London — Unilever plans to boost sales of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives fivefold to tap growing demand for healthier and environmentally friendlier foods.

The food giant is targeting €1bn in alternative protein sales in the next five to seven years through its Vegetarian Butcher faux-meat brand and vegan versions of flagship products like Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Magnum ice cream. It also wants to halve food waste faster than previously planned and double the number of nutritious products by 2025.

“In a year of Covid-19, many people are just more conscious of their health,” Hanneke Faber, Unilever’s president of foods and refreshments, said in an interview. “Plant-based kind of straddles that area between my own health and the health of the planet. It’s something that consumers are aware of and want.”

Alternative-protein demand has boomed in recent years as climate change and health concerns drive consumers to products such as fake burgers and oat milk. Other companies are also pushing into the sector, with Nestle seeing long-term double-digit growth potential for plant-based meat substitutes.

Two-fifths of the world’s food giants — including Kroger and Tesco — now have dedicated teams to develop and sell plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy, investor network Fairr said.

Unilever bought Vegetarian Butcher two years ago and Faber said sales of its non-meat burgers and nuggets are “growing explosively”. The brand supplies Burger King restaurants and is present in more than 30 countries. The company plans to expand further and to also invest in vegan ice cream and mayonnaise innovation, she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted consumers to eat healthier, Faber said — something that should continue once the crisis passes. As more people seek foods that help protect against diseases, Unilever is pledging to double its products rich in vegetables, protein and micro-nutrients by 2025 and keep reducing salt or sugar in foodstuffs such as soups and ice cream.

The world’s biggest mayonnaise and ice cream seller now plans to halve its food waste by 2025 — bringing forward the original target by five years — via a range of measures including using artificial intelligence to better predict its purchasing and sales. The company will also use brand campaigns to encourage consumers to reduce wastage.

“We’ll use our brands to make consumer change,” Faber said. “It’s not up to us to decide for people what they want to eat, but it is up to us to make healthier and plant-based options accessible to all.”



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