Plant-based food sales have surged in recent years. But what’s next for this sector? Emily Newton reports.
Not long ago, plant-based foods, whether meat or dairy, were not deemed a viable alternative to the real thing. That has dramatically changed over the last few years. According to a recent report, plant-based food sales grew 49% in Europe between 2018 and 2020.
Plant-based milk and dairy products led this growth, rising as much as 400% in some countries. Meat alternatives showed less dramatic but still impressive increases, increasing 226% in Germany, for example. Overall, these sales increases contributed €3.6 billion to Europe’s plant-based food industry.
Given consumers’ past aversion to alternative meat and the prominence of animal products in European supermarkets, this trend may be surprising. Here’s a closer look at the shifts that have guided this change.
One of the largest drivers behind rising plant-based food sales is consumers’ growing attention to their health. In a 2019 survey, more than half of vegans in Europe said they adopted these diets for health reasons. Nutrition information has become more accessible, and customers have learned more about what’s healthy or not, influencing their food purchasing decisions.
There are many paths to a healthier lifestyle, but adjusting diet is one of the most straightforward solutions. Consequently, it makes sense that consumers would favour fruits and vegetables over fatty meats when trying to become healthier.
Research over the past few years that links red meat to cancer likely helped encourage this shift. Before, plant-based alternatives may not have been as popular because people didn’t fully understand their health benefits. More concern over these issues and access to this information shifted that trend.
Rising Environmental Concerns
Another significant factor behind this trend is consumers’ rising environmental awareness. Evidence of climate change has become more prominent, and many people have grown increasingly concerned about the environment. Since meat and other animal products are often far from eco-friendly, turning to plant-based alternatives can reduce a consumer’s environmental footprint.
Nearly 50% of worldwide agriculture harvests go toward feeding livestock. Raising these animals and processing and packaging their meat also typically consumes a lot of energy. These practices have fallen out of favour as consumers have grown more eco-conscious.
Plant-based food sales over the past few years reflect these values. These food items’ growth in popularity aligns with rising attention to environmental issues. The worsening threat of climate change will likely drive even more consumers to buy sustainable plant-based products.
COVID’s Impact On Plant-Based Food Sales
Like many other industries, the plant-based food market also shifted amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, unlike other sectors, it also saw a positive shift, as the outbreak brought health issues to the forefront of many consumers’ minds. People rethought their priorities and turned to healthier lifestyles, leading to higher plant-based food sales.
A 2020 survey showed that many consumers bought more fruits and vegetables amid coronavirus lockdowns. Part of this trend was due to food availability, with restrictions limiting the output of meatpacking facilities. Researchers also suggest that people took more time to plan their shopping so as to avoid crowds, and planning typically leads to healthier choices.
While COVID-19 will eventually fade, these trends could outlast it. The researchers in this study noted that many lockdowns lasted longer than six weeks, which is how long it takes for new habits to form. Now that consumers are accustomed to eating this way, they may continue to do so in the future.
What’s Next For Plant-Based Foods?
It seems like plant-based food sales will continue to grow from here. If supermarkets and food producers want to fully capitalise on this trend, though, they’ll need to take further action. Some obstacles still stand between consumers and higher plant-based food consumption.
In a recent survey, half of European flexitarians – people who are primarily but not entirely vegetarian – said plant-based meat alternatives are too expensive. Similarly, 45% said there isn’t enough variety among these products in restaurants and supermarkets. Addressing these issues will help sustain sales.
New production techniques hold promise as a potential solution. 3D-printed meat alternatives take just six minutes to produce a burger to order and may taste closer to actual meat. This speed and flavour could help reduce costs and improve variety.
Some of these changes may only need time. As plant-based alternatives become a bigger business, cheaper and more varied products will naturally follow. The technology to produce them will likewise grow more affordable over time.
Europe’s Plant-Based Future Is Bright
Despite lingering obstacles, Europe’s plant-based food sales figures are impressive. If current trends continue, which all signs point to, the animal product alternative market will keep expanding. Supermarkets and restaurants that capitalise on this trend early could see considerable gains as a result.
It’s uncertain if or when plant-based alternatives will overtake traditional meat and other animal products. Regardless of that outcome, the future of plant-based food sales will undoubtedly be positive. It’s already grown faster than many may have predicted.
About the Author: Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over three years experience writing for the food and beverage industry. Read more articles by Emily Newton by clicking here.