Vegan nation: the rise of veganism

January 20, 2018, 10:00 am
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Source: The Grocer

What do you mean, weak, limp and weedy? In 2017 the vegan category was robust, energetic, and flush with crowdfunding cash. It took just 30 hours for UK plant-based burger company Vurger to hit its Crowdcube target of £150,000 in July (it eventually raised £300,000).

Over in the US, Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio are investing in brands like chickpea crisps Hippeas, while happy couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z announced they were going on a 22-day vegan diet and launched a vegan delivery service.

Back in the UK, Unilever-owned Ben & Jerry’s finally launched its vegan ice cream in September, a year after it released it in the US. And in October, London’s Olympia played host to Vegfest 2017. It’s been entertaining consumers since 2012, but in 2017 it opened to the trade for the first time this year, attracting supermarket buyers and playing to the increasingly mainstream nature of the category today – not least because of the growing numbers of UK vegans looking to spend their cash on something other than pulses and nut roasts.

According to the Vegan Society, there were 542,000 vegans in the UK in 2016, a 360% increase over the previous 10 years.

It’s why, despite the advances in choices for vegans, the food and drink industry is “only scratching the surface of the vegan category” says Paul Downing, sales director at vegan pudding brand Freaks of Nature. “You only have to look around Vegfest to see the quality, creativity and quantity of what is available. In addition there is much more interest within the younger generations, so over time it will encompass more people.”

Consumers are becoming “increasingly aware of the health, environmental and ethical benefits of a plant-based diet,” says Mike Hill, joint MD of One Planet Pizza. “The health benefits have also been endorsed by the World Health Organization, which recommends ‘a nutritious diet based on a variety of foods originating mainly from plants, rather than animals’.

“People are understanding more about the ethical issues, and the impact it has on the environment as well as our health”

He also points to the wider free-from phenomenon that has well and truly taken hold in the UK. Mintel is forecasting an increase in UK sales from £470m in 2015 to £673m by 2020, up 48%, and there is also a growing trend in the UK towards flexitarianism, a diet predominantly but not strictly vegetarian, which according to Whole Foods is going to be one of the biggest food trends in 2017.

Another huge food trend is food to go – and vegans aren’t being left behind. As well as familiar high street outfits like Pret a Manger opening vegetarian outlets (featuring vegetarian and vegan products), By Chloe, the US vegan fast food sensation, will open in Covent Garden this autumn, building on the six restaurants it has opened in New York in just two years.

If vegetable wraps and rainbow salads sound a bit too healthy, numerous restaurants are springing up around the UK, particularly in urban areas, deep-frying various non-meat products. Temple of Seitan was founded in Hackney in 2015 by Rebecca McGuinness, a former KFC worker turned vegan who desperately missed a lascivious hit of fried chicken. She uses the meaty-textured gluten-based seitan to masquerade as fried chicken burgers and wings. Last week it announced it would open a second restaurant in Camden.

It all means vegans have a “fantastic choice of alternative products available to them” says Tracy Kane, brands director at Community Foods, which distributes vegan, organic and health foods brands in the UK, and has created several itself, like Crazy Jack and Tarantella. “A lot of products are only available online and in independent health food shops, but the supermarkets are becoming much more switched on to the trend and it will be interesting to see how they position these products in store – will there be a separate section for vegan products? Will they sit in the free-from aisle?”

Supermarkets have switched on to the opportunity to such an extent that several own-label vegan products are now available, such as a vegan cheese range launched in April that Tesco developed with vegan brand Bute Island Foods. It also launched a canned meat-free bolognese. Asda has launched frozen meat-free popcorn chicken, while Morrisons and Sainsbury’s also have own-label free-from ranges.

“We have seen a huge amount of growth in vegan products in the mainstream market in recent years, reflected in the growing number of products from all over the world registering with The Vegan Society’s international Vegan Trademark,” says Laura Faliveno, trademark team manager at The Vegan Society.

“This is huge progress, as vegan products are becoming more and more readily available, as well as affordable. For instance, you can now even find some of Asda’s Smart Price products labelled with the Vegan trademark. There is, of course, still much more growing room – we look forward to even more growth within supermarkets as well as convenience and on-the-go outlets, which we are planning to work towards with our Vegan-on-the-go campaign to encourage outlets to cater better for vegan consumers.”

There are “many reasons for this growth – but essentially it is education” she adds. “Social media and the internet have made accessing and sharing information so quick and easy that more and more people have become aware of the issues surrounding the meat and dairy industry. They are understanding more about the ethical issues regarding the use of animals, and the impact it has on the environment as well as our health.”

As well as exposing those issues, there is also a glut of information out there on how to follow a vegan diet while still being able to go out and enjoy food. “This means that more people are staying vegan,” she adds. “The food industry has begun to listen more to consumer demand and this, in turn, creates more choice for consumers. As a result consumers are realising that the vegan lifestyle is now convenient and affordable.”

It’s also healthier, says Quinoa Crack founder Jason Abbott. “More and more people are being motivated to follow a vegan diet for health as well as ethical reasons. We’re seeing a shift away from vegan diets based on highly processed, sugar and chemical laden ‘meat substitutes’ to healthy plant-based eating habits. I think that trend will just continue to grow.”

“There has been an incredible improvement in quality, which means you do not need to compromise to follow such a diet”

“I would call out two specific reasons for the growth,” says Downing. “The rapid rise of ‘lifestylers’ and ‘flexitarians’ who are looking to reduce their meat, dairy intake etc, thereby opening up vegan products to millions as opposed to the half a million vegans in this country. There has also been an incredible improvement in quality, which means you do not need to compromise on great food to follow such a diet. As long as the quality of vegan products continues to improve alongside continued education of the benefits, then growth is guaranteed.”

And he points out one salient truth – that vegans, or anyone else following a niche diet, don’t want to miss out on the good stuff.

“Having talked to a lot of people in this space there appear to be two holy grails with regards to what they miss most – amazing desserts, especially chocolate, and cheese. It was only a short while ago when there were no desserts available and the quality of vegan cheese was average at best. Now there are a number where you just can’t tell the difference.”

And creativity will be key to future success, says Mike Jessop, sales director at Moo Free Chocolates. “The vegan chocolate category is growing very quickly indeed, and although vegan chocolate has become more mainstream since we began in 2010, it seems to have particularly sped up over the past 12 months. It is now not enough to just produce vegan food. Rather, it is important that companies keep on innovating.”

And if they do, they have an increasingly powerful customer base queuing up to buy whatever they come up with next.

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