Dietary rules used to be black and white: people were either vegetarian or meat eaters. Vegans were virtually unheard of and most of us would simply blink and stare wondering what words like pescatarian or flexitarian even meant.
Cut to 2019, where 32% – or nearly one-third – of Australians consider themselves flexitarians, or ‘meat reducers’, trying to do their best for the planet and waistlines by reducing carnivorous cravings and eating more plant-based foods, according to research from Food Frontier.
While only 12.1% of Australians consider themselves vegetarian, more of us are curious about flexing our dietary choices and using the banner of ‘flexitarian’ to describe how we choose to eat. This attitudinal shift has the food industry champing at the bit to satisfy the consumer appetite for plant-based eating.
Hungry Jacks founder Jack Cowin has invested nearly $20m in partnership with the CSIRO to make plant-based meat available to the broader fast food market. In Australia, the number of meat-free burgers on the market in Australia has increased almost 300% since 2010.
Overseas, plant-based meat is nothing new, but it still causes controversy, with a British pub chain BrewDog launching a ‘hybrid burger’ containing 50% beef and 50% plant-based meat alternative complete with vegan cheese. BrewDog told the press “We’ve seen a growing demand for alternative proteins, and we already stock vegan friendly options in all of our bars, but we wanted to do something for flexitarians – people looking to cut down but not totally stop eating meat.”
INTRODUCING: THE HYBRID BURGER 🍔
50% plant-based Beyond Meat & 50% beef burger patty.
Melted vegan gouda cheese.
Crispy onion straws.
All sandwiched between Matcha Tea buns.
50% less meat, 100% delicious.
Try it now in your local burger-flipping BrewDog bar. pic.twitter.com/BvsHY1IqL5
— BrewDog (@BrewDog) October 3, 2019
Food Frontier is predicting the Australian meat-free burger market will be worth a whopping $3b and employ 6000 people by 2030. In the US, sales of plant-based meat alternatives increased 17% in 2018.
The interesting distinction between flexitarianism and vegetarian or vegan is the flexibility around the “rules” – flexitarianism means anything from just doing Meatless Mondays to indulging in quality meat a couple of times a month.
With news headlines about vegan meat startups, it’s easy to believe that plant-based meat alternatives such as Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger that bleeds are the way forward. Investment into plant-based alternatives has exceeded US$17 billion in the last decade, however Appetite Communications suspects there will be many ways the food industry – and consumers – will respond to the rising consciousness around plant-based eating and changing dietary rules. We’ve listed some of them below.
Flexitarian eating impact #1: We will eat higher quality cuts of meat rather than large quantities of meat
Canny housekeepers used to stretch their grocery budget with mince and sausages, but as consumers reduce the number of meals where they eat meat, it’s likely they will go for premium quality meat when they do choose to indulge their inner carnivore.
Butchers are already specialising in offering high-quality pre-prepared meals that busy people can simply heat and eat – more stuffed veal rolls than budget sausage mince.
Organic, grass-fed and free range meats are also likely to be more sought after to meet a flexitarian’s needs. We think it’s likely there will be more options around ‘sustainable’ meats, such as this Australian meat-producer who has become the first to go carbon neutral. Sure, carbon-neutral doesn’t sound as catchy as organic but it may satisfy many consumer’s sustainability concerns.
It’s also likely we will see more science and technology breakthroughs to improve the environmental impact of meat, such as Future Feed developed by the CSIRO which uses a seaweed-based feed to reduce methane emissions from cattle.
Flexitarian eating impact #2: There will be new opportunities for legumes, tofu and tempeh
The Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council’s recent research found 55% of Australians are trying to choose vegetarian meals more often, with the top 3 reasons being health, supporting environmental sustainability and animal welfare.
While legumes are recommended by health professionals as a great meat substitute, many people don’t know how to cook and prepare an easy meal with them. A recent Australian study found that people think legumes like lentils, peas or kidney beans take a long time to prepare, which is why 35% of people say it’s a barrier to start eating more legumes.
We think it’s likely that consumers feel the same towards other meat substitutes such as tofu and tempeh. The rise of plant-based meat alternatives and flexitarianism gives the food industry a new opportunity to educate consumers and empower them with the confidence to cook with meat substitutes that are high in protein and offer a new range of tastes and meal opportunities.
It will also mean a continuation of the trend towards enticingly convenient meat substitutes, like veggie burgers and cauliflower nuggets that might start tantalising us away from beef patties or chicken nuggets.
Flexitarian eating impact #3: Plant-based eating won’t strictly mean vegan-only
The word ‘vegan’ describes a diet where you don’t eat meat, dairy products, eggs, honey or any other animal-based products. Technically, a vegan can still drink beer, eat white bread and avoid fruits and vegetables altogether. A plant-based diet is a more accurate description of a healthy diet that contains a wide variety of wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes while minimising processed and animal-based foods.
As American plant-based evangelist Dr Michael Greger says, the word vegan more accurately describes what people do NOT eat, while a whole food plant-based diet more enticingly describes what people DO eat.
We’ve been watching the meteoric rise of Yotam Ottolenghi, whose delectable creations don’t completely exclude meat but well and truly make veg the focus. Coupled with Jamie Oliver’s latest book Veg and a vegan restaurant in Sydney receiving a covetable 15/20 in the Good Food Guide, it’s clear that eating more veges isn’t just for vegans or hippies – it’s for contemporary foodies and mainstream consumers too.
Flexitarian eating impact #4: Plant-based meats will continue their meteoric rise
To date, meat alternatives have been marketed as a direct substitute for meat – think of Quorn being marketed as an alternative to mince in Bolognese or vegetarian sausages that have a smokey flavour to them to mimic the meat experience.
It’s easy for consumers to believe that swapping meat for a plant-based meat alternative will provide the same nutritional completeness that meat does – this isn’t always the case. While most plant-based meat alternatives generally provide a decent hit of protein, many lack the same well-absorbed iron and zinc, or Vitamin B12 content of meat. We’ve also noticed some newer meat alternative products containing no legumes or other protein source, for example cauliflower burgers, that may leave confused shoppers lacking in protein. For a Meatless Monday flexitarian, this may not be an issue, but for stricter flexitarians consuming meat once a week or less, these plant-based products may leave some nutritional gaps.
Product innovation will no doubt evolve and the nutritional profile of plant-based meat substitutes is likely to improve as more dollars enter the sector.
Flexitarianism is undoubtedly a key trend and creating innovative, convenient and tasty solutions to meet the demand provides huge opportunity. As we move further in this direction, as industry and nutrition communicators, do we need to be thinking about any unintended consequences of eating less meat and eating more meat substitutes? We think there’s a great opportunity to provide solutions at the product development stage to get both the sensory and wellbeing story right, balancing the complex mix of ingredients, nutrients, taste and texture.