Data suggests the meat- and dairy-free campaign triggers a surge in demand for convenience plant-based foods rather than fresh vegetables. Should we be worried, asks Nick Hughes.
By any measure plant-based eating is one of the defining foods trends of the past few years. So it came as something of a surprise when the Food Foundation’s 2020 Veg Facts report showed vegetable sales in January have fallen markedly over the five year period since 2016. January, after all, is the month when campaigners inspire thousands more people every year to go meat- and dairy-free for a month by signing up to take part in Veganuary.
The Veganuary campaign has been a roaring success since its launch in 2014. The number of people signing up has increased 1639.1% over the past five years and topped 400,000 in 2020. Yet the Food Foundation found the number of portions of vegetables sold through retail in January 2020 actually fell by 6.5% compared with January 2016 and has fallen every January since 2017. This despite a steady increase in annual vegetable sales over the same period.
Kantar data provided to Footprint shows that between 2016 and 2020 annual take home sales of vegetables by volume increased by 8%. This headline figure should be treated with a degree of caution. The data captures year-on-year sales of vegetables until the middle of June and is therefore likely to be skewed upwards in 2020 by the spike in retail volumes across all food categories during lockdown as much of the foodservice sector was forced to close. A better indication of the recent trend in vegetable sales is to use 2019 data which shows a more subdued 2.3% increase since 2016 – unspectacular (the average number of veg portions eaten each day by UK adults remains stubbornly low at just 2.6, according to the Food Foundation, and is lower still for the poorest in society) but still heading in the right direction.
Why then, when hundreds of thousands of people are signing up to Veganuary and many more are self-identifying as flexitarians, is vegetable consumption falling during the month in the year when the opportunity to drive consumption is theoretically at its greatest?
It is hard to draw definitive conclusions from the Food Foundation’s data but part of the answer, paradoxically, could lie in the success of Veganuary and the way it has influenced both public demand and business innovation in convenient alternatives to meat and dairy.
A key pillar of the campaign is its corporate engagement which leads to many of the biggest food companies in the world partnering with Veganuary both to promote it to their employees and customers and to use it as a launchpad for product innovation and promotion.
For the 2020 campaign, supermarket giants Asda, Tesco and Morrisons joined over 600 large and medium-sized food companies, along with thousands of smaller independent brands, retailers and restaurants, promoting Veganuary and their own plant-based launches. M&S alone launched over 100 new products. Leading brand Quorn, meanwhile, reported that unprecedented levels of demand for both Quorn and Cauldron products had resulted in shortages.
Convenience plant-based products often don’t show up in data on vegetable sales because of the high degree of processing involved. While some products do include fresh vegetables such as mushrooms, sweet potato and beetroot, many are largely based on alternative protein sources such as pea protein isolate, mycoprotein (in the case of Quorn) and soya.
Although out of home sales are not captured in Kantar data, Veganuary has been a boon for foodservice operators too. This year, over 550 new vegan menu options were added into chain restaurants including Pizza Hut’s Pepperphoni Pizza, Greggs’ Vegan Steak Bake and KFC’s Zero Chicken Vegan Burger. Pizza Hut said the number of guests trying a vegan pizza had almost doubled during January. Greggs’ Vegan Steak Bake was so successful it accelerated plans to roll out the product to all of its shops.
Food businesses are never slow to capitalise on a market opportunity. The plant-based movement has been a gift in enabling them to develop a brand new category built around vegan and vegetarian foods and meat alternatives marketed with a health and environmental halo.
Businesses promoting vegan products have been able to highlight evidence that consistently shows on average (albeit with some exceptions) plant-based foods have a lower environmental impact than animal proteins. Yet ever since organisations like WWF began formative work on sustainable diets before “plant-based” became a category in its own right, they have been clear that moderating meat consumption for environmental and health reasons should be balanced by an increase in vegetables, fruit and wholegrains. Moreover, processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar should be minimised.
At some point it appears the nuance in the message has been lost. The emergence of a binary “meat is bad plant is good” narrative has created an opening for selling high-margin, often less-than-healthy convenience plant-based foods that some food businesses have happily walked straight through.
In March, a survey by Action on Salt exposed the “shocking reality” of many healthy sounding plant-based and vegan meals served by UK foodservice operators, with some containing more than an entire 6g daily serving of salt.
The survey sampled 290 plant-based and vegan meals from a total of 45 restaurant, takeaway, fast food and coffee chains. It found 45% of meals eaten out of the home contained 3g or more salt in a single meal, while over one in five dishes provided more than half an adult’s maximum daily recommendation for saturated fat.
Some meals, such as Papa John’s Vegan American Hot Medium Pizza with 9.28g salt, contained more than 150% of an adult’s recommended daily salt consumption.
At the time, Sonia Pombo, campaign manager for Action on Salt, said that while “eating a more plant-based diet can and should be beneficial for a number of reasons […] whether you are looking to eat less meat for animal welfare, sustainability or health reasons, it is important to know a ‘plant-based’ or ‘vegan’ label does not automatically qualify a product as healthy”.
Mintel research in 2018 showed a degree of confusion and concern among the public surrounding meat-free foods: 44% of Brits were unclear about what ingredients are used in these foods; and 41% agreed that meat-free foods with a shorter list of ingredients are “more appealing” than those with longer ingredient lists. Some 31% felt meat-free foods are too processed to be healthier than meat. Mintel said transparency would help reassure consumers and build trust.
Despite the surge in interest in Veganuary, veganism remains a niche dietary choice in the UK. “While we’re seeing really big increases in claimed uptake of Veganuary when we look at the number of total dishes that are vegan over January it’s just 1% of the population following that fully vegan diet,” says Joe Shaw Roberts, consumer insight director at Kantar.
One in 20 households have at least one vegetarian, says Shaw Roberts, but it is the one in four households in which at least one person is actively reducing their meat consumption that are driving near 30% growth in plant-based meals against 2015 levels.
For this group of consumers, Shaw Roberts suggests convenience plant-based meals hold high appeal. “When you’re locked into the mindset of having a protein on the plate alongside carbohydrates and vegetables, very few people double up on the veg. Most will look for a direct alternative to the meat or fish and that’s why the convenience market is doing so well.”
By contrast, fresh, unprocessed vegetables risk being perceived as uninspiring options despite the best efforts of the Food Foundation and other NGOs to promote consumption via campaigns such as Peas Please.
Contract caterers, in particular, have been making efforts to boost consumption by reformulating meat-based recipes to include more vegetables, pulses and wholegrains. But for high street brands, the margins to be made on processed convenience lines will likely remain a barrier to adopting a “fresh veg first” strategy.
Veganuary did not respond to a request for comment on whether it has historically encouraged businesses to promote fresh unprocessed vegetables over convenience products, or intends to do so in the future.
The plant-based movement has achieved many important successes, most notably in drawing attention to the need to transition away from western diets high in animal protein (in the UK we still eat meat 5.3 times a week on average according to Kantar). But until vegetable consumption reaches levels associated with a healthy and sustainable diet, campaigners and their corporate partners will not be able to bask in the glory of a mission fully accomplished.