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Plant-based: a fundamental shift in consumption habits [Interview]

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Plant-based food purchases are no longer just a trend  - they represent a fundamental and necessary shift towards more sustainable patterns of consumption, says Dr Kai-Brit Bechtold, Senior Consumer Research Scientist at ProVeg International. Key findings from a recent study highlight the extent to which this transition is in progress, and how much untapped potential in the marketplace remains. 
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This report, published by the EU-funded Smart Protein project in partnership with ProVeg International, applied previously unseen Nielsen market data to provide the sharpest picture yet of plant-based purchasing habits. The report scanned retail scanning data from the past three years. “This data helped us to uncover exactly what consumers are buying,” explains Bechtold.  

More specifically, six plant-based food categories were analysed across 11 countries – fish-based alternatives, ice cream-based alternatives, meat-based alternatives, milk-based alternatives, cheese-based alternatives and yoghurt-based alternatives. The team behind the study was able to uncover sectoral growth rates, compare country performances and identify outperforming product categories.

Growth across the board 

“Some of this data is incredible,” says Bechtold. “We found that all plant-based food categories in all countries analysed have boomed over the past few years. Between 2018 and 2020 for example, European plant-based sales grew by a staggering 49 % overall.” 

Cheese-based and fish-based alternatives enjoyed triple digit growth rates, even though sales are still low. Categories such as milk and meat alternatives, with higher euro sales, also showed strong growth.

“Take Germany for example,” says Bechtold. “Over the past two years, plant-based fish sales have grown by an incredible 623 %.” 

Other key findings include the fact that plant-based cheese growth is highest in the Netherlands, with sliced cheese leading the sector. The UK is the best performing market for plant-based meat sales, followed by Germany and the Netherlands. Germany is the leading plant-based milk market, followed by Spain. 

Change is happening 

Bechtold believes that the Covid pandemic has only accelerated the growth of plant-based products.

“Consumers are more concerned these days about their health,” she explains. ‘In these challenging times, people want something they can control – and they can control their diet.” 

Furthermore, the impressive market growth experienced over the past few years represents only the start. Many potential protein alternatives and technologies have not been fully exploited.

“I see fermentation techniques as the next big thing,” says Bechtold. “Companies are already using precision fermentation to produce functional ingredients traditionally found in animal products using microbial hosts as ‘cell factories’. Perfect Day is using this approach to create dairy proteins and Impossible Foods for heme.”

The field of cellular agriculture, with cultured chicken nuggets already available in restaurants in Singapore, is also set to explode. Kearney predicted that by 2040 plant-based meat alternatives and cultured meat will have a market share of 60% of the 1.8 trillion USD global meat market.

“This market is nowhere near being mature,” says Bechtold. “Plant-based value chains  are only just beginning to be put in place.” 

On top of this, Bechtold points out that policies need to change. In many countries, taxes on plant-based foods are higher than for conventional foods.

“This is not okay,” she says. “Policy makers need to adapt and help farmers with this transition, and also help to attract consumers. There are still a lot of obstacles and challenges to be faced.”

Nonetheless, change is happening.

“This is the start of a big journey,” says Bechtold. “Plant-based is becoming more and more mainstream. A younger generation of consumers, more environmentally and perhaps also more ethically aware than previous generations, is emerging. This generation has already shown itself to be far more open to buying plant-based products.”  

You can also find the link to the Smart Protein Plant-based Food Sector Report here.

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