Changes to eating habits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have been documented since the start of global lockdowns. Trends including a return to home cooking and baking, an increase in demand for organic, plant-based, vegan and vegetarian foods and a reduction in demand for what are perceived as more exotic foods, have all been identified, and many are expected to continue in the post COVID-19 era.
To date, there is no scientific evidence that the virus is transmitted by food, but consumer dining habits and shopper attitudes towards canned and pre-packaged food reflect uncertainty towards the pandemic’s largely unquantifiable threat. Increasingly, consumers are more conscious of food safety and food origin, and the COVID-led disruption of global supply chains has strengthened demand for shopping and dining locally.
The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as growing health and environmental concerns, has encouraged some consumers to choose animal-free diets. This in turn has contributed to an increase in the development of new products by plant protein firms and to a boost in consumer perception of the health benefits of plants, both as part of their diet and in healing remedies.
Lockdowns have also affected consumer attitudes towards food priorities. A recent consumer research study in the UK indicated that during the pandemic, vegan diets became more appealing to over 12% of British consumers, with a quarter of young millennials (aged 21-30) being significantly more attracted to a vegan diet. The healing power of plants and botanical ingredients believed to have medicinal benefits also received significant support (51% of participants), while the five-a-day mantra moved up the list of food priorities as 23% of participants confirmed they have been consuming more fruit and vegetables since the start of the pandemic1.
Popular amongst YouTube’s most watched videos during the same period were videos about understanding the origin of the pandemic and how it could be fought using home cooked food remedies2. Analysis of online keywords indicates a significant increase in the popularity of searches for “Recipes” and “Delivery”. At the same time, interest in food products such as flour, bread, fruits, milk and chicken has increased significantly, indicating a long-term interest in cooking from scratch, baking and food storage. At the same time though, almost two in five consumers in the UK1 believe that the lockdown impacted people’s eating habits with people turning to long-life food. Since the pandemic started, 17% of participants in the UK have been eating more tinned food.
A study of attitudes and eating habits in Spain during the lockdown indicates that lowering the frequency of shopping has reduced consumption of the most perishable food products, like ﬁsh and seafood, that would otherwise be heavily consumed. However, sales of non-perishable, ready meals also dropped. This was most likely attributed to people’s perception of the latter being unhealthy and the more time consumers had for cooking during the lockdown2.
Alternative food trends
At the GFSI Conference in Seattle we hosted a special session on Alternative Foods: A safe, sustainable and nutritious future. We presented the macro trends around alternative proteins topics and provided a popularity index for each topic – which allowed us to measure the extent to which a topic is debated.
When looking at the alternative protein topics of insects, cultured meat and plant proteins over the last five years, we noted that interest in the insect topic peaked in 2017 and it is now discussed less, while the topic of cultured meat continues to increase. It has seen a significant peak since 2019, linked to announcements of it becoming a reality with, for example Future Meat Technologies raising $14 Million to build the first pilot plants and Memphis Meats announcing an investment in their Series B funding of $168 million going towards their pilot production facility.
For proteins from plants, we identified two macro-families in which these preparations are used, either as substitutes for dairy products or as substitutes for meat. In both cases, after an increase in 2017, the sources maintain a constant level of interest in the topic. Dairy substitutes were more frequently discussed in previous years, but the revitalisation of meat substitutes means they now are equally discussed and debated.
Christie Lagally, CEO, Rebellyous Foods showed us that projected demand for plant-based meat is far outpacing sales, as manufacturers struggle to meet customers’ appetite for them. Total plant-based meat production currently stands at 0.2% of the US meat industry. In early 2020, food service operators failed to stock enough product for special offers, leading to queues and customers being turned away after selling out in five hours.
Ana Paula Fonseca, Head of Quality and Food Safety in North America at Danone, revealed that plant-based alternatives to dairy have established themselves and the market continues to grow, with dairy free drinks, yoghurts, cheeses and ice creams readily available. Almond, oat and soy are popular alternatives, however niche replacements from water lentils and lotus flour are also available.
The conclusion of the session was that alternative plant-based foods still face challenges to upscale production in order to meet the consumers’ interest and needs.
Flexibility and adaptation
COVID-19 and the business interruption across the world has impacted global food supply chains and consumer habits. In response, the industry has made significant effort to be flexible and adapt ways of working to ensure food production and supply. However, the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19 will require the industry to adapt further and faster than initially expected.
This blog post was written and contributed by:
Dr Evangelia Komitopoulou
Global 2nd party and Customised Solutions Manager