Because definitions and data sources vary, there’s a wide range of estimates regarding numbers of true vegan consumers. Even so, experts project that at least 2.5% of US adults follow a strict vegan diet. Interestingly, this figured is dwarfed by rising numbers of consumers who are not on a strict vegan diet—but appear to be looking for new vegan food and drink options.

Put another way, true vegan consumers are much smaller subset of vegetarians, flexitarians and all those who simply avoid meats. Meanwhile, increased labelling, certification and marketing measures are making vegan products more identifiable across all mainstream market categories.

And here’s the big picture: the recent mainstream push for vegan products now extends beyond the relatively small group of consumers who avoid animal products for ethical reasons. Today, vegan options are increasingly attractive to a much larger group of people simply seeking healthier, cleaner foods.

Innova Market Insights data show new foods and drinks featuring the term “vegan” accounted for 4.6% of total global introductions in 2016, up from just 1.2% in 2011. In the US, new vegan products accounted for a 6.6% of total new product introductions during 2016.

In 2016, the leading global product categories for vegan claims were cereals, snacks, bakery foods and ready meals. There also has been considerable activity in soft drinks too, as well as in more specific sub-categories such as meat substitutes and dairy alternative drinks.

On-Shelf Options

The cereals category easily lends itself to new vegan entries because these products feature different grains as well as additional fruit and nut ingredients. The category accounted for nearly 15% of total vegan launches in the US in 2016, with a penetration of more than 23%, rising to more than 31% in the cereal and energy bars sub-category.

Despite some concerns about sugar content, the cereal bars market already has a healthy and natural image. Many products use multiple health claims, with gluten-free one of the most popular in recent years, alongside high fiber and whole grain. Key growth areas include non-GMO and protein content. Vegan promotional call-outs have been added in many instances, although not always with front-of-pack prominence.

Innova Market Insights routinely looks at new products, names, packaging and on-pack claims. Generally speaking, few claims appear as part of a product’s actual name, although they appear on the package front. Interestingly, one recent new product, the No Cow Bar, did bring its dairy-free credentials to the fore, but the front of the pack also proclaimed it as high fiber, non-GMO, gluten free and soy free, as well as vegan.

Then there are some launches with “veg” in the name, although this could refer to vegan or just vegetarian or even vegetable. These launches include VegiDay vegan bars (from Assured Natural Distribution), which also are organic, non-GMO and gluten free.

Perhaps surprisingly, Innova Market Insights finds that soft drinks were the second largest category for new vegan-friendly products during 2016. Penetration is 13.8%, with the highest actual numbers in juices/juice drinks. In the relatively small sub-categories of “other soft drinks” penetration was 25% and 21.4%, respectively, compared with just under 16% in juices/juice drinks.

The other soft drinks category is primarily made up of healthy and herbal drinks of various kinds, which are perhaps more likely to use vegan claims as part of a natural product. Meanwhile, the iced coffee category has seen activity with products featuring non-dairy whiteners, such as almond milk. The key trend in the iced coffee market involves cold brew options, but many of these also claim to be vegan-friendly (along with other claims such as dairy free, gluten free, non-GMO and soy free). Many also carry organic and sustainability certification.

The third largest category with growing numbers of vegan claims is the snacks sector, where more than 11% of global new product launches had vegan claims in 2016. These claims were led by savory/salty snacks and snack nuts/seeds. As in cereal bars, many products always have been vegan or have managed to use vegan claims with relatively little change required in the way of reformulation or repositioning. This reflects the use of vegetable and grain-based products as basic ingredients within much of the category. Alongside vegan-friendly, many products also are able to appeal to other fashionable trends of the moment, including raw and paleo diets.

While savory/salty snacks and snack nuts/seeds lead in terms of actual numbers, penetration levels also are relatively high in the smaller sub-
categories of fruit-based snacks and popcorn. Savory/salty snacks lead with 14% of global launches using a vegan positioning, with fruit-based snacks in second place on 13.5%, ahead of snack nuts/seeds with 12% and popcorn with 10.5%. Penetration in finger foods/hors d’oeuvres is relatively modest, while as might be expected, less than 0.5% of meat snacks launches had a vegan positioning, which could only be used for meat free alternatives.

Another area of growth in vegan claims is in ready meals. More mainstream consumers are interested in reducing meat in the diet and manufacturers are addressing this demand with more vegetarian and vegan launches. Of course, more vegetarians and flexitarians also are gravitating to vegan products as well. Prepared entrée or side dish launches with a vegan positioning accounted for just over 7% of total global ready meal introductions in 2016, but this covered a wide range of different sub-categories, including pasta, rice and potato products, as well as more processed products such as main dishes, pizza and sandwiches.

Established vegetarian brands such as Morningstar Farms (part of Kellogg’s) have expanded their vegan offerings. Morningstar Farms recent vegan launches include Meal Starters Chick’n Strips and Steak Strips. Likewise Kellogg’s Kashi subsidiary traditionally has focused on whole grain and plant-based recipes—and it also has a new range of vegan options. These include ready meal bowls featuring Sweet Potato Quinoa, Black Bean Mango and Chimichurri Quinoa varieties.

The meat substitutes and analogs market obviously also is active for vegan products, with nearly 60% of launches in 2016 carrying this type of claim. These products use a variety of non-meat ingredients including soy, vegetables, cereals and pulses. Quorn, the meat-free brand based in the UK (but owned by a Filipino food group since 2015), has been in the US for some years with its mycoprotein recipes. It started offering vegan products years ago with just one burger but its product line today includes a range of its vegan chicken-style alternatives.

Delivering In The Dairycase

Of course, vegan consumers refrain from animal-based products and this limits activity in the dairy category. Yet Innova Market Insights data show just over 4% of global new product launches targeted the dairycase. Dairy alternative drinks were the main sub-category, accounting for over 60% of vegan claims in the US dairy category, ahead of yogurt alternatives, cream/creamers and fats/spreads, all also featuring vegetable fats or other plant-based ingredients.

Dairy alternative drinks still take a relatively small share of US dairy launches overall, with about 7.5% of the total in 2016. The sub-category was traditionally reliant on soy. More recently, however, there are many more alternative plant-based ingredients including cereals such as rice, oats and barley; and nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts and macadamias; as well as more unusual options such as hemp and flaxseed. There also has been ongoing launch activity for a range of increasingly sophisticated flavors and blends of non-dairy milks from different sources. Also in line with the milks market as a whole, there has been a strong move into trendy milk-based coffee drinks.

Nearly 36% of US dairy alternative drinks launches used vegan claims in 2016, twice the 18% penetration level of five years earlier (2011). Actual numbers also grew four-fold, although from a relatively small base. The products, being dairy-free, generally lend themselves to vegan claims and for many it has been relatively easy to start using vegan positionings. Most offer this as an additional benefit, with the majority of launches giving the greatest prominence to either the type of ingredient used (almond, coconut, etc.) or the dairy-free formulation.

The non-dairy ice cream alternatives market has seen similar trends, accounting for more than three-quarters of launches using vegan claims in the global desserts and ice cream category in 2016. The market took a leap forward in early 2016 with the launch of a new range of vegan frozen desserts under the Ben & Jerry’s super-premium ice cream brand, owned by Unilever. This vegan alternative is likely to not only offer a mainstream alternative for vegan consumers, but may also introduce existing Ben & Jerry’s customers to vegan products, paving the way for more mainstream plant-based ice cream alternatives from other global brands. The four Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy vegan frozen desserts were made with almond milk, but in classic flavors such as Chunky Monkey, Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Coffee Caramel Fudge and PB & Cookies.

It is clear that there is rising interest in the use of vegan claims, but it is just one part of the rising interest in plant-based diets in general—where products may be for vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, non-meat eaters or the increasing number of “meat-reducers.” While the number of vegans may be increasing, the move of vegan foods mainstream is being driven more as an option for those who do not want to commit to a full vegan or even vegetarian lifestyle, but would rather pick and choose to adapt to their lifestyle, social life or health conditions.  

Originally appeared in the May, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Vegan Variety.