England Marketing research: Plant-based eating may be on rise but still not enough

CURRY CAULIFLOWER

Caulifower, once dismissed as an 'unpleasant, old-fashioned' vegetable, is now being used in a variety of dishes, including curries.

Carolyn
Carolyn Hudson

By accident is the self-proclaimed way Carolyn Hudson, marketing manager for England Marketing Ltd., started working in the field of food industry market research, business development and marketing. Prior to the start of her employment with the Warboys, UK-headquartered company, Hudson says her knowledge of the country or agriculture spanned only to liking food, and moreso, liking to eat it. Yet, it was the highly prized skills Hudson gained working in sponsorship and promotions for media companies such as newspapers and magazines for many years, both before and after marriage and children, that led to a career-changing phone call. 

That is, a marketing director friend rang with an offer Hudson couldn’t refuse: ‘We have a project we’d like you to help us with. It’s only going to take a couple of weeks.’ That call happened 12 years ago. The ever-changing world of food and consumer behaviour is definitely different, Hudson says, but offers many clear cross-overs to her past media career and present skillset. Most notably is having a clear purpose when conducting research and ensuring results add value to a client’s business. 

This isn’t the first time Hudson has taken the stage at the London Produce Show. In 2014, the show’s inaugural year, Hudson and Tim Mudge, commercial manager of Market Intelligence Services Ltd, teamed on the opening seminar day to present, Retail Information: More than Just Price. This year, Hudson will speak about some of England Marketing’s latest research on plant-based diets, which includes insights from interviews with industry professionals and consumers.

1. Can you set the scene for us in terms of how UK consumer’s eating habits are changing?

Eating habits are generally changing, and there is a swing towards more healthful food choices. There is also a massive swing towards eating away from home. In fact, 43 percent of meals in the UK are eaten outside of the home, which is a big jump over years past. It’s become a game-changer. That’s because people want to buy something that’s healthy, something that will give them their protein levels and is tasty, of good quality and that they can eat on the go.

So, we are seeing a decline in interest in fatty foods and uptick in more mixed foods available. For example, the selection of sandwich fillings, even in local shops, is huge and much more innovative and you’ve got all sorts of options. A vegetarian even 3 to 5 years ago had little choice except cheese and onion or egg for a filling. Now, we’re routinely seeing choices like Mexican beans and falafel, even in small rural village shops. This is happening equally in the ready-meals section. The choice of what’s available is huge.

People are no longer sticking to purely eating meat, poultry and fish. At the same time, only about 2 percent of people in the UK profess to be vegan, so that’s still a small market. Where you’ve got a bigger shift is those in the middle. More varied diets and cutting back on the animal protein is what I think is really happening. 

2. What is driving these changes? 

Health is right up there at the top of the agenda. The environment and animal welfare are coming in loud and clear as well. So is price. Price is critical. People say they are concerned about animal welfare and what they are putting into their bodies, but at the same time might not be able to buy the premium kindly raised chicken breasts that cost 80 percent more than the standard, cheaper, indoor raised chicken.

Horsegate
(The 2013 scandal in Europe where foods advertised as containing beef were made instead with horse meat) was a huge eye-opener. People who never thought much about where their protein came from really started to consider it. It raised the bar in terms of how people perceived protein. In fact, I’d have to say from our research that where food comes from is high on consumer’s agenda, probably higher than animal welfare or environmental impacts.

In reality, there must be a balance. Since the perception is that plant-based eating is healthier than consuming meat all the time, some people, the majority actually, are looking to reduce the amount of meat they are buying. It’s quality over quantity. Perhaps eating a plant-based source of protein three times a week because its healthful and cost-effective.

3. How is immigration driving interest in plant-based cuisine in the UK? After all, a study in 2017 by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. revealed that immigration to the UK has more than doubled in the past thirty years. The Middle East, Asia and Africa, all areas known for a preponderance of plant-based dishes, are among regions where migrants to the UK have arrived from during this period. 

Culturally speaking, I think this has given us more diverse offerings. Take carbohydrates for example. No longer is the potato our only option. We have many more ways to consume carbohydrates and some of that has to do with immigration and diversity. The average mealtime in the UK has not only altered because more people are eating out, but those sitting around the family table now have a broader base of selections.

To this point as well, we’ve gotten to the point of reinventing things. Cauliflower, for example, was in massive decline in this country. It was known as a soggy, sort of unpleasant big smelly vegetable that was very old-fashioned. We did some work for a client several years ago to explore why consumers didn’t buy it and why it lost its appeal and market. We discovered that older people had bad memories of how their grand mom or mom cooked it, and that younger generations didn’t know how to cook it.

Then, people realized it was a really good vegetarian choice because the applications for it are massive. It’s quite a versatile vegetable. The big thing last Christmas was Marks & Spencer selling a slice of cauliflower in the shape of a steak for £2.50, while the whole head unsliced sold for only 69 pence. They thought if they wrapped it and branded it differently, they could sell it for a premium. It did meet with a lot of criticism for the exorbitant price, and they withdrew it. Regardless, cauliflower is having a renaissance and its being used in curries and other dishes.

4. It sounds like these trends are all positive to greater consumption of fruits and vegetables in the UK. Is this what your research shows?

Actually, and contradictory, there’s still a struggle to get people to eat their five a day. Research we did 18 months ago showed consumption declining, from 3.48 to 3.47 servings a day. This gap means all the potential for the fruit and vegetable industry in this country is not being realized. If we could get this message across it would be a big move forward. So, on one hand we’re saying that plant-based eating is on the rise. Then on the other hand, we’re saying we’re still not eating enough. Plus, we’re also having an obesity crisis. It’s a dichotomy.

5. In the end, how to make sense of these divergent trends seems like a real cliffhanger. Could you give us a sneak peek of what LPS attendees can look forward to from your presentation? 

We’ll start with some facts and figures that we’ve pulled from our most recent research and share anecdotal commentary we’ve received in interviews with industry leaders and consumers. From this, from the understanding we’re hoping to give them, attendees should be able to see how this information fits in with their piece of the market and how they can leverage it to maximize their place in the market. The consumer is changing, and the consumer is going to drive this change back down the supply chain.

 

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