For as long as I can remember (and I’ve been vegetarian for 40 years) there have been meat alternatives in the frozen aisle. The supermarket freezer section has remained a safe, steady and cheap haven for us plant lovers.
But more recently the plant-based innovators and sexy new vegan players have started strutting their stuff in the chilled zones instead. This week, on my live feed from Good Food Conference on plant-based foods in San Francisco, I learnt that to April sales of plant-based meat grew by 37% in US chillers, compared with a modest 2% growth in frozen. I suspect the picture is not too dissimilar in the UK.
But far from being a cultural backwater, the freezer actually captures the plant-based zeitgeist better than anywhere in the supermarket – with products that are healthier, less packaged and cheaper. Yes, the holy trinity of quality, affordability and low waste are all here – which is why the freezer is the place where the plant-based revolution is about to kick off.
“Frozen is the future,” Jamie Oliver said in his new TV show, Meat-free Meals. “If you care about higher welfare, cheaper price – frozen. If you care about lack of waste – frozen. Convenience, portion control, nutrition – frozen.”
Well put. And he’s not the only one who thinks so.
Asda has created room for meat-free options in its freezers and Iceland’s ‘No Bull’ range has reportedly been a “huge success”. Sainsbury’s frozen food buyer Rosie Bambaji recently told me: “There are more and more new branded entrants into the [plant-based] category who favour frozen over chilled because you can avoid the need for preservatives and mitigate food waste, which we know is important to environmentally conscious customers who typically buy into the plant-based category.”
At the same time, there remain significant obstacles. Growth in plant-based is being driven by young shoppers, but they rarely have big freezers. What little freezer space they have is traditionally dominated by ice cream and chips – and those habits can be hard to change.
Physical limitations on freezer space are a real challenge, but the future for plant-based brands in frozen nevertheless looks bright. Just look at Strong Roots, which is now the fastest-growing privately owned food company in the UK and just this week raised $18.3m in funding.
Strong Roots’ focus is entirely on frozen and the cost saving that it achieves through a close-to-zero waste supply chain means it has the margin to plough into brand building. Even behind the frosty glass of the freezer.
So watch this space. Plant-based trendsetters could soon be freezing out the competition.