The rise of the meat-free market has entered a key phase. All the forces that fueled the rapid rise of the sector—health, sustainability and more—are more relevant today than ever. Yet, growth has slowed as inflation has made plant-based price premiums a problem for more consumers. In the changing market, there are opportunities for companies that close the price gap and improve taste and texture to make it easier for consumers to choose sustainable and nutritious plant-based options.

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Rising Trends: A Global Shift Driven by Sustainability, Health, and Culinary Diversity

Many consumers want those options. Global Data found the proportion of people in Europe who are vegan, vegetarian or pescetarian increased by two-thirds from 2018 to 2022, driven by Millennials and Gen Z. Most, 63%, of consumers are flexitarians or have no dietary requirements.

The trends are underpinned by a range of consumer motivations. As the impacts of climate change become more visible, consumers are seeking out more energy-efficient products and trying to make their lives more sustainable. Almost half of UK consumers cited sustainability as a primary reason for cutting back on animal products in a Mintel survey. At the same time, companies are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprints and adopt socially responsible measures to improve the quality of life of communities.

Plant-based foods support those ambitions while addressing other motivations. Some of the motivations are about reducing the consumption of meat, to improve health and protect the environment. Other motivations reflect the benefits of adding more plants to your diet, both to consume healthy foods and to enjoy a more varied diet.

The health benefits of replacing animal products with plant-based alternatives are particularly attractive to older consumers. While health is an important factor for 45% of Germans who buy dairy alternatives, the figure rises to 55% among people aged 55 years and older, Mintel found. The data suggest there is an opportunity to increase the penetration of plant-based products among older consumers, a group that is yet to adopt meat-free eating in large numbers, by focusing on the potential health benefits.

Clearing barriers to growth

Creating plant-based products that have a meat-like taste and texture and provide the natural nutritional benefits of plants is critical to increasing uptake among older consumers and other people who are yet to embrace alternatives to animal products. Consumer surveys consistently show the perceived failure of plant-based alternatives to replicate the sensory experience of animal products is a key barrier to sales.

Surveys also consistently identify price as a barrier. Mintel found price is the primary factor that shapes food and drink buying for 70% of people across key European markets. Among people in those markets who don’t buy food and drink with sustainable claims, price is the number one reason. An analysis of US prices shows why cost is a barrier, with GFI finding that plant-based products have a 67% price premium over meat.

The price premium has become more of a problem as inflation and other economic forces have begun to pressure household budgets. The premium also represents an opportunity, though. Food companies that reformulate recipes to close the price gap stand to establish their plant-based products as economically viable alternatives to meat for more consumers.

Clearing the barriers to the sales of plant-based products could reaccelerate growth of the market. After a boom period, growth of the plant-based market has slowed down, contributing to the closure of some smaller companies and raising concerns about the future of the sector.

However, market research suggests sales will continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace than in the past. Euromonitor predicted the European and North American meat and seafood substitute market will have a compound annual growth rate of 7% from 2022 to 2027, exceeding the roughly 1% rate for processed meat. Companies can grow faster by finding the best markets for their products, with Germany, where sales grew 7% in 2023, remaining a large, expanding opportunity and sales in Poland surging 46%.

Creating concepts for QSR kitchens 

Sales of plant-based meats in the food service sector have continued to rise as the at-home market has slowed. In 2023, sales of plant-based burgers increased 20% at quick service restaurants (QSR) and other out-of-home outlets in Germany, France, UK, Italy and Spain, Circana found. The trend is in line with GFI data for the US, where plant-based food service sales rose as the retail market flatlined in 2022.

To maintain growth, QSR kitchens need to create products with sensory attributes and prices that drive repeat sales, and manage the fragmentation of the market. Younger people are the biggest consumers of meat-free burgers but they are split on whether meat should be replaced with a vegetarian option, such as a portobello mushroom, or a meat substitute, Mintel found. The finding suggests fast food operators need to offer a variety of meat-free burgers to cater to all consumers.

At Solina, we have developed a range of QSR concepts to demonstrate to our partners how they can provide consumers with different options. Our concepts include vegan pizza sobrasada, crispy fried vegan buffalo wings, southern bird waffle sandwiches, bratwurst bánh mì, and carne asada taco.

Through these concepts, we showcase how our expertise in plant-based alternatives and savory solutions empowers companies to create products that address multiple key trends. Beyond being meat-free foods, our concepts appeal to the many consumers who seek authentic, healthy, and sustainable foods and enjoy dishes from different cultures.