With combined sales of just £3m last year, Wunda and Garden Gourmet were arguably never going to last the distance. In such a competitive trading environment, it’s easy to see why Nestlé decided to take an axe to the relatively small plant-based brands.

Nestlé UK & Ireland food and dairy MD Honza Dusanek said the brands were simply “not viable” in current market conditions, and would be withdrawn from sale alongside Nestlé’s Middle East-inspired Mezeast lineup during the second quarter of 2023. 

But even if there is an air of inevitability about the food giant’s decision – first reported by The Grocer earlier today – it still feels significant. It’s a signal that everything may not be as rosy as we once believed in plant-based aisles.

After all, Nestlé once had high hopes for Wunda and Garden Gourmet. They hit supermarket shelves in 2021 as its answer to big dairy and meat alternative brands such as Oatly, Alpro, Quorn and Birds Eye’s Green Cuisine.

It turned out those brands were just too far ahead for Nestlé to make a dent. Dusanek said the saturation of an increasingly mature plant-based market was a key driver behind the food giant’s decision to withdraw the brands from sale in the UK.

Speaking to The Grocer today, he said Wunda was competing with “titans” in the form of Alpro and Oatly. The brand had simply failed to cut through with consumers despite its innovative pea-based ingredient, which was touted as healthier and more sustainable. 

“We found a solution in pea protein that was more sustainable than other ingredients. But explaining that to shoppers and getting enough scale [to make the brand a success] has not been easy,” he added. Indeed, oat, soya and almond milk still dominate the dairy alternative category with a combined market share of 85%.

Similar reasons were given for the failure of Garden Gourmet, which was making its second attempt to break the UK market. The brand had also struggled to meet expectations in a crowded market, despite selling strongly on the continent.

“The UK meat alternative market in particular is very crowded and very competitive,” said Dusanek. “But having said that, what’s also clear is for most consumers, existing products don’t meet expectations when it comes to taste and texture.”

This type of language is all a far cry from the messaging of Veganuary, which hailed its 2023 event as its best ever, with a record-breaking 700,000 people signing up for the challenge globally.

While those sign-ups suggest an enduring interest in plant-based diets, the cost of living crisis is putting pressure on that appeal. Plant-based products are typically more expensive than their meat or dairy counterparts – and that is a particularly hard sell in the current economic climate.

This explains why major retailers are “consolidating the number of products they are selling and reducing the space allocated to plant-based products, and there are some brands which are struggling to meet the expectations [of the mults]”, Dusanek argued.

So instead, Nestlé is taking a step back and will focus on developing its food offering via Maggi, plus DTC recipe box business Mindful Chef and meal kit brand Simply Cook, acquired in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Both of these acquisitions offer “extensive” vegan and plant-based options, Dusanek pointed out.

He still believes “we are going to see a global shift into more plant-based diets as it’s healthier for people and the planet”. However, “the shift will not happen as fast as people probably anticipated three to four years ago”.

Nestlé’s failures serve as a warning to anyone trying to break into the plant-based market. Newcomers face an uphill battle and now more than ever, they need to have a clear proposition that will engage both shoppers and retailers – particularly when it comes to taste and texture. 

If they don’t get it right, we could see many more such exits from the category.