With consumers increasingly concerned about the impact the foods they eat have on their health, Alex Black looks at why meat and dairy need to shout louder about their nutritional benefits.
Meat and dairy producers need to communicate the nutritional benefits of their products as alternatives tempt health-conscious consumers.
Alternatives have been in strong growth, with much noise in the wider media about veganism and campaigns aimed at demonising red meat in particular.
Innovation and showcasing the benefits of the health benefits of both was key to keeping the competition at bay, as food giants continue to launch new products.
It came as Cheshire dairy farmer Andy Venables launched Mission For Milk, an initiative seeking to raise awareness of the health benefits of milk and change the way it is marketed.
Health concerns were encouraging shoppers to pick up more items from the ‘free-from’ range, including meat and dairy alternatives.
Charlotte James, consumer insight director at Kantar Worldpanel, said much of what people chose to eat was based on health and there had been a lot of innovation in the free-from category.
And it was not just people with specific dietary requirements such as coeliac disease or lactose intolerance buying free-from food.
“Health is one of those factors,” she said.
Kantar’s research had shown a third of people choosing a meat free product had not intended to, but simply decided in store they would try it.
With the amount of vegans and vegetarians in the UK very low, many of the people buying alternatives were meat eaters.
AHDB senior consumer insight analyst Susie Stannard said people tended to think vegan meant it was a healthy option.
“People think it is plant based and plants are healthy,” she said. “If you look at some of the nutritional stuff it is not actually that great.”
While much attention has been paid to younger people in London following health trends and weighing up veganism, Ms James said a large proportion of the growth in free-from was coming from older shoppers.
“It is tied in with the health trend. It is coming from across shopper groups,” she said.
“I had thought it would just be London but actually growth is coming from every single region.”
Ms James said it had had some impact on meat and dairy sales but not as much as some news articles might let you believe.
“The meat and dairy industry are still massive and for a lot of people still a part of everyday life.”
Looking at how meat could fight back, she highlighted this demand for healthy food.
“It is very high protein and naturally healthy but you do not see the industry as a whole talking about that very much,” she said.
Ms Stannard agreed saying cereals often had claims on the packet of how much protein they contain, but those in meat were ‘well above’ this.
Nutritionist and Meat Advisory Panel member Dr Carrie Ruxton said one of the health benefits which should be communicated was the quality of the protein in a ‘protein obsessed society’.
She gave the example of younger people looking for protein for satiety and to support sport and exercise but were reaching instead for processed products.
“Meat has got all the amino acids,” she added.
“You do not need to think about mixing your proteins as you get it all in one food.”
She highlighted other minerals such as iron, with many women and girls deficient, and zinc and iodine, when there was ‘a bit of an iodine crisis’.
“Young girls are actually deficient in iodine because they are shunning milk and meat," added Dr Ruxton.
But she said she did not believe people were aware of the health benefits of meat, with red meat constantly attacked in the press using single US studies with results which could not be reproduced in a controlled trial.
She added the alternatives were very inconsistent in what they offered, with some offering a lot of nutritional value and others not at all suitable for a full meal.
Dr Ruxton said the industry needed to ‘reach out’ through PR and make contacts in the local news and local radio and get to know reporters.
The industry also needed to continue moving forward. “Consumers are looking for innovation,” she said.
Environmental concerns were also driving shopper behaviour, but independent livestock consultant and founder of the Februdairy social media campaign, Dr Jude Capper, said it was not as simple as it seemed.
She often heard the argument cattle were killing the planet and people encouraging a switch to alternatives such as soy, rice and almond drinks.
“However, what is often missed is that plant juices simply do not have the nutritional value of dairy products, therefore although they may have a lower carbon footprint, they also provide a very limited nutritional profile," said Dr Capper.
She highlighted a Swedish study which compared the ratio of nutrients to greenhouse gas emissions and found dairy milk was ‘by far the best’.
Transportation, water use, land use and biodiversity also needed to be taken into account.
“Deforestation is linked to soy production, almond production has a considerable water footprint, almost all of which has to be provided by irrigation," she added.
Diversifying into free-from may ‘make sense’ for some meat and dairy processors and there could also be opportunities for some more niche farming products.
Last week processor ABP caused anger amongst farmer suppliers when it launched its first fresh meat-free brand, Equals, into Asda, made from soy and pea protein. But the company was already involved in the market, supplying supermarket own-brand products.
Other agricultural giants were also keen to take a slice of the market, with Alpro, a major dairy alternative brand, owned by Danone.
“Putting out a plant based range is sensible. But it does not mean you move away from your core business," said Ms Stannard.
ABP stated its core business would remain beef but it was reacting to consumer trends.
For individual farms, there might be opportunities dependent on the individual farm but a radical shift was not needed.
Ms Stannard added: “If you have got a farm which is suitable for growing arable, there might be niche opportunities.”
She gave the example of quinoa, a grain which has grown in popularity and can be grown in some parts of the UK.
“That is the sort of thing which could be an interesting story. Different grains and plant types, but with a British spin," Ms Stannard said.
Dr Capper added the industry simply would not get anywhere by publicly denigrating alternatives but she was not convinced there would be ‘huge shifts’ to plant based foods or fake meats.
“Perhaps it is better to embrace the alternatives and then gently point out how lovely a vegetable burger can be if it is served with some bacon and cheese," said Dr Capper.
She spent a lot of time extolling the benefits of milk online and talking to those against dairy farming.
“Sadly, a single YouTube video, regardless of when or where it was shot, can be taken as proof that the entire dairy industry is bad, therefore we face a constant battle," said Dr Capper.