Kate Vlietstra
Kate is a Global Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel. She specialises in analysing the dairy sector, with previous experience in FMCG sales and marketing roles.

As McDonald’s begins the nationwide launch of its first plant-based burger – the McPlant – today (Wednesday 13th October), we examine the prospects of meat substitutes now becoming a mass market phenomenon. 

The McPlant burger is made with a vegan pea protein patty co-developed with Beyond Meat 

Source: McDonald’s

As Global Food and Drink Analyst Kate Vlietstra told the Sunday Times, interest in plant-based food products has exploded over recent years in the UK, driving a wave of innovation in supermarkets and foodservice. Half of UK consumers have eaten a meat substitute in the previous six months, rising to almost two thirds of 16-24s. The trend has become a lifestyle choice for many and is set to continue, with the younger generation driving consumption.

This consumer demand, particularly among younger consumers, has propelled plant-based innovation into the spotlight. Over one in ten meat, fish and poultry launches in the UK are now positioned as ‘alternatives’, with prepared meals such as those from the M&S Plant Kitchen product line offering a safe and convenient introductory format. 

M&S Plant Kitchen range

Source: M&S

Beyond ready meals, consumers can expect to see more ‘delicatessen style’ options in store. Earlier in 2021, Asda announced that it was trialling a supermarket vegan butcher counter at its Watford store, offering a range of meat-free alternatives such as ‘facon’, bean burgers, mock lamb and vegan ‘black pudding’.  

Asda trials vegan butcher concept ‘Veelicious’ at its Watford store

Source: Asda

The foodservice sector, too, is introducing meat alternatives to its menus, often collaborating with plant-based retail manufacturers to offer branded options. Riding the wave of its product success in supermarkets, UK-based Meatless Farm has recently partnered with Pret a Manger to offer consumers a Meatless Meatball Protein Pot as an all-day hot option.

Demand for meat substitutes driven by flexitarians

Despite the surging interest in plant-based foods, only 2% of UK consumers claim to be vegan. Consumers are simply seeking to reduce their meat consumption rather than eliminate it, with a third of UK consumers actively trying to limit their meat intake. 

Some consumers are, however, cautious about meat substitutes. Over two thirds of UK consumers who haven’t tried meat substitutes think these plant-based options are overpriced while a similar amount think they are too processed. 

Will meat alternatives become mass market?

Meat alternatives have already carved an important place within flexitarian eating habits as meat reduction becomes mainstream. The need for meat alternatives will therefore continue, and the continued improvements in plant-based meat appearance, branding and recipe formulation will make the category all the more enduring.

Usage of meat substitutes is significantly higher among younger generations than older ones, reflecting the trendiness of these products and the high levels of scratch cooking among the older generation. To appeal to older consumers, brands must address the biggest barriers to meat substitutes, which include them being over-processed and the use of soy.

Given different expectations from different demographics, brands must also carefully consider the role of plant-based alternatives and decide whether to prioritise a meat-like taste with a more indulgent eating experience or put a greater emphasis on health and cleaning up the ingredient list.