Sales of plant-based foods increased by 49% across Europe over the past two years, reaching a retail value of €3.6 billion, according to ProVeg International. Innovation has been most prevalent in plant-based milk and in frozen meat alternatives, which have seen the highest growth rates, but the organisation advises companies to look at adjacent market opportunities.
“We recommend to always have the consumer in mind who wants to have convenient, easy to prepare and long lasting products,” said Senior Consumer Research Scientist at ProVeg International, Kai-Brit Bechtold, during an Fi Europe webinar entitled ‘Plant-based foods in Europe: How is the market developing?’.
She said demand for convenience was behind fast growth in frozen products, but advised manufacturers to look beyond widely available product formats like sausages and burgers to focus instead on developing whole cuts of meat such as steaks.
“In doing so they will be kick-starting a new area in the development of plant-based meats,” she said.
Similarly, the plant-based cheese market is still in its infancy, due to problems with functionality, cost and taste, but it is growing fast. Sales more than doubled in Europe from 2018 to 2020, from €28m to €60m, and the growth rate doubled from 31% to 62%. ProVeg recommends focusing on new product development in this area, specifically looking at improving taste and texture.
“The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the growth of plant-based cheese, as more consumers care about their health,” Bechtold said. “Cracking the code here would be incredibly lucrative.”
Plant-based fish is another area that could prove profitable, she added, as current products are not meeting consumer demand for convincing fish flavour and chewing texture.
“Plant-based fish and seafood are a huge business opportunity for the food industry,” she said. “…The selection of plant-based fish and seafood generally available is very limited and mostly consists of fish fingers or crumbed fish burgers, so we advise manufacturers to develop and launch fish fillets and other popular fish products in order to fill the unmet demand in the market.”
Also speaking at Fi Europe, LuAnn Williams, Global Insights Director at Innova Market Insights, said plant-based was now more important than ever before, bringing opportunities in all categories, from convenience products to gastronomy. Innova named plant-based as one of its top ten trends for 2022.
“There are different ways to approach plant-based,” she said in her presentation entitled ‘Plant-based: The canvas for innovation’. Williams explained that plant-based products could be combined with any other industry driver, from convenience and new flavour trends, to sustainability and indulgence.
That said, Williams predicted that interest would continue to rise in environmental wellbeing as part of a healthy diet, meaning consumers everywhere were seeking sustainable plant-based foods.
“Every region around the world is making that link between plant-based and the environment,” she said. “…Foods now represent a lifestyle, and consumers are looking to connect this to their personal values when it comes to their purchasing decisions. We see a change from targeting consumers just around consumption preferences to also making a connection with consumers and their values and beliefs.”
That could mean environmental issues, but Williams also gave examples of vegan brownies from a woman-owned company, and a green tea latte making a connection to a humanitarian cause.
Healthy and indulgent
Consumers also are looking for more indulgent plant-based foods, and Innova has seen 93% growth in food and beverage launches carrying both a plant-based and an indulgent claim over the past two years. This encompasses plant-based baked goods like brownies and sticky toffee pudding, as well as chefs at top restaurants developing more indulgent plant-based menus.
“This will all open up the possibilities and new expectations in plant-based foods,” said Williams.
From meat and dairy alternatives, to baked goods and desserts, new technologies are helping create tastier, healthier and more sustainable plant-based foods – but the drive to cleaner labels sometimes has been considered at odds with novel approaches to food processing. However, Innova research suggests consumers all over the world would accept new technologies if they meant healthier food.
Talking about tech
In Europe, consumers found technological solutions more acceptable if they made food production less harmful for people, the planet or the environment; in Asia, if they made food safer; and in North America, if they made food taste better.
“Consumers will accept new technologies, but you have to explain the benefits,” Williams said. “Plant-based has now shifted from mimicking to optimising…in terms of nutrition, less harm to the environment, there’s lots of ways to do this.”
She added, “As we see new production methods and lots of technology being used, make sure you find a way to connect with consumers, to have a conversation and be very open with them to make sure that people continue to trust the advances in technology.”