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Dietary Trends and Plant-Based Perceptions in the UK

Published Jun 08, 2022

Magda Jablkowska-Citko, Toluna/Harris Interactive, Laurence Vogel, Enterprise Account Director, Toluna, and Jonny Bingham, Bingham & Jones

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From an emotional perspective, people feel much different today compared to a few years ago. This is being driven by a variety of circumstances—including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, and the war in Ukraine—and has led us to wonder, ‘what are consumers doing to improve their mood or indulge?’

While some go for a walk or watch TV, two-thirds of consumers say they turn to food and drink. And because there is a strong correlation between what we consume and how we feel, it is important to think about how products impact consumers in their day-to-day lives. That’s why we fielded a study during the week ending 13 May 2022 to understand the latest dietary trends in the UK.

Healthy demand for healthy snacks

Our typical daily treats have changed given the situation that we find ourselves in. Fifty-eight percent of consumers say they find a healthy snack appealing or very appealing as a daily treat, and about four in ten consumers claim they’re looking for products that are healthier, plant-based, and more sustainable in nature. However, 39% admit that the current cost-of-living crisis is leading them to swap for cheaper brands—an important consideration for new product development plans.

To understand which brands are currently winning over consumers, we asked respondents to name the leading health food brands in the UK market. Overall, Graze was the leader by a wide margin—with nearly twice as many responses as the next brands, which included Naked, Weight Watchers, and Quorn. The success of Graze shows that consumers desire healthy snacks and enjoy their product format. For competitors, this presents an opportunity to produce cheaper alternatives with more plant-based and sustainable options.

New product development

It is challenging for brands to come up with new products, and to do so successfully requires a lot of research, development, and investment. In food and drink, a great deal of innovation comes in the form of flavour, so we sought to uncover the latest flavour trends in our research. Overall, the vast majority of them are fruit-based or related to spices such as cinnamon or turmeric. Turmeric and cinnamon have been used in Indian and Chinese medicines for thousands of years, and turmeric, especially, is known for its healing properties.

For the most part, though, it’s always the same story with the consumer and flavours. Manufacturers who produce ready-made meals for the main grocery multiples generally stay within the safety of recognised flavour profiles. Things like chicken & ham, chicken & mushroom, cheese & tomato, and so on each make commercial sense because they appeal to the widest audience. Other cuisines, such as Middle Eastern or Vietnamese street food, also have a place. However, these sit within premium, where there is more licence for creativity and higher prices.

In our survey data, many of the usual suspects–like mango, passionfruit, cherry, and banana–continue to rank highly as they have for years. Other, less-popular flavours, such as yuzu, mangosteen, and calamansi are trending up. This puts them in the realm of ‘premium,’ and if used in the right way, these flavours could find some traction with consumers.

Dietary Trends

In terms of specific diets, 7% of respondents say they are planning to continue or go vegan, while 12% say the same for vegetarianism. And those numbers may continue to rise, as we noticed year-over-year growth of nine percentage points in those who are buying plant-based products. The biggest trend we noticed, though, is that 50% of consumers are either starting or continuing to reduce their meat intake. Consumers are doing this for a variety of reasons—including because it is healthier for you, better for the environment, and more ethical—but for one in four, it’s a mid-point en route to going vegan or vegetarian, further demonstrating that these diets are here to stay.

While the proportion who declare themselves meat eaters has declined by five percentage points since 2019, the majority of us are still meat eaters. What about flexitarians? We used this term purposefully and found that 28% of respondents view themselves as flexitarians—which seems like a small proportion when 50% are claiming they’ve reduced their meat intake. This is likely because half of meat eaters admit that they are unsure what the term ‘flexitarian’ means, which is an important consideration for any concept testing or communications development a brand may want to run.

Plant-based perceptions

Because consumers continue to clamour for health foods, we were keen to understand their perceptions of the health benefits of plant-based foods. As you might expect, over half of consumers felt plant-based products were healthy, but we were surprised to find that a minority felt plant-based foods were unhealthy. A variety of reasons were cited, with some saying plant-based products are highly processed, lack relevant nutrients, or include additives. The remaining third of consumers were unsure—leaving room for opportunistic brands to create relevant communications that clear up any misconceptions.

We also asked respondents how likely they would be to serve plant-based products to guests. Interestingly, the consumers in our survey were quite likely to. This was most true for vegans (77%) and vegetarians (70%), but a surprising amount of meat eaters were even open to the idea (33%). Why? They believe it is healthier and that some of the dishes can taste similar to meat-based products.

To further and guide brands and retailers in terms of how they could encourage consumers to try plant-based foods, we asked consumers which cuisine would work best for such a plant-based experiment in a social setting. What followed completely blew us away. We were almost certain that American and Mexican cuisines would lead the way in desirability, but it was actually British, Indian, Italian, and Chinese. While most of the focus in plant-based foods has been on “Dude Food,” including burgers, sausages, meatballs, mince, steaks, and so on, the real opportunity lies within ready-to-eat meals with British, Chinese, Indian, and Italian fare at the centre.

From a brand perspective, we know that many meat producers have decided to introduce plant-based products to their range—and there are many more that are considering it. But what do consumers think about this? Nearly a quarter of respondents think meat producers should not create plant-based products, largely due to fears of cross-contamination. Separating facilities between meat and plant-based is likely the best way to assuage those concerns.

Finally, we wanted to understand what plant-based products consumers are looking for that are unavailable in the marketplace. For those who are replacing meat with plant-based alternatives, they miss the taste of the real thing. And when asked to cite specific foods, they highlighted steak, cakes, cheese, fish, egg and chocolate. These results indicate that, while there are already many plant-based products in the market, there is still a lot of room for innovation.

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