analysis by Sheila Eggleston Gone are the days when a plate of veg or DIY veggie burger mix was all a vegetarian guest could expect. Innovation has sparked an endless choice of products and the rise in quality and convenience has helped to woo more consumers to meat-free lines. Manufacturers have risen to the taste challenge, a prime factor for growth, and actively sought to attract consumers claiming to be vegetarian but who regularly bend the rules to suit lifestyles. But a more snappy term than vegetarian would be on most people's wish list to give the market an image makeover. Mintel estimates that the vegetarian specific foods market is worth £428m, with ready meals taking the lion's share of sales, and the use of meat substitutes on the increase. Consumption of vegetarian food peaks and troughs every time the latest BSE/CJD figures hit the headlines. Nevertheless the number of vegetarians remains a steady three million in the UK, says Mintel, equal to 5.4% of the population. At the same time, people seriously cutting back on meat form 40%-45% of the population. Ethical considerations were once the only reason for cutting back on meat but food scares and health issues have played a big role in persuading people to re-evalulate their diets and take more interest in their food intake. Chris Phillips, marketing controller at Heinz' frozen and chilled vegetarian division, says: "Where the Linda McCartney brand once attracted hard core vegetarians, it's now for people who want to cut down on meat. "There's an active group of meat reducers who, in terms of principles, far outweigh the committed hard core vegetarians. We want to pick up on that group of people who may become vegetarians in the future." Heinz claims a 23% share of the meat-free market although admits it doesn't know whether the people who buy the products are vegetarians. And while the market is biased towards women, it says it is seeing more young men entering the sector. Phillips believes people are showing an active interest in organics and that this is a key route for the company. "People who aren't vegetarian will buy organic, but taste is paramount. You can't be successful with an organic product that doesn't taste good." Heinz recently launched Linda McCartney Kitchen Garden, its first vegetable based range, and five of the eight products on offer are organic. Organics moving into mainstream areas has blurred the issues as people veer towards organic which has a sexier image and more accountability in the health stakes. Canny manufacturers seeking to capitalise on both vegetarian and organic combine the two. This combination has helped boost sales at Goodlife Foods which makes frozen vegetable based lines. Commercial director Nick Hamlett says: "Our organic sales have gone through the roof, up 22% year on year. In the past our products have been aimed at the vegetarian market, but our organic ones are mainstream." Goodlife has invested £70K in its manufacturing facilities and now has two production lines, one being for organic. Six products launched this year included four organic ones, and in the pipeline are ready meals and snacks. Another area where manufacturers and retailers can profit is Christmas. Goodlife has launched a hazelnut and courgette loaf with a separate serving of cranberry sauce, which can be microwaved or oven baked. Hamlett says: "It comes in a single portion so if there's only one vegetarian in the family, as there usually is, they are catered for." The Redwood Wholefood Company, which recently gained the Vegetarian Society symbol for its range of 40 vegetarian food products, is offering Cheatin' Roast Turkey made from soya and wheat protein, and claimed to have the flavour and texture of a traditional bird. Marlow Foods has expanded its burgeoning portfolio with a bourguignon ready meal, a chicken style roast for Christmas and, for the first time, pasta sauces ­ all made with its myco-protein based Quorn. Quorn is a £100m brand with 80% of sales in the UK against 20% in central, western Europe, an area where it hopes to expand in 2001. Next spring it hopes to break into the lucrative US market having gained FDA approval. The company sees this as a £1bn opportunity and will be targeting the "have a go" baby boomers in the US who are willing to try anything new. Marketing controller Ian Abberley says: "Here in the UK, the brand is driven by the young, although there are many older people wanting to make lifestyle changes for health reasons. A core group is busy mums who smuggle it into the diet." Abberley says that defining the market is difficult and that the official definition of vegetarian and meat alternative market in a broad sense includes baked potato and cauliflower cheese. "Alternative protein is a tighter definition but isn't in consumer speak." An educational instore sampling campaign at the end of this year will run into 2001. There are around 60 Quorn based products. Marlow Foods is trialling dual branded Quorn and salad sandwiches in Tesco. "Snacking is a natural progression for the market. It's important the consumer who wants to snack on the hoof isn't stuck with meat only products." Daloon Foods has also recognised the move towards meat-free ethnic snack products, especially among the young, and a meat free Indian gourmet selection is in the pipeline. Another company taking a new direction is Dalepak Foods. Although its vegetable based burgers and grills are its best sellers ­ a sector worth £80m [ACNielsen] ­ it will be launching two pasta lines called Pasta Pockets containing a mix of spinach, ricotta, mushroom, leek and courgettes. Marketing controller Colin Brown says: "Research shows people are demanding more interesting flavoured products than traditional vegetable burgers. Nearly half the population of the UK are having one meatless dinner a week, and pasta is perceived to be a healthy alternative. Another opportunity is organic, and we shall be launching organic burgers, sausages and crispy bakes in January." This year it revamped its core frozen vegetarian products, adding vegetarian sausages and redesigning its packaging which now includes the Vegetarian Society symbol, an addition it believes inspires confidence and adds value. Making more appealing meals has resulted in a host of lookalike conventional dishes. Haldane Foods marketing manager Sally Rowntree says: "By keeping the same meat style product, you don't have to change any eating habits. If you like meat and two veg or spaghetti bolognese, you can have it." Haldane's business is mainly frozen. It produces a wide range of soya based products and a number are organic. This year it launched an organic dry mix, a nut roast and a range of snack meals with noodles. It has just given its core Realeat VegeMince brand a packaging makeover. Also developing the lookalike concept is Tivall Foods, working on a fillet steak style product made with fibrous vegetable protein which it hopes to launch late 2001. Thanks to non vegetarians, Westler Foods says it has achieved growth in excess of 30% for its Chesswood range of canned vegetables and organic vegetable ready meals over the past year. Retail marketing manager Sue Penson says: "Our research has shown that Chesswood customers tend to be health conscious consumers who are opting for meat free alternatives." In March, Westler acquired the Chesswood mushroom brand, and has since rebranded its vegetable meals under the Chesswood name. Its new organic range are Soil Association endorsed low fat vegetarian dishes. Birds Eye Wall's is currently "formulating its strategy for vegetarian and organic food". Its top four lines within vegetable foods are claimed to represent 69% of the market and include Birds Eye crunchy vegetable quarter pounders and crispy vegetable fingers. Own label still dominates the market, accounting for £45m in frozen products and £154.9m in chilled [Information Resources, 52 w/e September 10 2000]. Dedicated fixtures make shopping easier, but with pressure on space more multiples are choosing to dual merchandise in meat dominated areas. A Safeway spokeswoman says: "Nowadays, consumers demand vegetarian options across all categories so we do not dedicate a single fixture to vegetarian food." {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}