have the opposite effect. Labelling something vegan can actually cause sales to plummet by about 70%, while diners are 56% less likely to order a plant-based dish if it’s segregated on the menu. Sarno is all for stopping all this segregation: vegans have made a lifestyle choice so regardless of the label they study the ingredients, he suggested.

Next month, the number of consumers picking through menus for the animal-free options could rocket: 150,000 people are expected to sign up to Veganuary. The opportunities for plant-based food will last much longer, but to take advantage there’s no need to shout about it.

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