Why having the right plant-powered strategy is key in 2020

With the start of the new decade comes new opportunities for companies in the plant-based realm, including with blended meats and innovation with recognisable vegetables.

15 January 2020
bakeryfarmingmeat alternativenutritionplant-basedvegan

Meet the Expert

Who: Julian Mellentin

What: Founder

Where: New Nutrition Business


People love plants. With their “naturally healthy” halo, consumers of all ages want to eat more of them – but in more convenient forms than in the past. But contrary to what is often claimed, we’re not all turning into vegetarians and vegans.

In fact, Americans are more likely to be following a keto diet than to be vegetarian, according to the annual consumer survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC).  IFIC found that the numbers of people saying they followed a vegan or vegetarian diet shrank between 2018 and 2019.

By contrast, the appeal of a ketogenic or high-fat diet has doubled.

Even in the UK – where more new products were launched labelled ‘vegan’ in 2019 than anywhere else in Europe - vegans account for just 1.16% of the population, according to the Vegan Society’s website.

The growth opportunity for business isn’t vegans – it’s the mass of normal people who just want more vegetables in their diet.

And, as I discussed at FIE 2019 in Paris, it’s not only the young who are driving the demand for more plants.

Plants for the people

The evidence from consumer research is that people of all ages – not just Millennials and Gen Z – want to eat more plants.

People have always wanted to eat more plants and knew they should. Now they’re available in many more convenient forms, they can. It’s creative product development that is propelling the plant-based trend, not vegetarianism and veganism.

Finding more convenient ways to help people eat vegetables is a long-term growth opportunity for companies big or small. And there are five major strategies in plants:

1. Plants as heroes

2. Plants blended with “good” carbs

3. “Real vegetables” replace starchy carbs

4. Plants blended with meat

5. Plant-based meat alternatives

Strategies two, three and four have the most potential for growth and for creative product development. For example, the Caulipower pizza brand uses cauliflower in place of grains for its pizza crusts. In 2019, Year 2 of its existence, it is on track for $100 million in retail sales.

It’s a great example of bringing together the health halo of plants with the benefits of extreme convenience, good taste and gluten-free.

Meanwhile, bakery companies in Europe – such as Fazer in Finland – are finding success with breads that have a 30% vegetable content, based on vegetables such as beetroot, carrot, zucchini, beans or sweet potato.

People suspect they should trim their carb intake (to help with weight control), but they love their bread. This strategy is a great way to give them plants as ‘good carbs’ and give people permission to indulge.

From New Zealand to the US, makers of beef burgers are using the same strategy as bakers, including up to 40% vegetables in their products.

Recognising the veg

In terms of strategy five, plant-based meat alternatives - the selling of meat substitutes, such as burgers made with plant protein - is not a plants strategy but a protein strategy, focused on converting meat-eaters.

But what most consumers who are looking for plants want is not meat substitutes, but products clearly made of recognisable vegetables.

An example is lupini beans, a traditional product in Portugal and Italy mostly sold in 750ml glass jars. Portuguese company Tremoceira Estrela da Piedade sells lupini beans in traditional formats but has also made a big hit by selling its beans in burger formats in three flavours. Simple and natural with recognisable ingredients is what most people want.

In fact, people want more plant protein alongside meat – not instead of it.

Americans’ new expenditure on meat still outpaces their new expenditure on meat substitutes by a big ratio. In Europe, meat consumption increased by 3.2% between 2010 and 2019.

Meat substitutes have become a high-risk business thanks to a crowded and very competitive niche and low barriers to entry. In Europe supermarket own label is already competing hard. In the US, Lidl is leading the way with its own meat substitute burger.

Planting the seeds

Those meat substitute makers who make ‘better for the planet’ arguments are also getting push-back from those who point to the carbon sequestration benefits of regenerative agriculture and grass-fed livestock.

And the rug is being pulled under the ‘meat is bad for your health’ argument by the debate now taking place in the media between scientists who say that the advice to eat less meat is not supported by any serious evidence and those who say that the results from nutritional epidemiology are ‘good enough’.

Confused, people will look at both sides and make up their own minds.

In terms of strategy and connecting to what consumers really want, there is more opportunity in adding some plant protein to a baked product (for example) in combination with an indulgent flavour, thus giving people the plant protein they want - plus permission to indulge.

A good example is Unilever’s successful Graze snack brand, which includes protein brownies and protein cakes.

Plants – meaning products that really deliver the benefits of plants – is a long-term opportunity for companies large and small, in almost every sector. And the key to success will be making those plant-based products as convenient as possible.

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