Covid-19 has stifled some of the expected innovation in plant-based foods this month, but there’s plenty of room for growth in the category this year. Nick Hughes reports.
The New Year tidal wave of plant-based product launches is fast becoming a January institution. Last year, over 550 new vegan options were added into chain restaurants during the month as businesses looked to piggyback on the success of the Veganuary campaign amid growing interest in plant-based eating.
As early as last February, businesses had begun planning their ranges for 2021 which looked all set to herald the biggest month of innovation yet. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, shrinking the market opportunity for contract caterers and high street chains.
The plant-based boom then is on hold for the time being, in foodservice at least. Or is it? In fact, the reality is more nuanced. “It’s been a really mixed bag,” says Veganuary’s corporate outreach manager Zoe West. While some businesses have put plans for new innovation on ice to focus on their current ranges, others have continued to forge ahead. West cites Wagamama as a brand that has “gone all out for Veganuary” with a range of exclusive dishes for delivery via Deliveroo.
High street chains have continued to innovate despite seeing outlets forced to close or, at best, resort to a takeaway and delivery service for much of the past 10 months. Taco Bell has recently launched its first vegan offering – a pulled oat meat alternative which can be used in its burritos and quesadillas.
Pret has partnered with Meatless Farm to launch a meatless version of its best-selling Swedish Meatball Hot Wrap, and is withdrawing its regular Swedish Meatball wrap for the entire month to encourage people to try the newcomer.
Leon has also worked with Meatless Farm to debut a new ‘LOVe’ burger with an updated recipe featuring a specially developed, grilled and pea-based patty (it’s also measured the burger’s carbon footprint).
West says other corporate partners have suggested “they might do something last minute” in keeping with the ever-changing nature of covid-19 and the government’s response to it. The final numbers for new product innovation have yet to be tallied and although West says she is “pleasantly surprised” at the amount of new launches, for the foodservice sector at least they seem unlikely to top 2020’s record haul.
Some operators have had to place their entire marketing teams on furlough thereby stifling their ability to innovate. The contract catering sector has found it particularly challenging to follow through with Veganuary plans despite the best intentions of businesses. “Engagement with contract caterers and the wholesalers who supply them has been tough,” says West. “A lot of those guys had really great Veganuary 2020s and were really fired up – we were having conversations in February about them dialling up the vegan ranges and working with manufacturers to develop offerings. And it’s basically put a delay on where those big launches can happen.”
Caterers are still doing what they can. Sodexo is making additional plant-based dishes available throughout January and beyond at its restaurants that are open, including government offices and corporate sites.
Meanwhile Vegetarian Express, for which January is the busiest month of the year, is supplying food direct to people’s homes to help compensate for the reduction in business trade.
Indeed, if covid-19 has dampened this year’s innovation pipeline it looks set to be no more than a blip given the growth trajectory of the category (the number of Brits eating meat-free foods shot up from 50% in 2017 to 65% in 2019, according to Mintel). “We know that plant-based consumption isn’t just a fad, it’s here to stay,” says Clive Moxham, group commercial director at London-based distributor Leathams. “More and more consumers are becoming vegan-curious, upping their plant-based consumption and reducing their meat intake.”
Brakes says it has seen a 550% increase in searches for vegan products on its website in the past two years and almost 110,000 filtered searches since July this year alone. “The growth in vegan products has been exponential and it shows no signs of stopping,” says senior product development manager, Matt Lake.
The long-awaited move into plant-based patties by McDonald’s this year is set to cement the status of vegan foods in the culinary mainstream. “The McDonald’s launch is quite a landmark,” says Toni Vernelli, Veganuary’s international head of communications and marketing. “It shows how necessary it is for businesses going forward to have really tasty plant-based options. It’s not good enough just to have a falafel.”
Indeed, in a survey of 2,500 US consumers by the Good Food Institute and Mindlab International, a research company based out of the University of Sussex that specialises in testing of implicit, non-conscious decision-making, taste was the most ‘influential attribute’ when deciding whether to buy a plant-based product. Health and nutrition was up there but "positively correlated only weakly with purchase intent".
With greater prominence will come greater scrutiny, in particular over the health credentials of products that are often highly processed. Last year, the campaign group Action on Salt 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.
Data from the Food Foundation, meanwhile, showed vegetable sales in January last year actually fell by 6.5% compared with 2016 figures despite a 1,639.1% increase in the number of people signing up to Veganuary over the same period.
Vernelli says she is “relaxed” about the highly processed nature of many new launches. “There are always trade-offs within a product. While some of them might have a higher salt content they will also invariably have lower saturated fat, low cholesterol and generally be higher in fibre if they are plant-based compared to meat, so just looking at one particular aspect of it in isolation isn’t really giving the full picture.”
Most people, she continues, are “quite sensible” and don’t have a vegan burger everyday of the week. “As a small part of a well-rounded diet I don’t think it’s anything to be too concerned about.” She also points to the “healthy, wholefood plant-based recipes” people are sent when they sign up to Veganuary as evidence that the charity is committed to promoting healthy diets.
West adds that it’s important to consider the growth in vegan options in different phases as meat eaters are first converted to a vegan diet before becoming more experimental. “We’ve got to look at it as phase one: there is going to be a lot of junk food because essentially the UK eats a lot of junk food. At the same time we need to get to phase two where we are developing those options to be more natural and healthy and more sustainable overall.”
West suggests the longer people follow a vegan diet the more their taste buds change and the more likely they are to eat whole foods. Indeed, there is already talk of ‘plant-based 3.0’ (1.0 was the dull initial offering, while 2.0 was the Impossible Burger et al). These products will have fewer ingredients, clean labels and greater supply chain transparency. Some are already referring to this as ‘better’ plant-based meat.
With a further 500,000 people signed up to this year’s Veganuary campaign – up around 20% on last year – the potential to win new converts is once again huge. Good news for companies when the innovation floodgates burst open once again.