The reasons behind the growth of plant-based alternatives vary across the globe. In the US, for example, health is one of the primary factors, with consumers acutely aware of the risks associated with processed products and red meat in particular. But this has evolved on an environmental level too, as consumers are better informed about the meat industry’s contribution to greenhouse gases.
Cyrille Filott, global strategist for consumer foods at Rabobank, argues food manufacturers risk being irrelevant unless they innovate to adapt to changing consumer preferences.
“Consumers are increasingly seeking out meat and dairy alternatives as health factors and awareness of the environmental impact associated with production processes become more prominent factors in their decision-making. The industry now has multiple factors outside of cost to consider, largely around driving innovation to remain competitive,” he said.
The drive towards meat and dairy alternatives is also shifting in tandem with demand for ‘clean-label ‘products as consumers seek out products that contain natural, recognisable and chemical-free ingredients.
“In some cases, we’re seeing some companies reduce their ingredients by almost half to remove artificial contents. This in turn means they are more transparent with consumers about what is going into the product,” added Filott.
Chicago-based RX Bar – recently acquired by Kellogg – boasts snack bars containing only four ingredients, cutting out many of the additives associated with unhealthy eating.
There has also been increased emphasis on labelling in the wake of these shifting trends. Many large firms, such as Nestlé, are moving towards nutri-score labelling – a five-color nutrition label which demonstrates a product’s nutritional content.
If larger players continue to adopt this approach, it could push legislators to make it industry standard across Europe.
“Yet consumer buy-in doesn’t hinge on price or taste alone. Today, people are seeking out brands that take an ‘activist’ approach. Often these are perceived ‘challenger’ brands which are smaller and can be more agile in responding to changing consumer preferences,” said Filott.
“Swedish firm Oatly is challenging the status quo in dairy alternatives. Not only is it driving market share at rapid pace and turning consumers away from cows’ milk and other plant-based drinks, it is vocal about environmental issues. Its packaging now includes its climate footprint to demonstrate its impact on the planet. Consumers like it because the brand ‘stands for something’.”
Filott aadded, the food sector has always been fast-moving, but the pace has quickened recently, driven by the demands of consumers – particularly younger ones – and socio-economic factors. Brands risk falling into irrelevancy if they don’t respond to these demands quickly.
“In today’s food industry, social responsibility and transparency are no longer merely differentiators. They are pre-requisites for survival,” he said.