Meat is steadily losing its lustre as the centrepiece of consumers’ diets, subject to a variety of concerns ranging from personal health to environmental impact and the treatment of animals raised for consumption. Consumers are increasingly turning to alternative diets that reduce their meat consumption to varying degrees, from veganism to flexitarianism. Meeting the demand for this change is the soaring plant-based foods sector. With plant-based products having already seen considerable success in the drinks industry (as attested to by the vast range of dairy milk alternatives), plant-based foods are set to take centre stage as consumers continue to reduce meat in their diets.

Meat reduction on the rise, even as vegan and vegetarian population remains small

2018 saw veganism become the UK’s fastest growing culinary trend, with sales of chilled vegan food at Tesco rising by 25% and the UK meat-free market achieving a value of £310m. In response, the supermarket has more than doubled its plant-based Wicked Kitchen food range to meet demand. Tesco is far from alone in recognising the growing success of the sector, with companies such as Maple Leaf Foods launching a subsidiary dedicated to advancing leadership in plant-based foods, PepsiCo acquiring plant-based food producer Health Warrior for an undisclosed sum, and Danone planning to triple plant-based sales by 2025.

While daily diets still tend to revolve around animals (according to GlobalData’s 2017 Q1 global consumer survey, only 7% of consumers were entirely meat-free), flexitarianism is on the rise (the same survey found that 23% of consumers are on a low-meat diet). The fact that big companies like PepsiCo are making, presumably significant, investments (the initiative under which Health Warrior was acquired aims to develop brands into the $300m to $600m range) in the sector is indicative of the success being seen. Although the vegetarian and vegan sections of the populace may be small, the increase in meat reduction in ‘standard’ diets is a significant indicator for the industry going forward.

Notably, there is an important demographic element as well. While the global average for consumers describing their diet as vegetarian or vegan is 7%, among 25-34 years olds the percentage rises to 9% and reaches 10% among 18-24 year olds. The two groupings account for the millennial market and indicate that the generation is not only the most likely to continue the shift towards meat-free diets but perhaps suggests that, as they age up, subsequent generations will follow in their path to steadily increase the global average. With GlobalData’s 2016 Q4 global consumer survey finding that a fifth of consumers are looking to limit or avoid animal-based foods, the market’s momentum is clear.

Botanical burgers: Beyond Meat finds fast-food success as FDA delays Impossible Foods

One of the flagship products of the plant-based food sector is the Impossible Burger, the meat-free patty designed to taste just like meat. Currently available in roughly 5,000 US restaurants, the burger uses the iron-containing protein soy leghemoglobin (or ‘heme’) to lend the burger its meat-like flavour. It is this same component, however, that may spell trouble for the next step in the Impossible Burger’s commercial journey. While a statement from the company’s chief executive and founder in November shared that it was planning to begin rolling out the burger to domestic retailers in 2019, Impossible Burger has since hit a hurdle with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Essentially, while heme has been accepted as ‘Generally Recognised as Safe’ when it comes to consumption, the FDA has challenged it on grounds of colouring. “If the firm wishes to sell the uncooked, red-coloured ground beef analogue to consumers, pre-market approval of the soy leghemoglobin as a colour additive is required,” FDA spokesman Peter Cassell told Bloomberg in a December email. While Impossible Foods says that the current version sold in restaurants doesn’t use heme as a colour additive, future uses might qualify as such. Although the delay may be resolved in time for the company to still achieve a retail rollout this year, it presents a prime opportunity for Impossible’s competitors to pick up the slack.

Other companies, such as Cargill, are rushing to invest in the sector and the money pouring in has been significant; Bill Gates alone, a backer for both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, helped raise $450m for Impossible. Beyond Meat, backed by Tyson Foods Inc., produces a pea-based, beet juice-coloured burger that is already selling in supermarkets as well as restaurants. In January, fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. launched a Beyond-based burger in over 1,000 restaurants, making it Beyond’s largest US restaurant partner to date. While these varied burgers have likely found such success for their imitation of meat, the fact that the stereotypically unhealthy fast-food industry is backing them to such an extent is highly indicative of the rise in consumer demand for these products.

Growth and opportunity: looking to innovation outside of beef alternatives

According to Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association, the past year saw sales of plant-based foods increase by 20% to reach a value in excess of $3.3bn. Nestlé alone has stated that it believes it could raise plant-based sales to $1bn within ten years (presumably helped in no small part by the upcoming launch of its own plant-based burger). Commercial investment in the sector is growing in leaps and bounds in anticipation of mass consumer dietary shifts. However, if companies are to truly take advantage of the burgeoning trend, they must consider how to align products with other, broader consumer behavioural shifts.

For instance, the plant-based food trend naturally aligns with broader shifts towards a focus on wellness and health functionality. There is opportunity to take advantage of this synergy to better launch into other trending sectors, such as snacks. With a growing consumer desire for healthier snack options, products like Bohana popped water lily seeds or Cassava Republic & Roots Co. cassava chips give consumers the choice to satisfy cravings without having to worry about negative health impacts. By aligning plant-based product launches with the health and wellness macro-trend across segments, brands can tap into a variety of emerging consumer desires.

Moreover, while plant-based replacements have so far found the most attention with beef, manufacturers are starting to expand into a variety of alternatives and should continue to look to innovate. Follow Your Heart VeganEgg, for example, is a 100% plant-based egg replacement made from alga flour, while Seamore I Sea Bacon provides a seaweed-based replacement for bacon. Sticking with marine-oriented products, while fish alternatives have been less explored than other areas, Good Catch has launched a range of fish-free products that could help answer problems of overfishing. While beef alternatives are likely to take the spotlight in the near future, brands should keep in mind that part of the appeal of these products is innovation; there is a lot of opportunity to help define the sector in this nascent stage.