With the launch of Vuna, a plant-based alternative to tuna, Nestlé is taking a new step in its protein transition. Vegan substitutes for shrimps and eggs will soon follow: “We want to be part of the solution.”
“People who taste Vuna for the first time will sometimes ask us if we made a mistake and served real tuna instead”, says Arthur Duquesne De La Vinelle laughingly. He is the business manager of Garden Gourmet, Nestlé’s plant-based brand. The fact that he invited journalists to the head office to taste the product and contextualise the launch indicates the great importance of this innovation for the food multinational.
“I am extremely proud! This product is absolutely right in terms of taste, texture and nutritional value. It is truly impressive.” He serves us a poké bowl with Vuna, and it has to be said: it is surprisingly tasty. “This is a disruptive product”, Duquesne points out. “We tested Vuna on a small scale last year in Italy and Switzerland: the sales figures and repeat purchases were exceptionally strong. That is why we are now rolling it out to other European countries, starting with the Benelux and Germany.”
Initially at Delhaize and Albert Heijn
The tuna substitute is made from seven ingredients: pea protein (from Europe), water, rapeseed oil, wheat gluten, flavourings, lemon fibre and salt. In addition, the product is a source of Omega-3 fatty acids and has a Nutri-Score B. Vuna can be used cold in salads or hot meals, such as pasta dishes.
In the first instance, Nestlé is launching Vuna in Belgium at Delhaize and Albert Heijn, a further roll-out will follow later. The reason for this choice is obvious, Duquesne says: “Delhaize is the market leader in plant-based products, with a share of 34 % – well above their fair share. They were the first to implement it at the time and have a very extensive range. The vegetarian community often regards Albert Heijn as the retailer offering the best plant-based product range. The recommended retail price for a 175-gram jar is 3.99 euros: the price per kilo is, therefore, comparable to that of tinned tuna from an A-brand.
The segment of fish alternatives is still very small at the moment, at barely 1 % of the plant-based segment. However, it has great potential: canned tuna is a vast market, representing a turnover of 90 million euros in Belgium. By way of comparison: the plant-based category, as a whole, accounts for 50 million euros.
“People usually reduce their consumption of red meat first”, Duquesne explains. “Then they start avoiding other types of meat, such as chicken or cold cuts. Fish is the last step. The offer remains limited, and other brands have not introduced the right products. But I believe now is the time: we come at the right time with a product that can make a difference.” He points to the documentary Seaspiracy, on the devastating impact of fishing on the environment: “People who have seen this film will think twice before buying fish.”
About 40 % of the world’s population now considers itself vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian, says Nestlé. In Belgium, that is 46 %. In December 2021, the category of meat substitutes represented 3 % of the total meat consumption in Belgium. Garden Gourmet is taking the lead in developing this market.
“We are growing by more than 20 %t in a very dynamic market with many innovations. We are the biggest brand, with a market share of 27 %. In 2021, we gained another 240 basis points. However, we notice that after an exceptional year in 2020, the market is now slightly slowing down in growth. Due to the lockdowns, home consumption increased, and consumers sought more variety. Last year, consumption behaviour normalised again. But the market is still growing, and we expect double-digit growth again this year.”
The success of Garden Gourmet is no coincidence, Duquesne emphasises. “You do not change consumers’ eating habits easily. The experience has to be right in terms of taste, texture, sustainability and health. Garden Gourmet products do well on all four criteria. We do not compromise: that is how we became the market leader, while other brands declined.
Nestlé is also strongly committed to scientific research: around 3,000 scientists work for the multinational worldwide. Of those, 300 work on plant-based nutrition. “At our R&D department in Lausanne, scientists work on the food technology of tomorrow. Being the world’s largest food company, we have a big impact. We want to be part of the solution. Our CEO has a clear vision in terms of sustainability.” Nestlé wants to halve its emissions by 2030 and become climate-neutral by 2050.
Furthermore, there are two more disruptive innovations in the pipeline from Lausanne: soon, customers will also be introduced to plant-based alternatives for shrimps (Vrimp) and eggs (vEGGie).