Meatless convenience

by Allison Sebolt
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While the actual number of vegetarians has most likely held steady in recent years, analysts agree the number of consumers who are looking to reduce the overall amount of meat in their diets is on the rise.

Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, Tualatin, Ore., said there are various contributors to the vegetarian trend, including the economic crisis, sustainability,

obesity and travel. The economic crisis is inspiring vegetarianism simply because meatless foods may be less expensive than foods with meat. When it comes to sustainability, there is a belief among certain groups that a meatless diet is more sustainable, but Ms. Badaracco said some groups disagree with this belief and there is much debate about the issue. Also, if someone decides to have a home garden as a personal effort to encourage sustainability, one might naturally eat more vegetarian options. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index, so some may see it as a weight-loss aid. Travel is also a factor as many different world cuisines, including Indian, have become popular in the United States, and many ethnic foods are not meat-based.

Ms. Badaracco said there used to be a bigger rift or perceived difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets, but the chasm has decreased over time.

“Vegetarianism is much more approachable now than it ever has been,” Ms. Badaracco said. “I think it’s losing a little bit of its reputation of being a rebellious diet.”

Ms. Badaracco said high school and college students that once incorporated vegetarian diets as a way of setting themselves apart now do so because they view it as an approachable diet. She said vegetarian diets are less tied to politics and animal rights than they maybe were in the past.

Ms. Badaracco also said the number of people seeking meatless alternatives will decrease as the economy improves. If the reason a consumer chose a vegetarian diet to begin with had to do with money, the incentive to keep eating as many meatless dishes will decrease with improved economic conditions.

Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., manufactures vegetarian products under the MorningStar Farms brand. Its newest frozen products include MorningStar Farms Sweet and Sour Chik’n and Lasagna with Sausage Style Crumbles. Some of its most popular products are burgers, including Original Grillers and the Spicy Black Bean Burger. Consumers who eat meat represent an important part of the market, more than three-quarters of MorningStar Farms purchases are made by these consumers, said Ami Krishan, associate director of MorningStar Farms.

“An increasing number of American adults are seeking to reduce the amount of meat they eat,” Ms. Krishan said. “They are looking for convenient options that help them avoid negatives such as fat and cholesterol. They also want positive nutritional elements such as protein and fiber. In addition, consumers are not willing to sacrifice taste for health or ease-of-preparation.”

The success of the MorningStar Farms products is flavor and texture that closely matches the traditional meat counterpart, Ms. Krishan said.

ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, has a line of vegetarian products called Lightlife, which consists primarily of refrigerated meat alternatives. Some of its most recently introduced products include Smart Wings Buffalo, Smart Wings Honey BBQ, and Smart Sausages Smoked Style. The company also makes Smart Dogs, which are hot dog replacements.

According to ConAgra, 56% of consumers are both non-vegetarian and not looking to reduce the amount of meat in their diets. However, 30% are non-vegetarian but looking to reduce meat, 10% are aspiring vegetarians, 3% are occasional vegetarians and 1% are strict vegetarians.

“There’s no question diets are evolving, particularly among younger folks,” said Gary Rodkin, chief executive officer of ConAgra Foods. “Vegetables are clearly becoming more prominent in Americans’ diets. We know there’s only a small percentage of the population that is exclusively vegetarian, but a good 44% of consumers are looking to replace some meat in their diets with more veggies.”

Peter Lewis, director of marketing for Lightlife, said the company uses vegetable-based protein, which comes primarily from soy, as a meat replacement. He said consumers will often start eating vegetarian foods from a health and wellness perspective in an effort to reduce the amount of fat and calories they consume, or they begin to choose meatless options simply from hearing the experiences of others who have tried vegetarian foods.

“(Baby boomers) are looking at this as an option to both increase their health and wellness and be a substitute for the meat they no longer want to consume,” Mr. Lewis said. “For the younger demographic, eating veggie-based foods is normal.”

Mr. Lewis said while the brand doesn’t target any one specific demographic, two age groups that do seem to be driving the trend are 20-somethings and baby boomers. He also said he has been seeing convenience and sophisticated flavors — including Asian flavors — as major trends. Lightlife will be introducing a new product in June called Smart Cutlets, which are sauced chicken cutlets that have a Thai-based spicy sweet-and-sour flavor.

“There are many shades of veggie eating from a strict vegan to a flexitarian,” Mr. Lewis said.

According to the Global New Products Database from Mintel International, Chicago, there were 248 new products introduced with vegetarian claims in 2009, down from 489 in 2008 and 470 in 2007. So far in 2010 there have been 111 new vegetarian products introduced. Some of the biggest categories of innovation include meat substitutes and prepared meals.

Ms. Badaracco compared the trend toward a diet that seeks to reduce meat consumption to the private label trend. As the economy improves there has been somewhat of a shift back to brands, but the strength and inroads private label has made isn’t going away, and people are still incorporating private label into their purchases.

“I think the flexitarian is the more permanent behavior … flexitarian is going to be a new settling place,” Ms. Badaracco said.

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