In part two of this feature, Andy Coyne asks whether anything can slow down the march of vegan food in the UK.
As we saw in the first part of this feature, the rise of the vegan packaged food category in the UK has been relentless in the last year or so.
New products are coming to market every day and, as many of those buying them are non-vegans looking to cut down on their meat intake for health reasons and because of concerns about sustainability, it is tempting to think the category will continue to grow as long as there is a focus among consumers on their own well-being and the future of the planet.
As Alex Glen, the UK marketing director at meat-free stalwart Quorn Foods, puts it: “We have seen an increase in the number of people looking at the impact on the planet of what they are eating. It is hitting two megatrends – health and sustainability.”
But are we really looking at impediment-free growth in the vegan food area or could there be some bumps on the road ahead?
Before answering that question, it is probably worth looking at how the vegan category has developed.
Hamish Renton, managing director of UK-based food and drink consultancy HRA, explains it thus: “In product terms, wave one of vegan was all about being a meat substitute – faux sausages and bacon rashers etc. They didn’t give a stuff about nutrition and ingredients.
“Then it got finessed a bit as wave two showed a bit more imagination with compositions of dishes such as bolognese and lasagne.
“The new wave is about putting good stuff in and worrying less about replacing meat.”
But it is this perception of “putting good stuff in” that could be an Achilles’ heel for the category in the UK.
Many manufacturers of vegan food use words such as authenticity, trust and provenance about their products, suggesting a connection between themselves and the end user.
But many also make health claims about their products and the danger here is consumers assume anything with the word vegan on it is good for them.
Research and analytics company GlobalData has looked at this area and suggests brands in the UK need to ensure their vegan food products remain healthy to consumers.
“As veganism becomes increasingly available in mainstream retail, consumers’ attention inevitably shifts towards how healthy a vegan product is. Brands should address this by reducing sugar and salt levels in processed vegan food, removing allergens and adding ingredients beneficial for the vegan diet,” it said in a statement this week.
Aleksandrina Yotova, a consumer analyst at GlobalData, says: “While these [vegan] products are better for animal welfare, not all vegan foods are healthier than the standard options, and this is noticed by consumers.”
GlobalData points to retailer Marks and Spencer’s new Plant Kitchen vegan range which it says “has been reported to feature allergy-related warnings, which not only contradict the vegan nature of the range but also suggest a risk for allergy sufferers”.
And GlobalData highlights High Street bakery chain Greggs’ new vegan sausage roll – produced in conjunction with Quorn – has been reported to have more salt than the original and nearly a gram of sugar, “which makes its health benefits debatable”.
Yotova adds: “As consumers want vegan products to be healthier alternatives to meat and dairy, the lack of clarity will be off-putting for some. Future trends in vegan food will follow the same philosophy that consumers apply to eating in general: eat whole, real foods with as little processing as possible. Vegan food products will need to keep this philosophy central to their product formulations.”
John Stapleton, a serial entrepreneur behind food brands New Covent Garden Soup Co. and Little Dish who now operates as an angel investor and industry adviser, believes taste is still the overriding reason for a product’s success.
“A lot of claims are made on health and there are altruistic claims. That’s a great message but to become mainstream it has to taste good,” he says.
“In this area, veganism has been a bit hit and miss. Anecdotally – because I’m not a vegan and don’t eat a lot of these products – it is gradually improving.”
Lia Neophytou, another consumer analyst at GlobalData, suggests producers are now attempting to make vegan food more exciting.
“Experimentation is very popular now – Sainsbury’s, for example, is offering sweet potato katsu curry,” she says. There is an effort to make these products exciting. To break down perceptions that vegan is bland.”
One other possible impediment to the category’s growth is the action of militant vegans, who are increasingly protesting on animal welfare issues.
Before Christmas, a group calling themselves Direct Action Everywhere invaded a steakhouse in the southern English city of Brighton to protest against people eating meat and, in the past week, militant vegans published the names of addresses of dairy farmers in England and Wales, encouraging people to confront them.
They are perfectly entitled to their views of course and to take direct action within the law but, if such actions were to become more widespread, retailers and food producers might become nervous the word vegan could become synonymous with protest, especially as so many of the people buying these products do not have animal welfare at the top of their list of reasons for doing so.
But it would be wrong to say most observers see such factors as checking the speed of growth in the UK category for vegan food in the near future.
Indeed, many in the industry are already looking to new areas of vegan food growth in retail and beyond.
Stapleton says: “The number of new brands is creeping up and retailers have jumped on board as well. For any trend to take a foothold it has to have the support of the retail trade.”
It is a point echoed by Eric Woods. His Liverpool-based business, Worldwide Food Associates, is an importer and distributor of food brands including, most recently, the US shelf-stable plant-based ‘seafood’ brand Loma Linda, owned by US business Atlantic Natural Foods.
Woods talks about working with retailers on vegan product launches. “At first there was a bit of indecision about where we [Loma Linda] would sit on the shelves as they had not developed a strategy for ambient. We were able to offer data and research on this,” he says.
“The supermarkets are overwhelmed by what’s on offer but not just in plant-based. The buyers we are talking to are also the ones dealing with normal canned tuna and ready meals. There aren’t dedicated buyers for this category.
“What we have to do as a supplier is to show that we are offering something that responds to one of the fastest-growing markets in the UK right now.”
Renton at HRA takes the point about ambient but highlights one concern. “It’s early days for ambient. It is coming but the technology is taking a while. Keeping nutrition in shelf-stable can mean a cocktail of preservatives or stabilisers, or is vac-packed, which looks minging,” he says.
If ambient is an obvious area of growth for vegan food after chilled and frozen, it is not the only one.
Neophytou at GlobalData sees a trend that fits in with consumer lifestyles.
“We’ve picked up on a trend towards on-the-go. In the past, pre-cooked vegetarian food was difficult to make but now supermarkets are aligning vegan products with convenience,” she says.
And – given the aforementioned Greggs’ venture with Quorn – it is perhaps unsurprising many manufacturers see foodservice as a key area of growth.
Glen at Quorn says: “This is a very useful part of the market for us; it allows people to try our products.”
Nicola Yates, UK marketing manager at South African plant-based business Fry’s Family Foods, agrees. “We have seen growth in foodservice. We are working with one of the biggest suppliers to the public sector,” she says. “People want vegan solutions in all areas.”
Renton at HRA sees vegan food moving ahead if innovation levels are maintained. “There is interesting work in the vegan area now,” he says. “A good example is Lazy Vegan, which uses pulverised peas. Making protein out of veg has got a long way to go.”
But he has this warning. “That old adage about nine out of ten new products failing is still there.”