Sales may be booming but experts say there is room for improvement in both the quality and range of meat and dairy alternatives. David Burrows reports.
Sales of plant-based food and drink increased 49% to €3.6bn between 2018 and 2020, according to new data compiled by Nielsen for the EU’s smart protein project and ProVeg International.
Few will be surprised. This was already a hot trend, but the pandemic appears to have “added to the momentum”, suggested Kai-Brit Bechtold, senior consumer research scientist at ProVeg International, during a webinar to present the findings last week.
The data was for grocery sales across 11 European markets, but foodservice companies focused on developing new plant-based menu options will be buoyed by the findings too.
So, what else did the data show and what does it mean for food companies?
The UK is a key market for plant-based products. Of the 11 countries for which grocery data were compiled the UK boasted the largest market for meat-free meat (€502m, with sales up 36%). With total sales of €226m (up 107% in the two year period), it was also the fourth largest market for plant-based milks (Germany, at €396m remains the largest). Oat milks led the way. They are “on fire” suggested Bechtold.
Milk and meats are the largest categories across Europe, with sales of €1.6bn (up 36%) and €1.4bn (up 68%) respectively. But there are plenty more opportunities. Spelt and nut-based milks, for example, are showing “tremendous growth”.
Meanwhile, in meat alternatives there is a move from fresh to frozen products as shoppers seek convenience. Burgers, sausages and slices remain the most popular formats but whole cuts could be an area to focus on, suggested Bechtold.
Vegan cheese and ‘fake’ fish remain relatively untapped segments. Sales of the former increased 112% to €60m but accessibility, affordability and taste are all problems. “Cracking the cheese code would be incredibly lucrative,” said Bechtold. “It’s one of the most exciting categories.” Fish, meanwhile, needs to spread beyond ‘fingers’ with fillets and other products, which should also be fortified to make them healthier.
Still, Bechtold spoke of a “fundamental shift” in consumption patterns that was now underway. This started “long before” covid-19 broke out and will continue when restaurants reopen. Other experts have forecast a potential covid health kick will drive interest and uptake of healthier foods, including vegan and vegetarian.
Consumers are, undoubtedly, thinking more about their health and the planet. That slaughterhouses and meat packaging plants from Merthyr Tydfil to Gütersloh in Germany are in the spotlight due to outbreaks of covid-19 among workers has given the meat-free movement another welcome shot in the arm.
“People may come to reflect on how they get their meat, what they are prepared to pay for it, and what conditions they expect the animals and the workers to endure so they can have it,” noted the BMJ in an editorial in July.
But let’s not get too carried away: it’s still very early days in the shift towards more sustainable diets (and let’s not forget sustainable diets can include some meat and dairy). Indeed, Mintel recently claimed that meat, especially processed meat, was proving “comforting” to shoppers during the pandemic. Sales of bacon, sausages and burgers were all up last year.
“Global crises like the pandemic make people look for the familiar rather than taking risks on something they haven't had before,” Mintel global food and drink analyst Ed Bergen told Footprint. "However, we have continued to see growth in sales of plant-based foods.”
Plant-based foods are certainly in rude health, as the new Nielsen figures show, but sales remain dwarfed by those of meat – and may remain so for some time.
Innovation will need to consider rising interest in ‘clean label’ products – generally speaking those with fewer, more wholesome or healthy ingredients. Indeed, plant-based products can be highly processed, with long ingredients lists, which are beginning to put some consumers off. There is “a lot of work to do” and “a lot of products can be improved”, Bechtold concluded.