Is ‘plant-forward’ the way forward?

Plant-forward is a term that has gained traction in recent months. As plant-based sales have stagnated and questions about ultra-processing loom large, several retailers and foodservice operators have signalled their intention to include more veg-led dishes in their plant-based ranges.

July 17, 2023
Kathryn Race
A selection of vegetables
July 17, 2023
Kathryn Race
It’s been a difficult few months for plant-based.

Category sales are stagnating and several high-profile brands have decided to withdraw from the UK market or slash their product portfolio. Venture capital funding for plant-based meat startups has dropped. Retailers are shrinking ranges.

Inflation and the cost-of-living crisis have taken a heavy toll on the category. In a recent interview with BBC’s Radio 4, Heck co-founder Jamie Keeble said “the cost of vegan products are quite expensive and I think the consumer, at the end of the day, isn’t willing to start experimenting and spending their hard-earned money".

However, experts and commentators have also pointed to taste as a barrier, and it could be argued that one of the issues with the category was the influx of a large number of mediocre products that didn’t have stand-out and, in some cases, contained a large number of ingredients.

‘Plant-forward’ could be a way to address some of these concerns and reinvigorate consumer interest in the category.

The term plant-forward broadly refers to a style of eating that revolves around vegetables. The idea isn’t new, but it’s recently gained more traction after several major industry players started positioning themselves around it.

Tesco has described ‘plant-forward’ as the next phase of its plant-based strategy and said it sees “growing demand for veggie options featuring whole foods, vegetables and dairy products as the central part of the dish, rather than meat mimics”.

Asda struck a similar note in its 2023/24 Trends Book, which highlights ‘not-so-humble veg’ as a key trend and says “diners are increasingly seeing vegetables as the main event in a meal”. Marks & Spencer’s Veggie range, launched in 2022, and Waitrose’s PlantLiving products are further examples of the trend. Meanwhile, Brakes, the foodservice operator, has published a guide to plant-forward eating for caterers in which it describes plant-forward as a growing trend around the world.

It’s not hard to see why plant-forward is attracting attention. Health and wellness remain important to consumers, even in a cost-of-living crisis, and eating more veg is a health goal that resonates with many people. As we highlighted in a previous newsletter, research by the Food Standards Agency shows nearly 70% of Brits say they want to increase their consumption of fruit and veg.

This creates plenty of opportunity for more overtly plant-focused products. In North America, veg-centric brands such as ‘Actual Veggies’, ‘Cutting Vedge’ and ‘Wholly Veggie’ are already tapping consumer demand for ‘plant-based with actual plants’. In the UK Vegbloc, a new brand of meat substitute that explicitly doesn’t imitate meat, is responding to similar sentiments.  

But plant-forward also comes with challenges.

Chief among these is the lack of a clear definition. ‘Plant-based’ is a simple, descriptive term that’s easy to understand. ‘Plant-forward’ is open to more interpretation. Some plant-forward products and dishes are vegan, while others contain dairy. Some even feature meat. Brakes, for example, defines plant-forward as meaning dishes that contain mostly veg but can still include dairy and meat in small quantities.

This has the potential to confuse consumers and could make them hesitant to try new products. Recent headlines about one in three vegan products containing milk or egg will already have made some shoppers question what exactly they’re getting when they buy a plant-based alternative.

There are also important questions around merchandising. If plant-forward products aren’t consistently free from meat and dairy, where should they sit in store? Some retailers are putting their veg-led mains into the fresh produce section, but this isn’t where most shoppers currently look for meal centres. While this might change over time, it’s hard to see how such merchandising will encourage people to reduce their meat consumption and embrace plant-forward cooking in the here and now.

Then there’s convenience. While it’s true that some consumers want more veg and some worry about the health credentials of meat alternatives, convenience also remains critical. Not everyone can or wants to overhaul their dinner repertoire to include more plant-based options. If flexitarians are the target demographic and gradual reduction of meat and dairy is the goal, offering simple, convenient swaps for popular meats (eg burgers, sausages, nuggets, cooked sliced meats) continues to be key, as well as meat-free products that can easily be substituted for traditional favourites.

As the plant-based market matures and has to look for new pockets of growth, more veg-focused options could well be an exciting opportunity. But they will most likely be an addition to – not a substitute for – meat and dairy analogues, and it’s doubtful that the term ‘plant-forward’ itself will be right for consumer-facing comms.

A healthy, thriving plant-based category must offer choice to consumers – whether it’s those looking for more veg or those who just want to eat a little less meat or dairy and need convenient, tasty and affordable products to help them do so.