A record-breaking 700,000 people across the world officially signed up to Veganuary in 2023, with at least 1,600 new vegan products and menu options launched globally.
However, unit sales in supermarkets for chilled meat alternatives declined by 16.8% during January 2023, with sales of frozen meat alternatives also falling by 13.5% compared to 2022 figures(1).
So, does this mark the end of the plant-based meat boom? Let’s speak to Laura Kirwan PhD, Sustainability Lead here at Nutritics, to review the current landscape and what this means for the future of alternative meat options…
Cost pressures impacting on plant-based sales…
According to Nielsen IQ, sales of meat alternatives suffered in Veganuary because of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, with people trying to make savings where they can on their weekly shop.
Whilst the price of meat alternatives is likely to decrease over time, they are currently more expensive than the standard equivalents. This is especially pertinent, given that 52% of red meat/poultry eaters say they would buy meat substitutes if they were cheaper than meat(2).
With 92 percent of plant-based meals actually eaten by non-vegans in the UK(3), it will be interesting to see if this sales decrease showcases that the general public are moving away from meat alternatives, or if it’s just a temporary blip influenced by budget concerns.
But there are still positives for meat alternatives…
It’s worth noting though that despite this fall in sales, there is still a sizable opportunity for the category, with 38% of the UK’s population replacing meals containing meat with alternatives at least once a week(4). On top of this, plant-based milks, which also have a higher price point than traditional milk, still saw a marginal growth in January 2023(5).
And even though brands such as Heck and Beyond Meat have reported struggles in the past 12 months, the UK substitutes market is worth approximately USD $1 billion.
The results from those who took part in Veganuary also certainly imply that the movement towards plant-based diets is not going anywhere. Twenty-five percent of those who were not already vegan before Veganuary planned to stay vegan at the end of their pledge, whilst seventy-two percent of those not staying vegan plan to at least halve their intake of animal products going forward, with 69% very or extremely likely to try vegan again in the future(6).
What do consumers want from meat alternatives?
According to YouGov, the three main reasons for someone to follow a vegan diet is due to animal cruelty concerns, environmental reasons and health.
Of course, you can be vegan without consuming plant-based meat, but it reiterates that any meat alternatives must meet the increasingly high expectations of conscious consumers when it comes to ethical, environmental and health values.
Not only do alternative products have to taste great, but with so much competition, people will be looking for companies that have a clear sustainability roadmap and are actively working to reduce their overall environmental impact, rather than an existing meat processor that introduces plant-based lines for example.
According to Katrina Bishop, UK thought leadership activation manager at NielsenIQ, brands in this sector must have a clear focus to ensure they remain relevant in the coming years:
“Messages around health and sustainability resonate strongly with shoppers who are regularly eating a more plant-based diet, so focus on ensuring these are clear when promoting such products to shoppers.”
So, are meat alternatives good for you and the planet?
With health and sustainability key themes to consider when choosing plant-based foods, do alternative meats tick those boxes?
According to a study published last year by the University of Bath, plant-based dietary substitutes for animal products are ‘healthier for both the environment and people than the animal products they replace’(7).
The results found that compared to animal products, plant-based meats produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions. This is largely because, overall, they ‘require much less agricultural land, need less water, and cause less pollution than animal products’.
From a health perspective, the research showed that plant-based products tend to have ‘better nutritional profiles compared to animal products’, whilst flagging that there is potential for this to be improved even further as manufacturers can add more functional benefits to an item.
As a counterpoint, animal products are currently major contributors to nutrients such as vitamin B12, iron and iodine in the UK and Ireland. So, this needs to be considered when replacing animal produce with plant-based alternatives.
And despite the above study, it’s important to remember that when it comes to meat alternatives, plant-based does not automatically mean healthier.
There has been considerable debate in the media in the last couple of months about the potential risks of ‘ultra processed foods’, with meat alternatives included in this bracket, especially from a nutritional perspective. Processed products are also more likely to contain palm oil, which is heavily linked to rainforest deforestation.
Ultimately, like most foods, meat alternatives should be consumed as part of a balanced diet.
Discussing balanced diets, the Soil Association states that “the healthiest and most sustainable diets are those based around ‘less and better’ meat and ‘more and better’ plants” – with a focus on the health of the overall supply chain and a move away from highly processed options.
On the whole though, plant-based meats have been identified as one solution to minimising the impact of our food supply chains. The Boston Consulting Group has recently said that replacing traditional meat and dairy products with alternative proteins is one of the best tools available to combat the climate crisis(8).
This is where the use of eco labels on menus would help consumers have more awareness of the food they eat so that they can make an informed choice. Recent research commissioned by Nutritics found that nearly half of consumers (47%) say they want more information about carbon footprints on menus(9), whilst 42% of people agreed that having more information available on the environmental impact of meat substitutes would make them more appealing, according to another study(10).
Should restaurants keep meat alternatives be on the menu?
Whether restaurants should serve plant-based meat on their menu depends therefore on various considerations and the target market. The demand for plant-based foods is still there and meat alternatives are an option for those who want an ingredient designed to have the taste and texture of meat, but in a plant-based form. Restaurants should also offer other vegetable-based dishes though for those who don’t want the fake meat experience or are against the processed nature of the products.
Choice is always key, and including plant-based meat options on the menu provides an opportunity for restaurants to diversify their offerings and attract a wider range of customers. It allows them to accommodate people with different dietary preferences, including vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, and those who simply enjoy exploring new food choices.
Taste is also essential. Plant-based meat alternatives have come a long way, but chefs should make sure they choose products that fit with their menu and that can maintain the quality customers expect.
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Knowledge Labs will provide Hospitality and Food Service (HaFS) operators with expert advice and support across a range of topics central to their ESG strategy, including food related sustainability, nutrition, employee wellbeing, and compliance.
- Nielsen IQ, 2023
- UK Meat Substitutes Market Report 2022
- Kantar, 2019
- Nielsen IQ, 2023
- Nielsen IQ, 2023
- Veganuary Participant Survey, 2023
- Future Foods - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666833522000612?via%3Dihub
- Sustainability Matters: What consumers want and how brands can win, 2023
- UK Meat Substitutes Market Report 2022