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A plant-based Christmas?

Have you ordered the turkey yet? How about the pigs in blankets? Perhaps this is the year for goose?

For most people planning their Christmas day menu there are usually a few things that don’t change much, like what variety of animal or bird will form the centrepiece of their festive banquet.

These days however there’s a seemingly endless variety of plant-based options to consider too, adding further complexity to the immense logistical operation that is Christmas lunch.

The introduction of meat alternatives is not new of course (Quorn was founded in 1985) but the explosion of a new generation of plant-based food brands in recent years has revitalised the sector, helped by a renewed interest from consumers about reducing their meat consumption and in turn their environmental impact.

Had you attended the Plant Based World Expo at Olympia, London, earlier this month it would’ve been obvious that the variety and quality of products on offer had improved significantly in recent years. Bold new flavours and textures were everywhere and the number of international businesses looking to enter the UK market was remarkable with delegations from all over Europe and further afield encouraging visitors to taste their latest creations.

The one to watch is Israel which has carved out a role as the leading food tech innovator. According to TIME magazine, it’s only just behind the United States when it comes to investment in alternative protein companies, receiving nearly $1 billion from investors since 2020. Some of these like RilBite are already looking to establish a foothold in the UK.

At the Expo, industry leaders Meatless Farm were on hand to share their newly launched vegan tuna which will join the rest of their range in stores around the UK. Since its launch in 2018, the brand has grown, and its products are now available in 20 countries. A remarkable achievement for a young business. 

Also at the Expo were high street favourites Wagamama who were hosting a session on “converting the masses.” Head of Brand Development, Emily Weston, along with Executive Chef, Surendra Yejju, explained how through constant innovation, a dedication to quality and always listening to their customers, they had developed their menu to the point where now 50% is plant based. Demand is still growing.

On the face of it the future looks good for plant-based food. In 2021, Barclays published a paper stating the market for alternative meat will grow tenfold within the next 10 years, to $140bn globally. As the global population continues to grow, so does the demand for easily manufactured protein. The growth rate for some of the leading brands is already very strong and interest from the UK consumer is growing - perhaps driven by medical evidence (which points to a reduced cancer risk from eating less meat), a desire to live more sustainably, or it might just be because it’s something new and interesting.

What the cost-of-living crisis does to dent the growth trajectory is unclear but there are other threats too, not least the potential for ‘cultivated meat’ with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the verge of approving it for sale. There is also the market for protein derived from insects. In addition there is the obvious commercial realities of the free market whereby too many start-ups compete for space in the shopping baskets of a limited number of consumers. The result being they simply can’t sell enough and run out of cash. Time will tell.

The nature of this crowded market certainly reinforces the need for businesses to get the basics right: develop a strong brand identity, work with great lawyers who are well connected internationally and maintain a tight grip on the intellectual property. A packet of pea protein on its own won’t sell for much but get the technology right, the product formulation, the distribution and the branding then there’s great potential for success.  

And for those of you still fretting between turkey or beef on the 25th December then perhaps this is the year to try something completely new, a plant-based Christmas?