As we’re experiencing one of the most severe health crises in history, health quite naturally moved into the spotlight for many consumers. Boosting the immune system quickly became a priority and, because people ended up cooking more at home during lockdowns, mindful eating have gained traction.

As a result, products labeled “organic” are in high in demand, prompted by a growing interest in the emerging field of functional products positioned to boost immunity, help relax, aid sleep and improve the mood in general.

An increasingly oft-employed branding exercise among food and drink producers is to emphasise that their products are “free from“: in the first place, dairy-free, but then also sugar-free, GMO-free, bisphenol A-free and so on. In this way, what the product doesn’t contain becomes more important than what it actually does contain. For some, this is a culmination of today’s anxious eating culture.

Brands are tapping into the consumers’ perception of the “naturalness” of food and drinks, which has evolved from a focus on sanitation to added ingredients like preservatives, flavours and sweeteners. The ever-increasing health awareness among consumers, coupled with the rise of the organic food industry, has put the notion of “naturalness” in the centre of many debates around the food and drink industry.

Interestingly, this notion of “naturalness” has led to a growing interest in plant-based meat and milk. Brands are capitalising on the trend with quirky campaigns, strong visual identities and compelling messages about health and the environment, as the health and sustainability halo is expected to further drive plant-based sales in the future.

Covid and the environment change minds

We analysed 1947 articles published between November 2020 – April 2021 in top-tier English-language outlets and found that Covid’s impact was the largest topic in the discussion around health and wellness food:

Many reports noted that health and wellness accounted for about one fifth of total packaged food value sales globally in 2020 because consumers increasingly seek natural products, as opposed to supplements and pill formats, that help them to stay healthy or lessen the potential impact of a Covid infection.

Demand for fortified and functional products, in particular, has increased as the concept of food as medicine has gained traction, which has propelled interest in products with immunity-boosting ingredients. The media has also popularised studies that have established a link between obesity and the risk of more serious illness or even death due to Covid.

However, journalists remarked that the global economic recession resulting from the health crisis not only affected the choice of products, but also consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for such products. As job losses and ongoing economic uncertainty are forcing many consumers to tighten their belts, affordability has become an important purchasing criterion, which could potentially hamper the growth prospects of health and wellness products with premium price points.

But many analysts pointed out that people’s tendency to consume healthier meals is expected to persist in future, and health and wellness packaged food is expected to eventually outperform regular food offerings in terms of retail value growth.

The focus on meat and dairy alternatives in particular was also due to a growing awareness of Big Food’s environmental footprint, and the Environmental concerns topic was also a major factor in the media conversation. For example, a 2021 poll showed millions flexitarian Brits planned to eat more vegetarian food this year in a bid to be more environmentally friendly.

The biggest problem here is the negative impact of the meat industry on the planet, and brands selling alternatives often make the case for their products by underlining environmental concerns alongside ethical and health considerations. As a result, the meat industry is experiencing an unprecedented disruption from a rapidly growing demand for plant-based alternatives such as tofu, natto and tempeh.

A recent extensive study, published in the journal Science, demonstrates meat and dairy uses 83% of farmland and is responsible for 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. „A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. „It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

The Policy/regulations topic focused on how governments have put a stronger focus on promoting a healthy diet and lifestyle – for example, the UK government launched a campaign in the summer of 2020 to promote healthy eating. It also announced further measures, including a ban on certain advertisements and price promotions, calorie labelling in restaurants and a review of front of pack labelling.

Furthermore, a new rule banning food companies from comparing plant-based products to dairy in their marketing could be agreed by European Union negotiators, despite protests from food and drink giants like Danone, Nestle and Unilever.

Meanwhile, watchdogs are still considering how to categorise plant-based foods. Regulators basically have to resolve the ontological question ‘what is meat’ – if it’s grown in a lab without slaughtering animals, should it be called meat?

The Ethics topic involved the ethical aspects of meat consumption and animal rights in particular. This issue was often cited as the main cause for many consumers to go vegetarian or vegan, with the most popular arguments being that animals have consciousness and feelings, and that cruelty towards them is morally wrong.

A healthy twist for food & drink players

We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around health and wellness in the food and drink sector.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

Interestingly, the most impactful organisation in the discussion was the synonym of unhealthy eating – McDonald’s.

McDonald’s hit many headlines when it announced it would introduce plant-based burgers, chicken substitutes and breakfast sandwiches – a new offering called the McPlant. Having tested out a plant-based burger in Canada with start-up Beyond Meat, the fast food giant implied it would develop the new offering by itself.

Commentators noted that McDonald’s has been a laggard in the corporate fight over plant-based burgers and chicken as it was relatively late to enter the meat-free market. Other fast-food outlets have already introduced plant-based burgers: Burger King has worked with Impossible Foods to launch the Impossible Whopper and Beyond Meat has partnered with KFC on a plant-based nugget.

Reports also pointed out that although the two leading alternative meat makers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have done a fairly good job of carving up the fast food market, McDonald’s entry with its exclusive formulation must come as a blow to these companies and other startups in this sphere.

In the meantime, Starbucks announced it would offer an Impossible Sausage breakfast sandwich at its stores. It also featured in the media debate because its Oatly-supplied oat milk proved so popular that it couldn’t meet the demand. The numerous Oatly fans online were outraged: “Just throw my whole drink away tbh,” wrote one sad Twitter user.

Oatly was often mentioned in the Starbucks reports as the company which started the oat milk craze in the US several years ago, as the Swedish firm rose from obscure digestive health brand to a household name. Oatly has positioned itself as part of a movement trying to get consumers off dairy, with CEO Toni Petersson saying: ‘If we get one person to give up cow’s milk, we’ve made a difference’.

The long-standing reputation of traditional milk as a healthy drink, established primarily by blanket marketing initiatives, has started to deteriorate due to rising concerns around lactose intolerance, bovine antibiotics, animal cruelty and the industry’s environmental impact. Many consumers now view cow’s milk as less healthy than its plant alternatives – a perception which some commentators have called “a demographic time bomb”.

Meanwhile, Danone was featured in the conversation for its multiple plans for its Silk brand in North America, focusing on further expanding almond and the soy segments with product and brand positioning. The strategy comes as competition increases in the plant-based milk alternatives category.

In potentially bad news for Danone, Nestlé is investing into the plant-based category, traditionally the former company’s stronghold. Nestlé’s major foray in the U.S. in plant-based food started with fake beef, chicken, sausage and deli meats, but now it sees opportunity in downstream offerings, like frozen pizza with plant-based toppings.

Start-ups restarted during the pandemic

Apart from big names like McDonalds and Danone, start-ups such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Eat Just and Next Meats also became a focal point of discussion as they also tried to adapt to the pandemic.

In addition to its partnerships with established players, Beyond Meat, one of the first movers in the fake meat category, gained media influence as it announced it will launch the latest version of its meat-free burger patties in grocery stores – the crisis has shifted that balance sharply in favor of grocery and convenience stores as opposed to restaurants.

As more competitors like Tyson Foods and Kellogg offer meatless burgers, Beyond Meat said that improving its meat alternatives helps the company hold onto its market share. The company’s strategy to encourage meat-lovers to switch to its products includes achieving price parity with beef by 2024.

Rival Impossible Foods, which also has been slashing prices, was mentioned in the debate as it is preparing for a public listing which could value the U.S. plant-based burger maker at around $10 billion or more – substantially more than the $4 billion the company was worth in a private funding round in 2020.

Eat Just, the food tech that pioneered the plant-based egg and became the first to gain regulatory approval for cultured meat, raised a $200 million fundraising round led by the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar. It also announced the launch of the world’s first-ever home delivery of its cell-based chicken, partnering with Asian delivery giant Foodpanda.

Next Meats, the Tokyo based alternative meat brand and purveyor of the world’s firstplant-based yakiniku meats, reached its first overseas market with a menu collaboration in Singapore with Japanese chain restaurant Aburi-EN, marking the first time an alternative protein firm from Japan is offering its products in the Lion City. 

Social media users focus on animal rights

To get a taste of the social media conversation, we analysed 25K tweets posted between October 2020 and April 2021. We found that Twitter users focused much more on animal rights rather than other aspects such as the environment. Ethical questions were extensively discussed by the most influential users in the debate:

The ethical line of reasoning on Twitter usually included the supposition that animals are inherently valuable and shouldn’t be treated merely as means: if we can survive and be healthy without eating meat, we shouldn’t harm them. 

Such sentiments were often shared by producers of meat alternatives like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods as a way of promoting their products, and messages like these tended to resonate across many consumers who were taking up vegetarianism or veganism for ethical reasons. In fact, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were the most prominent companies on Twitter, surpassing major players like Danone or Nestlé, as many buyers of meat alternatives provided feedback and recommend their products.

Some of the top influencers were individuals promoting the benefits of a meat-free diet with user names specifically dedicated to their cause, such as Veganella, Vegan Olive and VeganRoo. Some of their latest discussions included how 90% of British pigs are killed in gas chambers and the eventual arrival of vegan butchers. 

Such influencers frequently engaged with organisations such as Animal Warriors Global and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), which claims 6.5 million supporters. Another influential non-profit was The Good Food Institute, which promotes plant-based meat, dairy, and egg substitutes.

There were also academics among the top 20 influencers: for example, Frédéric Leroy, a researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel who specialises in nutrition and sustainable meat production, discussed questions like the dietary guidelines for red meat intake and the place of meat in dietary policy.

Meanwhile, Nanci Guest, a nutritional scientist at the University of Toronto, talked about athletes who follow dietary patterns. Another qualified nutritionist in the conversation was Rose Wyles.

The most influential journalist was Jenny Naomi Kleeman, a British documentary film-maker who is best known for her work on Channel 4’s foreign affairs series Unreported World. She shared many insights from her 2020 book called “Sex Robots & Vegan Meat: Adventures at the frontier of Birth, Food, Sex, and Death”.

An influencer with a more environmental focus was Harry Frasier, who tweeted about studies showing how the meat industry is an even greater threat to the planet than fossil fuels and it also leads to loss of biodiversity and causes mass deforestation.

How media analytics can inform health and wellness campaigns

We think that there are several way media analytics could aid health and wellness comms efforts, especially if they are scientifically oriented:

  • Trace how the debate around environmental issues and animal rights has evolved. As the spread of COVID-19 has put an unprecedented focus on personal health, the recent months have seen a growing demand for health and wellness products. But apart from personal health, consumers are increasingly motivated by environmental concerns. It’s interesting to note that in our 2018 analysis of the meat alternatives conversation, animal rights was a much larger media topic than the environment, whereas our current analysis showed that this has changed, perhaps due to the ever-growing awareness about climate change. However, animal rights continue to be a priority for social media users.

  • Analyse who emerges as a new opinion leader. There has never been a time when scientists had such a large share of voice in the mass media, which could be invaluable for the health and wellness movement. This is true about social media as well: for instance, Twitter not only started labeling misleading tweets about Covid-19, but also started amplifying medical voices. Since March, it has verified hundreds of Covid-19 experts globally, including scientists and academics. There’s been a growing group of scientists and public-health officials who are increasingly active and drawing large audiences on social media. They say they feel a moral obligation to provide credible information online and navigate the conversation away from proponents of conspiracy theories that have gained a substantial share of voice across social media platforms.

  • Utilise the greater public interest in science. The fight against coronavirus, alongside the vaccine development process, has put science in a more prominent position in public perceptions. The critical role science plays in responding to a crisis is being elevated to such an extent that even the notoriously “bad” pharma companies experience reputational boosts as the coronavirus pandemic highlights their scientific expertise in developing medications and vaccines. As issues such as climate change have been increasingly politicised, and evidence-based decision-making has been discredited by certain officials, this is a chance for communicators to capitalise on this growing interest in science to move environmental causes away from political framing and into the scientific discourse.

  • Reach new audiences with environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) messaging. Our recent research shows that comms professionals should move beyond purpose and focus their efforts on ESG – a much more specific and tangible concept with better defined KPIs which is yet to gain full momentum, especially on social media. The animal rights advocates on social are already devoted to meat-free offerings, but there is a white space of environmental activists which are yet to be won over. Be among the first to utilise the power of social media and engage a wider circle of stakeholders in a more informal fashion, particularly on Instagram, a platform that has much higher engagement rates with many key stakeholders and where ESG topics such as climate change are very popular among millennials.

Learn more about how Commetric’s Media Analytics can supercharge your communications strategy with the essential insights necessary to boost your reputation.