We looked at product design & packaging of vegan meats to help you avoid mis-steaks

Simon Falconer, Katie Sweet & Rhys Hillan

Whether you think it’s a fad or a food revolution, the popularity of veganism has skyrocketed in recent years. It carries an identity or value dimension that goes beyond the diet itself. There is more to being vegan than simply avoiding animal-based products. It often influences how a person sees themselves. 

And even for those who haven’t sworn off meat completely, more and more are consciously reducing their meat consumption. Data from Zappi’s “Sustainability Usage & Attitudes (U&A) study” in Q4 2022 shows that nearly half of UK consumers (45%) state they’re already cutting down on eating meat purchases to reduce their environmental impact. Others are doing so for health benefits.

These so-called “flexitarians” are often reducing meat consumption for environmental and health benefits. It’s this group that is often attracted to meat-substitute products. As the name suggests, meat substitutes are plant-based food products typically made to mimic the appearance and texture of traditional meat products.

Meat substitutes: A growth market

This category is fast approaching a $1 billion market. With a forecasted CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of nearly 8% from 2021 to 2026, it’s growth that can’t be ignored.

The Zappi Sustainability U&A showed more than half of adults in the UK now avoid products they know are bad for the planet. More than one in three (39%) of those aged 18-25 actively look up a brand’s sustainability efforts before purchasing their products. Only 25% of those aged over 45 do this.

Percent of UK consumers who look up a brand's sustainability efforts before purchasing

And specifically for food, 45% of UK consumers state they are already reducing meat purchases to reduce their environmental impact. This is relatively consistent across age groups, so it is a strong indicator of why the substitute meat market is showing such growth potential in the UK.

Unpacking the opportunities for brands

With strong market growth and rising consumer interest, we thought it was a good time to look at some more recently introduced meat substitute food products to see what brands could learn to drive their own successful innovation with the ongoing trend.

Some questions we were looking to answer:

  • What are consumers looking for in this category? 

  • What appeals to them? What doesn’t? 

  • How do different products perform when we assess their messaging, claims and packaging?

  • How does this vary among different groups, especially by age?

  • What can brands do through new product development and packaging to capture their slice of this strong growth market?

Our research

We looked at six different vegan food products in the UK (three chicken substitute products and three sausage substitute products), surveying 2,400 consumers to understand their opinions of them.

The research was done using Activate It — a key solution from Zappi’s Innovation Suite. Activate It supports brands in assessing and deciding which innovation concepts offer the best commercial potential and incremental growth opportunity for the business.

Our main takeaways from the research include: 

  1. Get creative: There’s room for further innovation and new product development — specifically targeted to younger consumers. 

  2. Highlight the right benefits: Prioritize healthy eating, but don’t forget sustainability.

  3. Beware of greenwashing: Be clear about the specific sustainability benefits of the product, but proceed carefully — consumers are wary of “green” claims that lack authenticity. 

  4. Show the product looking delicious: Focus on cooked, not raw imagery!

Let’s go through each of these.

1. Get creative: It’s time to innovate

A growing market like this will usually warrant further consideration for innovation and new product development.

But which consumers are the target audience for the category? Digging deeper into the growth opportunities, our research showed appeal is especially strong for younger consumers. 

Younger consumers (under 25) vs. older (over 45) are much more likely to say they “definitely would buy” (averaged across the six products we looked at).

Other growth opportunity segments include: 

Sustainability-minded consumers: Those classified as “sustainability minded” (defined as people who strongly agree with the statement: “sustainability is a serious concern for the future of our planet”) show even stronger purchase intent (40% definitely would buy) given the alignment of the meat-substitute product’s claims to their sustainability interests.

Early adopters: Early adopters in this category (defined as people who strongly agree with the statement: “I’m usually amongst the first to try new chilled and ready to cook meals”) are worth a closer look. They were more likely to buy all six of the products, but two in particular had the strongest appeal: The Vegetarian Butcher and Moving Mountains products. (In a later section we’ll look at what’s driving their stronger appeal.)

💡Takeaway: The growth in this category, combined with the interest of younger consumers, suggests brands should invest time and energy into building this category. But there is some nuance in the drivers of interest and purchase, so get close to consumers to understand their needs and preferences.

2. Highlight the benefits: Health & sustainability

Falling above taste, appearance, recipe flexibility, and ability to satisfy appetite, it is health and sustainability benefits that resonate the most with consumers.


Being “a healthy choice” was the most important benefit associated with the products we tested. Most of the products carry prominent nutritional information and health messaging (“low fat,” “gluten free,” “source of fibre,” etc.) which clearly help support this.

Most of the products we looked at include prominent health-related claims on the packaging, including Squeaky Bean’s “low saturated fat,” Beyond Sausage’s “no soy, no gluten” and THIS Isn’t Pork Sausages’ “Source of fibre.”

“High protein” is a claim that resonates with consumers as well, as consumers responded favorably to messaging of the “protein” content of the products we looked at. The Squeaky Bean Chicken Pieces and Moving Mountains packs demonstrate this well.

The heat map shows where consumers responded positively to elements of the product and packaging. This packaging for Moving Mountains has a ”‘red hot spot” over the “Vegan,” “High Protein” and “Low Saturated Fat” pack labels. These got positive consumer responses — particularly the “High Protein” label.
The heat map shows where consumers responded positively to elements of the product and packaging. This packaging for Squeaky Bean has a ”‘red hot spot” over the “Vegan,” “High in Protein” and “Plant Based” pack labels. These got positive consumer responses — particularly the “High in Protein” label.

Sustainability and environment

The second most associated attribute for the products we tested was whether the product was “a good choice for the environment.” 

The Vegetarian Butcher product, for example, has a clear “recyclable packaging” logo which consumers appreciated.

The Vegetarian Butcher’s “Recyclable Packaging” logo was viewed positively by respondents.

Positive reactions to the “Recyclable Packaging” logo included comments such as:

Good that the wrapper is recyclable”

“Positive message”

“Good for the planet”

And other products promote the sustainability benefits in their off-pack messaging, which is included as a key diagnostic within the Activate It solution. The Moving Mountains product, for example, dials up the sustainability credentials of the brand and product with consumer feedback such as:

“The product promotes sustainability and healthy eating.”

“I like that they are good for the planet.”

💡Takeaway: Play up health and sustainability on your packaging, as they’re the benefits resonating most strongly — especially with younger consumers. Their more niche eating habits today are fast-becoming the mainstream of tomorrow!

3. Beware of greenwashing: Be specific & authentic

Of course, keep in mind that you have a fine line to walk when associating your product with sustainability. Consumers are on the look-out for brands that they might see as “greenwashing” — sharing questionable claims of “green” or “sustainable” products. Greenwashing carries a risk of very real, long-term reputational brand damage, as in the case of fast fashion retailer H&M who has recently been sued for allegedly providing inaccurate depictions of the environmental impact of its products.

Striking the right balance of authenticity, clarity and appeal is critical. In other words, it’s important to make realistic claims that make sense and matter to consumers.

Our research shines some light on this. We first explored the area of on-pack logos explaining a product’s sustainability credentials in Zappi’s Q4 2022 Sustainability U&A. We saw that 70% of UK consumers agree that a “sustainability badge, logo or text” would make them more inclined to purchase a product.

And that was evidenced by the Meatless Farm product in our research. It carries the “Eco Impact” score in logo format.

Meatless Farm’s package carries an “Eco Impact” score to highlight its sustainability efforts. Some consumers like this, others don’t believe it or don’t understand it.

This was well received, with consumers making comments such as:

“Good that this has a low impact rating”

“Like that this is in A rating”

“Eco credentials visible”

But beware! 64% of UK consumers said they were skeptical about the sustainability of a product, even if it claims to be sustainable. Consumers have witnessed so much greenwashing that they don’t always automatically trust sustainability claims. 

In this particular case, there was a lack of clarity about what the “Eco Impact” label really means. 

“I’m not sure what this means”

“Don’t know what it stands for”

“Don’t get this”

Or more directly critical, we can see some consumer feedback along these lines: “Ultra processed fake food is in no way better for the planet.”

|Without clarity and education, these kinds of claims might lead consumers to think a claim isn’t completely authentic.

Of the products we tested, one that stands out for good “specific detail” around environmental and sustainability credentials was Moving Mountains. This brand explicitly points consumers to more information, and this additional information was well received — with some comments like “I like that it directs you to information about the sustainability mission.” 

Moving Mountains provides a link to additional information on its packaging, which consumers view positively.

And the Meatless Farm Chipolata Sausages also received positive feedback for the more specific information they provide around environmental and sustainability credentials.

With comments such as:

“They have been rated highly by a respected company.”

“Interesting about an eco rating.” “Good that this has a low impact rating.”

💡Takeaway: Don't assume a simple badge on your packaging does the job. Be specific about the health and sustainability benefits. Make it easy for consumers to believe and want to try and feel good about their choice. But do this without over cluttering. (We know that’s not easy! That’s why it’s important to research your packaging with consumers to make sure they’re interpreting it right.)

4. Show the product: Cooked, not raw

It was very evident in our research that packaging that showed meat-substitute food as part of an appetizing cooked meal performs better than packaging of raw food.

There was notable negative feedback about the appearance of the product when it is shown uncooked in the pack, for example of the bottom of the packs shown below for Squeaky Bean and Meatless Farm.

Both of these examples show the meat substitute product in both raw and cooked forms. Consumer reactions were more positive toward the cooked food and more negative toward the raw food.

While it is common pack design practice to show raw food for traditional meat products, our research indicates this is less relevant for meat substitutes. 

Our recommendation is that showing the food as part of a cooked meal would make stronger or more universal appeal e.g. Moving Mountains and The Vegetarian Butcher products that both focus the pack design on cooked product only.

Both of these packages show the meat substitute product as part of a cooked meal only, not raw. Consumers responded well to this imagery.

Most dislikes focused on the appearance of the food through the transparent packaging window.

The heat map shows where consumers responded negatively (with “dislikes”) to elements of the product and packaging. The packaging for Squeaky Bean and Meatless Farm have a ”‘red hot spot” over the raw food images. These got negative consumer responses in our research.

The better performing products show only the cooked product as part of an appetizing recipe, such as in the example below from The Vegetarian Butcher.

The heat map shows where consumers responded positively to elements of the product and packaging. The packaging for The Vegetarian Butcher have a ”‘red hot spot” over the cooked food images. These got positive consumer responses in our research.

💡Takeaway: Show your product cooked as part of a meal, not raw.

Final thoughts

Through our research, we learned a few key things for brands to think about when developing and packaging their meat substitute products:

  1. Key segments for the category include early adopters, younger age groups and sustainability-minded consumers

  2. Health and sustainability are the key benefits to highlight on packaging

  3. When making sustainability-related claims, focus on authenticity and clarity to avoid greenwashing suspicions 

  4. When depicting the product, focus on showing it as part of a cooked meal

Of course, it’s easy to say these things — but much harder to execute it well. That’s where consumer research comes in. Researching your product concepts, pack design, pricing and more with consumers will help you be sure your final product will succeed in the market. Learn more about how Zappi’s Product Innovation System can help.