The evolution of ‘vegan’ and the creation of the UK’s largest plant-based summit

Plant-based is no longer a ‘trend’. Trends come and go, but the plant-based diet is now firmly established in the mainstream.

I’ve been a vegetarian for over 40 years, so I have lived the highs and lows of plant-based eating – from being turned away in disgust from a French restaurant appalled at the very idea of ‘quelque chose végétarien’, to tucking into my first, juicy, bleeding Beyond Burger.

The plant-based sector is predicted to be worth over $100 billion by the end of the decade. Record numbers of consumers took part in ‘Veganuary’ this year and thousands of plant-based SKUs have already been launched in 2021.

And a key driver of this interest and innovation are entrepreneurial challenger brands.

Having co-founded Bread & Jam – the UK’s first and biggest food founders’ festival – in 2016; I have witnessed, first hand, the incredible journey of plant-based over the past five years.

Every yearly festival reveals more plant-based innovation, clearer direction and further category solidarity, with Bread & Jam a haven for entrepreneurs (vegan or otherwise) looking to make a difference.

I myself launched a plant-based challenger brand, Unruly Foods, last year.

With plant-based gathering such momentum, Bread & Jam will be hosting the UK’s first plant-based virtual conference on the 31st March – a space where innovative start-ups will gather with leading, like-minded brands, industry experts and major supermarkets, to share ideas, experiences and knowledge.

Over the course of the digital one-day event, our attendees will hear from over 30 industry luminaries including Seth Goldman (Founder of Eat the Change, Honest Tea and Chair of Beyond Meat), Josh Tetrick (Founder of the $2bn-valued JUST egg), Ria Rehberg (CEO of Veganuary) and Darren O’Sullivan (Director of Plant Protein at Kerry Group).

The Plant-Based Summit 2021 will be the UK’s biggest gathering of plant-based entrepreneurs and industry experts, with the focus on peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, an exploration of what is driving plant-based now and tomorrow, and where plant-based pioneers should be looking for the next big opportunity.

And I believe that to understand where the plant-based movement is heading, it’s important to understand where it has come from. So let’s have a look at three keys areas, how they have evolved over the last few years and what it all means for the future.

The UK's first plant-bsed summit, 31st March 2021

Vegan was a dirty word

I have to remind myself that, only a few years ago, the word ‘vegan’ still had negative connotations – often associated with the under-nourished and the staunch ‘hippie’ community. As a result there was much debate amongst pioneering brands whether they should use the word ‘vegan’ on their packaging at all.

‘Plant-based’ appeared as an acceptable alternative description, more palatable to the flexitarian consumer.

Both terms are now largely inter-changeable but still serve as a good illustration of the marketing conundrum that a lot of brands in this space struggle with – do you try and find credibility with the small, but vociferous, vegan audience who live and breathe the lifestyle, or do you focus on the much bigger prize of the flexitarians (who probably don’t care if your product ‘may contain traces of milk’).

The answer is probably that the emerging challenger brands tend to focus on the former and the larger corporates on the latter. And when smaller brands move from one to the other they can often come unstuck, as we saw a few years ago when Rude Health alienated their core vegan early adopters with a surprising blog denouncing vegans.

By any means necessary

The science of mimicking animal flesh with plant protein gathered pace when Silicon Valley got their teeth stuck into the challenge. Less than 10 years ago I was still eating fake meat with the texture of a dead toe; today I can find burger products that would fool the keenest carnivore.

To achieve this feat, manufacturers have used every artificial gum, gel, stabilizer, fibre and flavouring in their tool-kit, with the sole aim of making products that mimic the taste, texture and look of meat.

The first Beyond Burger I ate had an ingredient deck of nearly 30 items (it now has 19) and JUST egg (now valued at $2B) is yet to launch in Europe since it contains an ingredient actually banned in the EU (the not too appetising-sounding ‘Meat Glue’, transglutaminase).

The theory behind all this is that humans love the taste and texture of animal flesh (and scrambled eggs) so let’s give the consumer what they want and ease their conversion to plant-based foods.

Now that this commendable ambition has been at least partly realised, brands are rushing to clean up their decks before consumers catch on to the artifice and the ‘health halo’ of vegan food fades to a distant memory.

The natural progression of this is what I call vegan 2.0, where products will focus on whole, recognisable ingredients like beans and pulses. And at some point someone will create a centre-of-plate vegan product that isn’t a copy of a dead animal, but a whole new game-changing product in itself.

Tara Mei and Jason Gibb, co-founders of Bread & Jam (and the Plant-based Summit 2021)

Driven by start-ups

Innovation in plant-based has been for many years driven by quick and agile start-ups. Large corporates would look at the opportunity, figure that the size of the prize (say £50m a year) wasn’t really worth getting out of bed for.

As the category has grown, so has the opportunity and in the last three years the big boys have thrown everything at it, particularly the meat alternatives aisle. This specific category is now super-saturated, and we’re likely to see some consolidation across the retailers, with weaker brands shunted out.

Start-ups are now looking elsewhere, particularly to dairy, cheese and chocolate but also the smaller niche opportunities like for example frittatas, gravy, cheesecake and dips. Their speed and agility means they will get these products out faster, a big competitive advantage.

With so many disparate players working in their own little silos I believe that now is a pivotal moment to pause, take stock and share our learnings and our visions for the future.

At our upcoming plant-based summit on the 31st March, we will look at the trends driving plant-based, hear from retailers about how they plan to capitalise on it, from investors on where they are looking to stake their money, and from thought-leaders on what surprises the category has in store.

We will also hear from a variety of exciting start-ups on what it takes to launch a plant-based business and from non-vegan brands on how to launch and market a plant-based SKU.

The ultimate aim is to bring plant-based pioneers big and small together, so we can really grow the plant-based movement to its maximum potential.

Because if we can change what we eat, we can change the world.

Click here for more information on the upcoming Plant-based Summit 2021 and to book your tickets for the 31st March

Jason Gibb
Jason Gibb
Jason is the co-founder of Bread & Jam - the UK's leading food and drink founders' festival. An expert on F&B startup strategy and a champion of innovation in the entrepreneurial community; Jason and the Bread & Jam team are to host the Plant-Based Summit, the UK’s largest gathering of plant-based entrepreneurs and industry experts, on March 31st 2021.

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