FEATURE22 August 2022

Planting a seed: vegan food consumption trends

Europe FMCG Features North America Retail Trends UK

The explosion of plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy food is one of the biggest trends of recent times. Growing interest in healthy eating, combined with constant innovation, is making the category less niche. PRS In Vivo’s Nicole Duckworth finds out what this might mean for brands; with additional input from Jay Whitney and Carine Guillou.

Woman holding bag of vegetables

While the number of people actively trying to cut down on animal products is increasing, sales have stalled in the case of a number of individual brands. This indicates a disconnect between the desires of shoppers and how these brands are trying to tackle consumer needs.

  •        Meat consumption is both cultural and complicated

Across Europe, different cultural and practical factors mean we see significant differences in meat consumption between countries. For example, only 11% of Italians claim to eat meat at every meal, while in the UK this number is double at 24%, with Germany and France somewhere in the middle.

However, the UK is also the country with the largest number of vegetarians/vegans ( 9%), and in fact France had the lowest number of meatless eaters ( 2%).

In all four of these countries however, at least one in three are actively reducing or looking to reduce their meat consumption. This demonstrates that there’s a thriving market for meatless products across Europe if brands can provide solutions that are in line with local behaviours and attitudes.

  •        Why are people cutting down on animal products anyway?

There is a plethora of reasons for consumers to start reducing their meat consumption, but these decisions are not always as altruistic as they are portrayed. Traditional ‘old school’ vegetarianism and veganism are seen as being mostly rooted in animal welfare.

It’s true that people don’t want animals to suffer, being killed for meat or being farmed in industrial conditions and are sometimes willing to eschew specific foods and vote with their wallets to discourage these practices. However, our data shows that while this is a factor for meat reducers, it is only a main driving factor for 32% of them. 

Alternatively, the environmental impact of the meat industry has come to the forefront of public consciousness in the last decade or so, and a newer wave of meat reducers are motivated not just by the health of animals themselves, but by the planet they live on. Once again however, our data shows this is a main factor for 59% of meat reducers, meaning for almost half it’s not a primary driver.

  •        Taste is the biggest barrier to reducing meat consumption

Firstly, not all plant-based meat alternatives are created equal, and this is in part because not all animal meats are equal. Notably, we see fish and even chicken perceived to be ‘lesser evils’ in European markets when compared to red meat and pork. Consumers are less likely to look for alternatives to these products that taste the same.

Secondly, from a behavioural science perspective, framing your product as a ‘beef alternative’ (for example) psychologically primes consumers to expect a specific and familiar flavour. However, human beings are culturally and evolutionarily hard-wired to be suspicious of meat that ‘doesn’t taste quite right’, which means accurately replicating the taste of meat is a very narrow target in a dangerous ‘uncanny valley’ of flavour.

  •        Plant-based meals don’t effectively meet consumers’ needs

More than just barriers around taste expectations, the biggest gap consumers identify around switching to plant-based foods seems to focus on the prospect of a truly indulgent eating experience. For meat reducers, one of the main draws that keeps them coming back to meat is ‘indulgent’ occasions. This includes going out for a meal at a restaurant, where there are often more options for non-vegetarian meals, but it can also extend to cooking at home.

  • Normalising plant-based options

The way plant-based products are currently presented to consumers doesn’t fit with how they actually use them, which causes an incongruence and makes them less likely to find and purchase these items.

Modern plant-based consumers are usually flexitarian, that is, they still eat meat but make semi-structured efforts to mix in meatless meals into their diet and repertoire. However, in most European markets, plant-based products are often segregated from animal product options, either pushed aside in a chiller next to the meat, or in some cases relegated to far flung corners of the store.

Breaking down the clear demarcation between plant-based and animal-based products to make them seem like equal and comparable options is something modern meat-reducers specifically request.

There are examples of some brands making a deliberate effort to move from being a ‘niche option’ into a more ‘for anyone’ mindset, and brands like Herta in France have invested in marketing some of their products to be suitable for vegetarians and omnivores alike.

  •        Where brands can go from here

Given the ongoing trend towards reducing meat consumption in European markets, both brands and retailers are having to adjust to a reality where plant-based meats are no longer a niche alternative for a specific audience.

Shopper understanding: This potential change in placement fundamentally alters the way shoppers will navigate to these brands and will potentially bring the products into the paths of more potential customers. Consider how well products will stand up if they’re no longer just competing with each other in the ‘vegetarian section’, but going head-to-head with animal products.

Packaging evaluation: In this change of shelf context where animal products and plant-based products may be compared in more ‘head-to-head’ comparisons, at-shelf communication on-pack and via point-of-sale materials are going to need to sing the product’s praises. Consider the kind of tangible, personally relevant benefits these plant-based products might have over animal products.

NPD opportunities: If shoppers are going to be standing in a chilled or frozen aisle, directly comparing animal-based and plant-based products as they seek out the indulgent ‘star’ of tonight’s dinner, then this opens up opportunities for new products designed and crafted to take on this challenge. Consider how effectively plant-based products are able to meet the various needs and meal occasions consumers have in order to beat meat into the basket.

Nicole Duckworth is head of Europe and global commercial excellence at PRS In Vivo; Jay Whitney is senior insights manager and Carine Guillou is an associate director

The study interviewed 5,003 people in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and the US. This was complemented by social listening and a series of ethnographic interviews