The UK market for vegetarian and meat-free foods has boomed over the last decade, and shows no signs of stopping. It is much easier to be a vegetarian these days; long gone is the time when vegetables were the only choice. Now vegetarian food ingredients, such as Quorn and Tofu, are readily available and books on vegetarian cuisine are plentiful. To some extent, vegetarian foods have also mirrored wider food trends, with convenience at the fore of the market. According to Mintel the vegetarian-specific foods market is worth £428m in the UK alone, with ready meals taking most sales and meat substitutes a growing sector.

The top 3 chilled brands in the market are Quorn, Cauldron Foods and Khero.
The top 3 frozen brands are Linda McCartney, Quorn and Birds Eye.

However, an inspection of the sales of vegetarian foods and the number of committed vegetarians reveals an apparent disparity. There just aren't enough vegetarians to be creating all this demand, so who is eating all the vegetarian pies? Over the last ten years a revolution has taken place - meat free meals have migrated from the whisperings of the quirky minority and been adopted by the increasingly health-conscious mainstream.

Source: RealEat poll, 1984-1999

Not only would it be impossible for the current numbers of vegetarians to be singularly responsible for over £400m of food sales, but the veggie population has also slipped slightly since 1997. Those in the public eye have mirrored this trend, and recent reports that Julia Sawalha and Anthea Turner have returned to meat may offer some insight into who else is eating meat-free foods. After years of being vegetarian, it is unlikely that either woman will stop eating vegetarian products altogether, and they are unlikely to be unique cases. There are more female than male vegetarians, a large proportion of whom are young, and there are surely many nationwide who became vegetarians when young only to add meat back into their diets later.

Similarly, potential consumers of vegetarian products are partners, family and friends of vegetarians. They may not exclude meat from their diet, but exposure to non-meat meals and having to shop or cater for a vegetarian is likely to affect their consumption.

Even both these categories cannot sustain the current demand alone, however. The truth is that all consumers are likely to include meat-free meals in their diets.

There are many factors to explain what is driving the demand for vegetarian foods. In 1997 an NOP Poll for Seven Seas and The Vegetarian Society found that only 44% of vegetarians claimed the lack of meat in their diet was based on moral reasons, while 22% claimed it was for health reasons, and 9% blamed food scares. Those reasons are not limited to vegetarians; health worries and food scares will undoubtedly account for many more consumers cutting down on meat consumption and certain types of food. This was borne out by the same study, which found that 41% of the population was 'eating less meat nowadays' (that is 31% of men and 51% of females).

While the consumer press has interpreted falling numbers as the beginning of the end of fashionable vegetarianism, it cannot deny the impact of vegetarianism on food supply in the last two decades. Promar International believes that the vegetarian movement and the demand for meatless products is a function of five main variables, one of which is product availability. And now the products are on the supermarket shelves, it seems that they are here to stay irrespective of the number of people claiming to be strict vegetarians, because there are innumerable people moving in and out of this market at any one time.

Source: Promar International, The Concerned Consumer in the United States

The beauty of vegetable-based meals, or meat alternatives, is that anyone and everyone is a potential consumer. Thus the challenge for manufacturers is not only to create meat alternatives for vegetarians, but to make them convincing enough to win over meat-eaters as well. There is still some way to go, however. The supermarket shelves display what many would consider authentic tasting vegetarian bacon bits, but vegetarian sausages are often unconvincing meat substitutes.

GM ingredients

Other evidence that the vegetarian market mirrors wider food trends is given when particular consumer concerns over food safety and health creep into the vegetarian ready meal market. As fears regarding GM food have grown, so too has the number of vegetarian products claiming to be 100% GM free - a particular concern here as one of the most common GM organisms is soy, a staple ingredient in many vegetarian foods.


In 1998 The Vegetarian Society amended the qualification criteria for their symbol to encompass only GM-free ingredients. The symbol appears on over 2,000 products, ranging from food and drink items to cosmetics and toiletries. One of the newest products to gain approval to use the symbol is the newly re-launched vegetarian range from Dalepak Foods, created in a bid to revitalise its market share. Dalepak also launched Veg Sausages to add to a range that includes Cauliflower Cheese Grills, Vegetable Grills and Crunchy Vegetable Fingers.

Research commissioned by The Vegetarian Society discovered that a staggering 82% of consumers are aware of the symbol and its meaning. It is questionable how many of these are aware that the symbol ensures GM free ingredients, but manufacturers are spreading the word themselves, for example Cauldron Foods has made its entire range GM free and publicises this on its website and packaging. Such "GM free" measures will not only increase sales of ranges to vegetarians, but to general consumers who share the same concerns.

Organic

Another emerging area in the vegetarian market is organic foods. For example, in 2000 Cauldron Foods launched six new organic products and UK canned food manufacturer Westler Foods launched a range of organic vegetarian ready meals - under its Chesswood brand. This launch comprised three new dishes: organic vegetable curry, chilli and a more traditional hotpot.

Addressing consumer concerns

As the illustration below shows, vegetarianism is often perceived as the last resort for concerned consumers. Before reaching that point however, many consumers concerned about GM free and organic ingredients will make active choices in the supermarket. Therefore, in addressing these concerns, manufacturers can increase their appeal to the wider population - and differentiate products from their competitors.

Source: Promar International, The Concerned Consumer in the United States

Catering for all

Products that meet consumer concerns, for example organics, are usually sold at a premium, but what about the consumers who do not buy these products? Are they less concerned, less willing to pay the premium, or just less able? Though it has already been said that vegetarians are not the only consumers of meat-free meals - looking at their socio-demographic make-up it is clear to see that those in the C2DE groups are the fastest growing. If this is an indication of wider consumer concerns over food, then retailers and manufacturers would be best advised to increase their products at lower price points, to avoid missing out on a large group of potential buyers.

Source: RealEat poll 1990-1999

The phenomenal growth of meat-free produce has more to do with health-awareness, and consumers making a conscious choice to improve their diet, than with ethically driven vegetarianism. Further growth is likely to come from addressing the recent consumer concerns about food, such as GM or pesticide use, and their impact on health. Worries over cholesterol and fat levels in food were new issues a few years ago, but are now commonly addressed across the food industry. And as the same becomes true of GM and organic ingredients, sure enough there will be new issues for consumer concern that manufacturers can address. The key is anticipating these and trying to stay one step ahead!

By Jasmin Rashid, a food market analyst

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