A niche market is going mainstream as food manufacturers cash in on the increasing awareness of healthy eating and the country's fastest growing food trend.
Vegetarians used to be regarded with a mixture of pity and scorn. When most people were ploughing their way through the European sausage mountain, a vegetarian's choice of food was limited to grated cheese and lettuce. Nowadays, the boot is firmly on the other foot. Meat is murder. Vegetarianism and healthy eating generally - for which read 'organic' - is resurgent. The wise business executive is wooing the custom of a healthy, growing and often well-heeled minority market.
'Times have changed. [Vegetarianism] isn't just for lentil-munchers, people who wear open-toed sandals and never wash their hair,' says Roger Browning, the eminently presentable deputy art director of the Guardian, and a confirmed vegetarian. 'There are plenty of professional types and high-flying executives who've gone reggie, too. There's certainly no social stigma anymore.'
Vegetarianism has become the country's fastest growing food trend. If people continue to spurn flesh at the current rate, we'll all be on meat-free diets by the year 2030, according to Vegetarian Society figures. 'There's been a big cultural change over the past few years,' confirms Gill Fine, Sainsbury's chief nutritionist. 'Vegetarianism has come out of the closet,' she says, 'and a wide variety of people eat vegetarian foods, even though they're not vegetarians, partly because there are so many more exciting foods available.'
There's money in this market, which includes around six million vegetarians in the UK, with 5,000 people said to be joining the cause each week and further converts no doubt to be made this month, which is 'Veggie Month'. Sir Paul McCartney, Victoria Wood and Spike Milligan are just some of the celebrities donating their favourite recipes in support of this year's Animal Aid initiative to promote vegetarianism in the UK. A small and growing army of health-conscious eaters, who are cutting down though not necessarily cutting out their meat intake, and are prepared to pay extra for their chemical-free vegetables, are also contributing to the boom. In a market that is growing fast, there are plenty of opportunities for spin-offs. They range from the more obvious recipe books and on-line stores to specialist hotels and holidays, cafes and restaurants, cycling and athletics clubs, shoes and clothing, vitamins, soaps and cosmetics, annual festivals and even a dating agency, Vegetarian Matchmakers. Its recorded voice message promises 'introductions to like-minded people, leading to romance and ultimately long-term relationships, including marriage'.
Ever sensitive to market trends and keen to cash in on any new money-maker, the supermarket giants are climbing on the bandwagon. The niche is going mainstream. Asda and Safeway already stock vegetarian wines supplied by vegetarian and organic vintner Vinceremos. Sainsbury stocks over 50 different types of organic product across its 200 stores, including in-store baked bread, ready meals and chocolate ice-cream, and a Tesco spokesman reckons that demand for organic products, which already account for [pounds]35 million of its annual [pounds]18 billion business, will grow at 100% a year for the next two years at least.
'We use a range of suppliers, large and small,' says Sainsbury's Fine. 'There doesn't seem to be any shortage of new products or new ideas.'
Smaller businesses are run off their feet. 'The supermarkets are taking organic foods very seriously at the moment and offering people three to five-year contracts. I simply can't keep up with demand,' says Paul Jones of Soyfoods, whose core business is supplying farm-fresh produce. 'Because of the lack of government investment in organic fainting, however, a lot of produce has to be flown in from abroad.'
In fact, some 80% is imported, mainly from the Low Countries but also from France, Germany and Austria where, perhaps surprisingly, 50% of farming is self-sustaining. …