Few who have seen the latest TV ad campaign for Quorn will have missed how assiduously use of the 'v' word is avoided. Premier Foods is not the only manufacturer to cotton on to the fact that the time has come to broaden the category's appeal by focusing on the health credentials of vegetarian food - rather than its meat-free status.

Many manufacturers are intent on demonstrating that their brands are not just for vegetarians or vegans but also for people just keen to eat more healthily or reduce their meat intake.

The retailers are no longer merchandising vegetarian products purely in dedicated fixtures, while specialist vegetarian and vegan stores are increasingly emphasising the fresh and healthy credentials of their offers.

You don't have to look too far to find the reason for the recent sea change. The fact that this approach is championed by Quorn is no coincidence. The brand's owner, ­Premier Foods, has big ambitions in the market and followed up its takeover of Quorn and Cauldron in 2005 with the launch of no fewer than 20 products across both ranges last year. CEO Robert Schofield plans to double Quorn's value alone and turn it into a £200m brand.

Some think Premier's activities have given the category a welcome shake-up at a timely juncture. "Vegetarian dishes are becoming increasingly popular with meat-eaters wanting to take simple steps for a healthier diet," says Georgette Donoghue, brand manager for Chesswood, which makes vegetarian and vegan ready meals. "The current health trend can only have a positive effect on the sector."

However, other rival manufacturers are concerned that Premier's tightening hold could ultimately leave the UK's estimated 3.5 million vegetarians and growing ranks of meat-reducers with less choice. Premier Foods now boasts a share of almost one fifth of the £702m vegetarian market, and household penetration of Quorn has hit a record 20% [TNS December 2006].

"Smaller brands will be unable to compete on price and promotion," claims Belinda Mitchell, co-founder of Simply Organic, which was acquired by the Serious Food Company in November last year. "So consumers will get the products that give the

retailers the biggest margin in the short term," she adds.

They will also struggle to compete in terms of NPD, adds Keith Scott, MD of Redwood Wholefood Company. "Dominance of a category can stifle innovation and choice as suppliers seek to maximise their own return from the category rather than focusing on the consumer," he argues. "It also makes it more difficult for the retailer to offer category differentiation."

Premier insists that its investment gives consumers more choice, not less, because it will grow the whole category. "Premier Foods has the investment to put behind increased NPD activity and to give consumers a greater choice of foods within the different characteristics of each brand," says trade marketing controller Jeremy Hughes.

"Consumers are voting with their wallets and buying more of these products. We continually strive to increase the range on offer and are only limited by the space retailers can devote to the category." Further launches are planned this year, he adds.

Ben Johnson, marketing director of The Grocery Company, which owns Cranks, agrees that Premier's decision to ramp up its offer does not necessarily sound the death knell for smaller players. "The vegetarian category is so much bigger than just the Quorn and Cauldron brands, both of which largely offer meat-substitute products," he says. "At Cranks, instead of looking to create products that look and taste like meat, we want to create products that celebrate vegetables in their own right and find exciting ways to present them to consumers." This year the brand plans to enter the ready-to-cook and ready meals sector, for instance.

Premier is also likely to face stiff competition from at least one new heavyweight. Vegetarian brand Linda McCartney has just had a £1m relaunch after being acquired by US company Hain Celestial Group from Heinz in June last year. The range's garish red packaging has been ditched in favour of neutral backgrounds and stylish photography, and six new products have been introduced, while existing lines have been significantly improved.

In December, Hain also bought Haldane Foods' portfolio of VegeMince, Sosmix and Burgamix ranges under the Granose, Direct Foods, Realeat, Granose and White Wave brands. The company is keen to introduce new consumers to the category, after Mintel research last year revealed that the typical vegetarian was a well-educated single female, aged 20 to 44. Only 4% of men claimed to be vegetarians against 7% of women. "At the moment, the category is quite biased towards females and we would like to attract more men to the meat-free sector," says Ken Reed, commercial controller for Hain Celestial. "This is why we've included meals that may typically appeal more to the male market, such as pasties, quarter-pounders and chilli con carne."

Branded manufacturer activity may be brisk, but it's relatively quiet on the own label side. Tesco introduced new products to its frozen vegetarian range last year, while Sainsbury's launched a ready-meals range called Designed not just for Vegetarians, aimed at both vegetarians and meat-eaters.

"Most UK supermarkets are still not terribly good at product innovation," says Adam York, a buyer and founder member of Manchester-based independent vegetarian and vegan co-operative Unicorn Grocery. "Brands is a crowded area and the multiples could do a lot better."

That looks set to change now that major brand owners like Premier are shaking up the category and the Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation has given its seal of approval to a new labelling regime that will allow foods to be described as 'healthy vegan' or 'healthy vegetarian'. n