The trend: growth and innovation in plant-based foods

Food and drink products mentioning the world plant-based grew 268% between 2012 and 2018, according to Mintel. It was the biggest trend of 2018 and looks set to remain a massive influence on retail this year and beyond. But, what is plant-based exactly? And, is this trend playing out locally?

Jessica Pastore, Senior Analyst at Whole Foods Market in the US, delved in the phenomenal growth and innovation in plant-based food at the recent SACSC Research Conference. Jessica uses her analytical background and passion for grocery retail to produce strategic insights, deliver competitor assessments, identify competitive advantages and make development recommendations for Whole Foods Market.

Whole Foods opened its 500th store in Atalanta in April this year. The brand was acquired by Amazon in June 2017. Whole Foods is best-known for its quality standards and promises to sell the highest-quality natural and organic products available. It has also set many standards where there were not any before. It also specialises in special diets, so its no surprise that it is emerging as a leader in the plant-based revolution.

There is no official or universally agreed upon definition of a “plant-based diet”. It encompasses a spectrum of eating patterns that focus on eating whole plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, and eating fewer or no animal products. Research shows that eating a plant-based diet is linked to a lower risk for heart disease, and there is convincing evidence that increasing fruit and veg has beneficial effects on certain diseases like hypertension, heart disease and stroke. Plant-based eating covers all kinds of lifestyle choices: Flexitarian (those who occasionally eat meat or fish), vegetarian (usually those who avoid meat but not all animal products) and vegan (those who consume no animal products at all).

Pastore explains that plant-based has also become a more acceptable code word for vegan. Plant-based, in its truest form, like veganism, is free from animal products. But, there are nuances. A vegan diet can still contain junk food and highly processed food and is viewed as rigid and extreme. A plant-based diet is centred on wholefood, mostly how it would be found on the farm. It represents far more flexible, open-minded and accepting approach to food.

Whole Foods customers are educated, which makes them high-income earners. They are health conscious, and food is an important part of their self-care regimen. Many also view food as an experience. Their loyal core customers make up 10% of customer-base, but 40% of revenue. Keeping these customers happy is thus a top priority for the brand, which tries to make sure that they have what these customers want. This also educates and influences what other shoppers buy.

When looking at food trends for its customers, Whole Foods focuses on restaurant menus, European trends and media content.

Datassentials, a Whole Foods partner, scrapes over 100,000 menus across the US for frequency of items and ingredients. Supporting the rise of plant-based consumption, it has shown that beef is decreasing as an ingredient on restaurant menus, while ingredients such as tempeh and tofu are on the rise.

Starbucks, for example, has launched two new dairy-free beverages in all its US locations and offers alternative milks, plant-based protein, and natural sweeteners. It is also advertising its vegan mac-and-cheese and a vegan beetroot wrap.

Even McDonald’s is getting into the plant-based game. The research revealed the one in three of its customers wanted more meat-free options, and it is innovating and adopting permanent plant-based menu option throughout Europe. In Finland, you can now order the McVegan and El Veggo, in Sweden the menu includes a McFalafel, in Norway you can tuck into the Vegetarian McFeast and McVegan Nugget and the UK you can opt for a Spicy Veggie Wrap and even a vegan Happy Meal for the kids.

“This is significant to Whole Foods because we look to Europe for what is happening in food trends,” says Pastore. Daymon, another Whole Foods partner, monitors product innovation in Europe for emerging trends in products to consider development and distribution in its markets. In 2017, for example, it identified the alternative milk yoghurt trend – such as almond, oats, coconut and camel - which was successfully incorporate at Whole Foods. It has now dedicated 35% of yoghurt fridge space to alternative milk yoghurts.

Numerous studies indicate that vegetarians, vegan and flexitarians are on the rise across Europe, especially in the UK. Some 31% say they are consciously eating less meat. Vegetarians are estimated to make up 7% of the population, or 7 million people. Vegans weigh in at 3.5%. There has been a 700% growth in the past two years. London has replaced Berlin as the number-one vegan-friendly city in the world. Also, 56% of adults now say that they are “adopting vegan behaviour when grocery shopping.”

And, grocery retailers are responding.

Waitrose reported last year that vegan and vegetarian sales were up 85% validating keen customer interest. It committed to increasing vegan options by 60% and now has an assortment of 180 items. Among them are vegan fish cakes. Pastore points out the alternative fish products could be the next thing. It also became the first supermarket to launch a dedicated vegan section across all stores nationwide. Add to that, Waitrose’s plant-based Grab & Go includes exclusive products from The Happy Pear and The Vegan Butcher as well as its private label assortment, and international cuisines are well represented.

Tesco, the number-one retailer in the UK, reported that in 2018 demand for chilled and frozen vegan food at its stores increased by over 50%, bringing the total UK meat-free market to around USD400m. It named vegan food the biggest culinary trend of 2018. Tesco is strategically targeting the 22 million flexitarians in the UK. In an exclusive partnership with Wicked Healthy, Tesco launched 20 products at over 600 stores in January 2018, and sold more than 4 million units in the first 33-week period – more than double the company’s sales projections. It sold out of 40,000 Vivera vegan steaks in one week. Many stores were sold out on the day of launch.

Ready, steady, go! The local plant-based retailing race is on!

Just like consumers in the US and Europe, South Africans are making a move to a more plant-based lifestyle. So are local grocery retailers. Over the past two years or so, plant-based food options – both ingredients and ready-to-go meals – have been taking up more-and-more space on grocery shelves. This is making plant-based foods more accessible and affordable for local consumers.

Woolworths helps customers make the shift

Woolworths has seen plant-based eating taking the world by storm. Driven by the needs of its customers, in September 2018 it launched a range of plant-based solutions to meet the demand for meat alternative meal solutions. Since then it has expanded on its range, with additions including fresh and frozen plant-based products such as bratwurst, burger patties, nuggets, savoury mince, schnitzels, smoked sausages, stir fry strips and deli meats.

“We have seen a fundamental shift in customer’s habits towards a plant-based way of eating,” says Cindy Chin, Woolworths dietician. “It is a concept that appeals to a diverse range of customers, including meat-eaters, sustainable farming supporters and health advocates alike.”

But making even the smallest lifestyle change can be daunting. Woolworths, however, promises to help make this shift to the vegetable movement seamless and delicious. Teeming with convenient and exciting solutions for every eating occasion, Woolies’ new plant-centric ranges includes vibrant veggie dishes that are full of flavour and satisfying.

“In our plant-based offering, we have tried to cater for our diverse customers wherever they are on their journey and have therefore included animal products such as dairy and eggs in some products,” concludes Chin. “We are developing innovative products to support a plant-based diet and will continue to introduce more products throughout the year.”

As a significant number of Woolies shoppers move vegetables from a side dish, to the centre of the main plate, it is responding to this trend.

As the needs of its customers change and their requirement for quality and convenience increases, it constantly has to ensure that it launch innovative products that meet customer demand while maintaining its high quality standards. It continues to work hard to ensure that it always remains one step ahead in understanding their unique needs.

As part of its labelling commitment to provide customers with sufficient and accurate information to make informed product choices, it uses icons or logos on product packaging to identify suitable products for vegetarians and vegans.

Wellness Warehouse’ wide-ranging impacts

Wellness Warehouse offers many brands that cater for the vegan or plant-based lifestyle.

“Our own range of everyday essentials is, by nature, plant-based and includes nuts, seeds, legumes, grains and flours, as well as superfoods, cereals, teas and coffee. We also stock speciality vegan products from brands such as Urban Vegan, SoyaRama, Almond Creamery and Che Gourmet. What is more, we do not only focus on foods when we look at this lifestyle, we also cater for vegan-friendly body care, important health supplements and eco home products,” says Wellness Warehouse CEO Simon Alston.

Some of its top body care ranges include Esse and Skin Creamery and exciting eco home brands include Klean Kanteen, Stasher and If You Care.

“We are dedicated to offering the full solution for a vegan or plant-based lifestyle. We recently opened a Plant Power Pop Up Shop, which is located within our Cavendish store. In here, you can shop all our categories, pick up healthy plant-based recipes and chat to our dedicated lifestyle consultant to find out more about the plant-based lifestyle and how to make small changes that make a big difference,” explains Alston.

He describes Wellness Warehouse’s range as extensive. “You can find everything you need. We believe that we offer the most comprehensive range of vegan products in the country.” Even so, it is always on the lookout for new and innovative products; newness is a key strategic focus for its business. It is continuously looking for more products and is driven by industry insight as well as consumer demand. “We can actively see that 2019 is ‘the year of the vegan’,” Alston says.

And customers are showing their appreciation with brand love and loyalty. Their response towards Wellness Warehouse’s vegan, plant-based and vegetarian range of products has been very positive.

“When conducting surveys, we had a big response from vegan shoppers who enjoy our offering. Our vegan shopper is eager to see the next big thing on the shelves, and we are committed to finding it,” enthuses Alston. Its best seller is its Urban Vegan range.

But who are its shoppers? “Our range of customers is truly varied, and when observing them in our Plant Power Pop Up, we could not put our finger on only one type. We can see this lifestyle change crossing all types – race, age, gender.”

Some of its shops have dedicated drops and areas to display their plant-based offering, while in other shops, it falls within the broader product offering. This is mainly based on consumer demand and the type of shopper in each store.

“We plan to move towards a dedicated plant-based area in most stores in the future, as we see the demand growing. As mentioned, in the Plant Power Pop Up we have dedicated a large space for people who are interested in finding out more about this lifestyle and the hope is that this will move to other stores in the future,” Alston Notes.

Ultimately, Wellness Warehouse wants to make the transition to a plant-based lifestyle as easy as possible for our customers. Education is, therefore, an important component of its retail offering.

It sees this as a competitive advantage. “Not only does Wellness Warehouse offer the most comprehensive range of fresh, frozen and ambient vegan foods but also other categories that fall into the vegan lifestyle. We make sure that the vegan foods we offer are not only vegan but also healthy for you, with an approved list of ingredients. This is what, in our opinion, sets us apart from competitors,” notes Alston.

Checkers keeps it simple and easy

Checkers offers its customer’s Linda McCartney’s is a range of frozen meals that are all vegetarian or Vegan. It also sells its own Simple Truth range, that was recently introduced and developed because Checkers believes that making better eating choices should be simple and affordable. Within this range, there is a collection of began, vegetarian and plant-based products. These are clearly marked so that they are easy to find.

From vegan pantry essentials to hassle-free frozen meals, and on-the-go snacks and meal solutions, Checkers has a wide range of vegan products. In the Simple Truth range alone, it has more than 80 products that are classed as vegan and more products are launching shortly.

It is increasing its products in line with a very positive response from its customers. Checkers reports that it sees nationwide interest and the sales of these products gaining popularity. Its best seller in this range to date is the Simple Truth Almond Milk one litre.

Where it makes sense, Checkers tries to merchandise these products together to make it is easy as possible for customers to shop. It also looks at shopper data to determine where products should be merchandised.

Regardless of competition in the market, Checkers’ primary objective is to meet its customers’ needs. It tracks trends and dietary requirements in order to provide customers with world-class products at the best price; therefore, vegan became a focus area for it.

Pick n Pay responds to customer interest

Pick n Pay offers a range of vegan, plant-based and vegetarian options for its customers. This includes the popular Quorn and Fry’s range of products, and we also have selected vegan PnP-brand products in our soup and meal accompaniment ranges, as well as various dips, vegan cheeses and milk alternatives.

Nicki Russell, Pick n Pay’s Head of Innovation and Trend, says: “The response to these products has been encouraging and the interest from customers for a vegan, plant-based and vegetarian range of products continues to grow. We will continue to improve and widen our range for our customers.”

Heart-warming, not global warming Global market research company Euromonitor International researched the impact of climate concerns on dietary habits as part of its study into “The driving forces behind plant-based diets”. Results showed that 24% of the surveyed global consumers are trying to cut down their meat intake, driving sales of global meat substitutes to reach USD 19.5 billion in 2018.

“Meat intake is mostly reduced by consumers trying to reinforce healthier eating habits and worrying about climate change. Growing attention to welfare for animals, farmers, societies and employees at large is also noticed among them,” says David Hedin, a consultant at Euromonitor International. He goes on to reveal that 41.9% of respondents think climate change will increasingly impact their life in 2019 to 2024. The U.S., Russia and the U.K. show the highest increases in consumers worrying about climate change.

“Despite the global growth of meat substitutes sales and consumption, the meat industry is still expected to grow at a faster rate by 2023. Pricing and availability of meat substitutes are two key factors that currently hold back its penetration worldwide,” explained Hedin.

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