A new plant-based world for 2024?

Naomi visited Plant-Based World Expo to explore the latest trends and products.

November 23, 2023
Naomi Barry
two hands holding a bowl of different plant based foods
November 23, 2023
Naomi Barry

There is no doubt that plant-based foods are a hot topic – and there’s plenty being said about the category both good and bad, making it a challenging and complicated area to navigate.
 
There are positive stories citing plant-based as one of the fastest growing food categories projected to reach $162 billion by 2030, research suggesting that plant-based swaps may cut diabetes and heart disease risk, and plant-based hailed as a simple solution to climate woes. However, at the same time other headlines paint a less than optimistic picture for plant-based.  Whether that’s businesses going into administration, brands admitting a drop in revenue and job cuts, and retailers reducing their vegan ranges, plus recent stories also noting that sales of these meat alternatives are down 13.6 per cent over the last year with ‘Meat back on the menu’ . 

And with concerns about health and processed foods on the rise too, retailers are increasingly turning to plant-forward interpretations of the plant-based trend. Tesco parted ways with its director of plant-based innovation at the start of the year and announced a switch to a more “veg-led” strategy. Marks & Spencer has invested heavily in its Veggie range, which is vegetarian and vegan focused. Asda says instead of buying specific vegan alternatives, budget-conscious shoppers are increasingly “turning to the natural goodness of veg”.  And just this week Aldi launched a dedicated vegetarian brand called Veggie Menu – a spin off from its vegan Plant Menu range, in a move to bolster its appeal to flexitarians.

So, what of the plant-based sector? What can the industry learn from these challenging times?

And does plant-based remain an important trend in UK retail?  Last week we headed to Plant Based World Expo to get the inside scoop, very latest trends, predictions and insight from industry experts.

At first sight on entering the hall at ExCel, it could have been said that there is a huge amount of inward competition. In addition to meat alternatives there was plenty of plant-based cheese and milk alternatives on show, but also a staggering amount of investment in technological developments creating tastes, flavours and textures for ‘meat alternatives’ that claim to hold their own against ‘the real thing’. 

A montage of pictures of stands from Plant Based World Expo

But what do the experts say? 

First up, we attended a talk by Dr David Johnson, from Kalsec Natural Food & Beverage Ingredients, exploring the power of plant-based protein. He notes that the plant-based foods market is entering a new phase in plant-forward eating (increasing a diet of plant-based foods but not avoiding meat – in a move to a more plant-centric flexitarian lifestyle) – and it is consumers who are driving (and demanding) change.  Hence the changes we are seeing in retail.

He identified the current category macro trends as:

  • Taste - the leading driver in consumer purchase and retention.  Nearly 9 in 10 consumers say taste is the primary reason for buying a product
  • Clean label and health concerns – consumers continue to be more conscious and interested in where their food comes from.  As the debate around Ultra Processed Foods continues, this will become even more important.  For example, just this week This unveiled a new Isn’t Chicken pieces with ‘improved ‘flavour, the succulence (loads), number of ingredients (nearly halved), the shape - basically everything’
  • Sustainability/environmental factors and food waste – consumers want manufacturers to address their concerns in the production of products
  • Whole food ingredients – mushrooms, walnuts and tempeh are predicted to be big ingredients in plant-based foods during 2024.
  • And that over the next year we should expect to see the category develop across flavours (think sweet, smoky and spicy peppers – as well as combinations inspired by SE Asia and South America), and a move beyond patties and nuggets, with more Rib, Filet Mignon and Bratwurst products.  There will also be focus on clean labelling and micronutrients (repurposed ingredients for green impact and nutrients received from plant-based offering).

Next up we heard from Indy Kaur at plantfutures to ‘uncover the secrets to growing consumer demand for plant-based food and meat alternatives’.  A fascinating talk backed by recent research as part of the Smart Protein Project involving 33 partners from 20+ countries.  The clear message here was that ‘There is Headroom for Growth’.  While YoY the category is showing decline – a more complete picture is that the category has reset to pre-pandemic times. 

The research suggests that plant-based producers should seek growth by encouraging more ominvores to try plant-based – and for flexitarians to eat more frequently.  With plant-based meat currently accounting for around 4% of total meat volume – there are plenty of opportunities to aim for!  With ominvores identified as the most important group to target with plant-based, currently this group accounts for 46% of eating occasions – but 45% are open to eating more plant-based meat (this group accounts for 30% of the population).

Taste, satiety and trust were highlighted as the three most significant barriers for consumers to overcome. 74% say a plant-based diet doesn’t satisfy them, 57% cite health-based concerns that a plant-based diet is nutritionally inadequate, while 53% say it’s too expensive. To convert these consumers, manufacturers must work together to create consistency across the category to deliver on great taste, nutrition and pricing.

There’s plenty to learn from other markets too, and Elsa Guadarrama from ProVeg International was on hand to walk us through learnings from across Europe:

  • In 2021, 39% of Europeans followed a non-meat based dietary lifestyle – Netherlands, Romania and Austria led the way (UK ranked 7th) – now in 2023, 38% continue to follow a non-meat based dietary lifestyle – Germany, Austria, Netherlands now lead the way (UK ranked 4th)
  • Consumers in Austria and Germany have high levels of meat consumption, but are committed to change, whilst those in Denmark and Netherlands are more concerned about animal welfare and the environment than the average European country
  • Germany relies heavily on discounters and drug stores to sell plant-based, while the UK focusses on supermarkets and online shopping
  • Social inclusion, affordability and availability are a challenge in even the most developed plant-based markets.

Interestingly, just last month the Danish government unveiled a ‘Groundbreaking’ Roadmap towards plant-based food.  A plan outlining a ‘commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by boosting plant-based food production’.  According to Plant-based News ‘’[the plan] contains measures focused on every part of the supply chain from product to consumers – and involved giving chefs training on how to prepare more plant-based meals’. 

Will (or when will) the UK follow suit?

One thing is for sure though, 2023 has been a tough and challenging year for plant-based, so all eyes will be on 2024 as the sector seeks to reinvent itself. We also expect plant-forward eating and flexitarian dietary lifestyles to grow in importance. Eating more fresh produce remains important to many consumers, so products that are obviously high in veg will be in prime position to gain more space on supermarket shelves in 2024.