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It’s fair to say the past few months have not been easy for the meat-free sector. From meat-free heavyweights Meatless Farm and Plant & Bean falling into administration, to headlines claiming the industry is in decline, it’s been a bumpy ride.

However, where there is challenge there is also opportunity. A report in The Grocer last week suggested the future for the sector lies in the supermarket own-brand ranges that have been bucking the trend. These ranges, which often sell for less than half the price of branded equivalents, have grown 14% in value over the past year, while volumes are up 6%.

But is this really the answer? Does the future of our sector lie with ultra-processed faux meat products retailing at rock-bottom prices? Or is this missing a trick?

Maybe it’s time to listen to shoppers. Today, health represents the single biggest opportunity to reignite meat-free category growth. Flexitarians continue to buy from the plant-based supermarket aisle, but these shoppers aren’t just looking for highly processed meatless burgers or ‘no chicken’ nuggets – they’re looking for healthier choices.

The stats are clear: 61% of shoppers cite health as the number one reason to eat meat-free [YouGov]. There is growing demand for natural options, shown by 84% reading ingredient labels in search of products with no artificial ingredients, and more than half (58%) preferring natural plant-based foods to meat substitutes [Lumina Intelligence].

Yet for almost two-thirds of shoppers (61%), the meat-free products on the supermarket shelf are too processed [AHDB].

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Why, then, are meat-free products that balance naturalness and nutrition so few and far between?

Is price the problem? We know price is important, now more than ever. But the concept of value is changing, and as we’ve seen in other categories, shoppers will pay more if the added value is clear.

Perhaps added value is what’s lacking. As a new category that has exploded quickly, meat-free has been awash with innovation that has looked pretty similar. This has resulted in a host of products that are hard to tell apart. For shoppers unable to spot the added value, they revert back to price, which is where own label has won.

However, this isn’t game over. Brands that can give shoppers what they are looking for, through innovation and clear, distinctive branding that can’t be easily replicated by supermarket own labels, have an opportunity to fight back.

Those who are able to offer genuinely natural, nutritious meat-free options, that shoppers can trust and want to eat every day, will have the advantage.

With 33% of Brits planning to reduce their meat and dairy intake this year [The Vegan Society], the interest in meat-free is still strong. But what’s on shelf right now just isn’t what shoppers are looking for. 

For the meat-free category, it’s time to consolidate and take stock. The market is moving towards natural and healthful products, and we need to evolve to reflect this. If we can work together, perhaps the ride won’t be so bumpy after all.


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