The number of vegans in the UK quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, with new food innovations and inventions either announced or launched on practically a weekly basis. Today, the likes of milk, sausages and even sushi all have multiple mainstream vegan variants.
By contrast, in the last five years vegan chocolate has made much slower mainstream progress.
Things changed last week, however, as Mars became the first major confectionery brand to offer consumers a plant-based alternative to milk chocolate with a trio of vegan Galaxy bars.
Mars have replaced dairy with hazelnut paste and rice syrup in the new bar, with the three flavours – smooth orange, caramel and sea salt and caramelised hazelnut – arriving after six months’ development.
The company said that there is a “huge opportunity for the category to grow,” despite vegan treats being only worth £10m in the £4bn chocolate market.
And, just days after Mars’ release, Selfridges opened the UK’s largest vegan chocolate counter, with 20 different handmade chocolates all created by Brighton-based Be Chocolat by Michel Clement.
Could we be seeing the start of the vegan chocolate era?
UK consumers are looking to eat healthier in general, with 54% of consumers willing to pay more for sugar-reduced chocolate (Cargill).
Lactose-free goods also falls into the ‘healthy eating’ category, with the absence of dairy in vegan chocolate making it appealing to the growing number of people looking at free-from products as well as those wanting to cut down on animal products in general.
Copperhouse Chocolate is London’s only fully-vegan chocolates shop. Owner Juliet Sampson, who specialises in hot chocolate, released a raft of new products this month, from a range of nut butter cups to sweet malted waffles with chocolate sauce.
For the former, Sampson has gone for six innovative flavours ranging from almond butter and cherry jam to coconut salted caramel. A seventh flavour is also set to arrive, with Sampson looking to pair hazelnut with a newly available vegan white chocolate.
Sampson has been working in chocolate for 10 years but only made the change to 100% vegan in April, with shifting consumer perception playing a large part.
“I was always leaning towards vegan but, 10 years ago, there was a very different view of veganism from consumers,” Sampson tells Food Spark.
“That’s changed so much the last few years. If I’d had my way, I’d have done a vegan chocolate shop years ago, but it wouldn’t have lasted! It’s a much better time to do it.”
Sampson explains that while traditional dark chocolate has always been vegan as it doesn’t contain milk, it’s never promoted as such. Vegan milk chocolate, meanwhile, has been around for a while but primarily in health shops, usually pitched to those with allergies.
“That vegan milk chocolate is, in my opinion, not very good quality,” continues Sampson.
One of the main hurdles for vegan chocolate is being viewed as a lesser imitation when compared to its dairy counterpart, but with big name players getting in on the act, the outlook is improving.
“Some of the best chocolate brands are starting to go with vegan now and it makes such a difference,” says Sampson. “People are just realising it’s something they can have a go with. And they have only started to think like this in the last two years. Even five years is too far back!
She believes that vegan milk chocolate has formerly been seen as a substitute rather than a standalone product, whereas the greater number of players entering the space will by necessity improved the overall standard going forward.
“You want a recognisable alternative. You wouldn’t want it to be a substitute that doesn’t taste like the real thing so you either need it to taste just as good or different,” add Sampson.
And what of the mainstream releases last week?
“Big companies have much longer processes than the smaller ones when getting things on the market, so I assume they’ve been working on it for a good while. But in terms of the timing, I think it’s just right.”