Understanding flexitarian preferences and needs is key to keeping them engaged with meat and dairy

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Dietary preferences are as individualised as clothing these days and the food we choose to eat, or not to eat, is often used as a badge to signal deeper interest in health, pleasure or ethics. However, dietary preferences have shifted during the pandemic with some consumers re-evaluating their needs and behaviours. This article will explore what has changed, why and how that has impacted the market for both meat and dairy and the emerging meat-free category. We will also look at what opportunities exist in the market with this consumer group. 

Vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian?  

According to latest Kantar data, while the number of vegans (0.8%) and vegetarians (5.2%) has changed very little in absolute terms over the past five years (despite the hype), the number of flexitarians (people who consciously choose to limit their red meat consumption) has actually fallen to the lowest levels since 2017 (14.8%). Conversely, the number of individuals not following any sort of conscious meat avoidance (MA) diet has increased significantly to 81%.

Flexitarians are important to understand as they still have one foot in the meat, fish and poultry (MFP) category, and represent a much larger group than vegans or vegetarians.  They are the key target audience for plant-based manufacturers and, until this year, have been growing in numbers.  This group typically enjoy meat and dairy but require reassurance around health, environment and welfare – therefore, early interventions with this group could prevent people from leaving the category altogether. 

It is important to note that prior to the pandemic there was another group of consumers who were unconsciously reducing their meat consumption. While we will not focus on this category here, previous AHDB articles have explored this group in more detail.


Why the change?

We know that people who label themselves flexitarian are generally more health conscious, and often perceive that they need to limit their meat consumption for health reasons, with environmental worries also increasingly playing a role. However, during the pandemic, food consumed for health has become marginally less important for some, with people prioritising treats and enjoyment. Historically, 31% of food was consumed for health reasons, but this has fallen to less than 29% this year. And while flexitarians do try to eat more fruit and vegetables than the rest of the population, they are also a group that is more likely to treat or reward themselves.   

Although fewer people are labelling themselves as flexitarian, with lighter flexers returning to meat, those who remain in this category are reducing their meat, fish and dairy consumption (down 8% in the past year), and eating more plant-based foods. This decline is happening to a greater or lesser extent across all proteins, apart from primary pork which has grown by 6%. However, pork typically makes up less than 3% of flexitarian’s meat consumption. 

What has happened to consumption of animal and plant-based proteins?

The number of occasions of eating meat, fish and poultry returned to growth in 2020/21 – up 17% (Source: Kantar 52 w/e Feb 2021) having previously lost 1% in the previous year. It is important to note that meat-free also grew, but very much in line with previous growth levels (up by 12.7% against a 3 year average of 11.9%), driven by innovation and increased listings – and therefore failed to capitalise from market growth in the same way that meat did. In fact, in retail, the number of households buying meat-free was unchanged year-on-year, whilst the number of households buying red meat grew by 1.1% (Kantar, 52 w/e 24 Jan 21). However, existing buyers of meat-free bought more which sustained growth. And that growth came at the expense of ready meals, (which generally struggled during the pandemic as people had more time to cook), or to a lesser extent poultry. 

Leading the return to meat occasions, was processed pig meat (23% growth) as people enjoyed sausages, bacon and ham sandwiches during lockdown. There was strong growth across all proteins, with lamb seeing the smallest growth at 12%.

This growth is reflected in UK retail sales. Lockdown triggered growth in the meat market, with primary red meat volumes alone achieving double-digit gains of 13.7% (Kantar, 52 w/e 24 Jan 21). This is the equivalent to an extra 67 thousand tonnes, with the broader meat, fish and poultry market growing by 301 thousand tonnes in total. This compares to only 11 thousand tonnes for meat free.

Who are flexitarians anyway?

Flexitarians can be found amongst all life stages but are less likely to have children in the household. Retired and empty nesters, as well as pre-family all over-index.   Females account for 54% of all flexitarian occasions but this is changing over-time, with steady growth in the share of men.  42% of flexitarians can be found in London and the South of England. 

They vary in their cooking preferences but a larger than expected number can be found in AHDB’s Foodie Explorer cluster.  This means that they are more open to trying new cuisines and recipes. 

Almost half of the animal protein consumed by flexitarians is chicken and fish (26.5% and 20.9% respectively). However, processed pork also plays a large role, making up almost a quarter of occasions (23.2%). Beef makes up 14.9% of occasions (compared to almost 19% amongst the broader population) whilst lamb (2.1%) and primary pork (2.6%) make up a much smaller proportion. 

Typical dishes for flexitarians are similar to the average consumer, the key variances being salads, vegetarian dishes and curry.

How can meat and dairy remain relevant to flexitarians? Opportunities:

  • Although there are fewer flexitarians in the latest data, they are still an important group to engage with, as it is very possible they will grow again post-pandemic. To win with this group we need to focus on enjoyment in the short term, perhaps looking at how meat can play a key role in celebratory moments as normality returns – the BBQ with friends or extended family roast for example – but longer term needs to see a renewed focus on health, and also ethical credentials such as sustainability and welfare.
  • Flexitarians are particularly concerned with ensuring their diet is balanced and contains plenty of fruit and vegetables so there is a clear opportunity to highlight how the nutrients that are unique to, or more bioavailable from lean beef, pork, lamb and dairy, such as B12, iron, calcium and iodine, complement the nutrients available from vegetables – both in health terms and in flavour.
  • Suitability for the mid-week meals occasion is also a key opportunity as meat consumption for this group wanes during the week.
  • They also value meat for flavour and enjoyment, seeing it as a treat. The Friday night takeaway and the Sunday roast are key celebratory meal occasions and opportunities to defend.
  • Showcasing meat and dairy with recipe inspiration in relevant dish-based meals such as curries and salads will be key. From a sustainability perspective there are also opportunities in highlighting how leftovers from a roast, for example, can easily be used in a lot of healthy dishes such as a lamb and spinach dhansak or a Thai beef salad. There is also greater openness to fresh pork than previously which is an opportunity as well, especially where lean credentials can be highlighted.
  • Flexitarians typically live in smaller households so focus recipes and promotions on smaller cuts such as steaks, medallions, lean mince, mini-roasts or stir-fry strips, but recognise there are also opportunities when catering for social events for larger cuts such as roasting joints – the key is to demonstrate how the meat works with the more interesting vegetables, beyond just being presented on the side of the plate.