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The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a temporary setback for the flexitarian movement, with the proportion of adults limiting and not eating meat dropping back significantly in 2020* according to new research from Mintel. But as the food and drink industry recovers from the pandemic, Mintel expects that momentum will return to the plant-based industry.

Veganuary may be in full swing, but according to Mintel, the number of Brits actively limiting/reducing and not eating meat in their diet has reduced from half (51%) of all consumers in 2019 down to four in ten (41%) during 2020.  Meanwhile, in search of familiar foods, sales of processed meat products, including processed poultry and red meat main meal components**, have skyrocketed by 18% during 2020 and are estimated to be worth £3.7 billion.  Breakfast and barbecue favourites, bacon (+18%), sausages (+20%) and burgers (+26%), all benefited from the rise in scratch cooking and shift towards eating at home. Increased rates of homeworking have been driving a rise in at-home lunches which helped push the sales of cooked sliced meat/poultry, such as ham, which rose 9% in 2020.  Having been in decline for a number of years, stockpiling of canned meat led to a resurgence in sales – up 22% in 2020. This comes as 58% of meat/poultry eaters say that meals that contain processed meat products are comforting.

While the flexitarian movement has faltered during the pandemic, Mintel reports a huge increase in the number of Brits who acknowledge the impact that eating meat has on the environment. In 2018, just a quarter (25%) of Brits felt that eating less meat is better for the environment, but this shot up to 42% in 2020.

Edward Bergen, Global Food & Drink Analyst, said:

“Prior to the coronavirus outbreak the meat reduction trend was gaining considerable momentum. The huge disruption, uncertainty and stress caused by COVID-19 have caused a relaxation around some health and ethics-driven habits among many people. It is not surprising that meat reduction has taken a temporary back seat, particularly given the increased desirability of familiar comfort food and meat is seen to really deliver here.  The long hot summer gave a boost to sales of sausages and burgers through an increase in opportunities for barbecues. The popularity of barbecues was also boosted as Brits socialised outdoors once the lockdown was lifted but restrictions remained on indoor gatherings.

“But the setback for the flexitarian movement is likely to be very short-lived. As the shadow of the pandemic fades, its impact in the mid and long-term are only going to make the benefits consumers associate with eating less meat seem even more relevant and important. This includes those relating to sustainability and to people’s finances, health and weight management. With that in mind, the meat reduction movement is expected to rebound vigorously when the immediate risk from coronavirus has passed. We anticipate a flurry of new plant-based products, some of which will have been held back during the height of the pandemic, this will continue to drive plant-based usage in a market which is driven by innovation and newness.”

Half of Brits eat meat substitutes

Eaten by as many as half (50%) of all Brits, meat substitutes*** enjoy a widespread appeal beyond the limited number of vegetarians/vegans. However, usage is strongly skewed towards the younger generation, peaking at 65% of 16-24s and is limited among over-65s (26%).

Mintel reveals that half (48%) of meat substitute users prefer products which are fully plant-based/vegan, over those that contain animal sourced ingredients such as dairy and eggs, rising to 57% of Millennials.  Despite this, veganism remains decidedly niche with just just under 2% of the population following this diet.

Edward Bergen, Global Food & Drink Analyst, said:

“While the meat reduction trend continued to gather momentum in 2019, the category’s increasingly mainstream role means that the health halo around meat substitutes and their price are set to come under greater scrutiny.

“Although lapsing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the meat reduction movement is expected to rebound, driven by its perceived benefits related to health, weight management, sustainability and money-saving. However, meat substitutes must really deliver on these factors to reap the rewards from this trend.” Concludes Edward.

*Over the six months to September 2020.

**Including bacon, sausages and burgers, coated poultry. 

***Meat substitutes are products often made from textured vegetable protein, such as soy, that imitate the texture, flavour and appearance of certain types of meat, such as beef, poultry or fish. This includes products such as mycoprotein-based Quorn. However, they can also be made with plant-based ingredients which do not try to imitate meat, such as vegetable or bean burgers or tofu.