It's not just vegetarians who eat vegetarian food these days. There's a huge group of what are called 'meat reducers' and, as the name suggests, they are cutting back on the amount of meat they consume. They could be on a health kick or on a diet, they could have been put off by recent food scares, but whatever their reason they're turning their backs on slabs of red meat and instead opting for meat substitutes like tofu and Quorn.
James Gentle, category marketing manager at Hain Celestial, says: "We believe that the majority of meat-free products are now eaten by consumers who do eat meat but who just want to include meat-free products as part of their diet, as a healthier option.
"The key trend we have seen is that consumers are moving away from 'faddy' diets. Instead, they see meat-free products as genuine healthy options to be incorporated into their long-term eating repertoire, so there is a huge percentage of consumers who are eating both meat and meat-free."
Hain Celestial claims to be the largest natural and organic products company in the world; last year it acquired the Linda McCartney brand, a name that's synonymous with vegetarian food.
This year that brand is the subject of a £1m relaunch and Gentle promises new products, new and natural ingredients and fresh packaging with more emphasis on the ingredients.
"We expect the relaunch to revitalise the Linda McCartney brand, boosting both brand and category growth by reinvigorating consumer interest in the market,"
"The key focus for us is taste. Consumers are still connecting 'healthy foods' with 'lower taste', so it is our mission to create a range of meat-free foods that really deliver on taste, and they're made with natural ingredients, too."
New products being added to the range include macaroni cheese, aubergine & courgette bake, creamy vegetable pies, Cornish pasties, spicy three bean bakes and quarter-pounders. The range's popular vegetarian sausages are still being made to the same recipe, but are bigger in size. The three remaining products - country pies, lasagne and chilli non carne - have all been improved significantly.
Gentle reckons there is also another opportunity to expand the market: "At the moment it is quite biased towards females and we would like to attract more men to the meat-free sector. This is why we've included meals that may typically appeal more to the male market such as pasties, quarter-pounders and chilli."
Vegetarian food sales growth has traditionally come from the chilled sector (currently growing at 9.2% year on year, according to TNS data), driven by the innovation provided by existing brands as well as the extension of own label.
Says Gentle: "The frozen sector has lacked innovation in recent years and is showing a much smaller growth rate (+1.8% year on year, according to TNS). At present, the freezer section simply appears to be a wall of green and orange packaging and consumers are more than likely disillusioned with the frozen offer. There needs to be a re-invigoration in frozen, and we intend to communicate real food values back into the sector so that consumers see that frozen can be just as tasty, if not better, than chilled."
Gentle continues: "The sheer number of new products within the meat-free category has clearly stimulated growth and brought in new consumers. There are now many more meat-free main meal options available to suit a variety of tastes as products have mirrored developments with mainstream categories. This has led to meat-free ready meals now tending to be merchandised within the meat-free sector rather than with the rest of ready meals."
However, it's not just ready meals that vegetarians want, as Jeremy Hughes, trade marketing controller at Premier Foods (which owns the Quorn and Cauldron brands), explains: "Consumers are more interested in cooking with semi-prepared ingredients, from basic Quorn mince through to semi-finished products such as fillets in sauce, than in buying fully prepared ready meals. Also consumers are increasingly looking for interesting ingredient combinations. Our range of Quorn escalopes with toppings such as Wensleydale & blueberry and the Cauldron spinach & ricotta falafel have struck a chord with consumers and performed well."
TNS figures put the total vegetarian market as being worth £696m with growth at 6.8% year on year. Quorn and Cauldron have a combined share of 19%. And penetration for Quorn products is at an all-time high of 20%.
Says Hughes: "Many meat eaters want to eat fewer meals that contain meat. Quorn and Cauldron ranges are, of course, suitable for vegetarians but have a wider appeal with meat eaters who are attracted to tasty and inspiring recipes. Positive healthier eaters and slimmers also buy Quorn products because they want foods that are low in fat, cholesterol, and calories and which taste good. With Cauldron, they are attracted by the taste adventure and they trust the brand to deliver inspiring recipe ideas made with natural and organic ingredients."
About 3.5 million people in the UK now claim to be vegetarian
Although numbers have increased steadily from two million in 1990, growth has been more modest over the past five years with numbers actually falling between 2001 and 2003
Although vegetarians come from all walks of life, Mintel's research identifies the typical vegetarian as a well-educated, single female aged 20-44, living in Greater London
Just 4% of males claim to be vegetarian compared with more than 7% of women
Younger consumers often experiment with vegetarianism in their early twenties when they are able to determine greater choice over diet, but the proportion of vegetarians drops with age
Source: Mintel's Attitudes Towards Vegetarianism, September 2006
Get behind this
This year's National Vegetarian Week, sponsored by Cauldron, will run from May 21-27. As everyone is talking about climate change, this year's event will be encouraging consumers to eat seasonal
UK-grown produce. Retailers who wish to support the event can get a free pack, including posters and leaflets, by calling 0161 925 2000, or logging on to www.vegsoc.org/nvw