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Consumer Trends 2024: The future of food – will the regulatory regime keep up?

23 January 2024
How food is produced, supplied and consumed is changing globally. These changes come from a range of pressures, including pressing concerns for the environmental impact, food security, health and nutrition as well as the lifestyles, behaviours and preferences of consumers. 

The food system is a huge contributor to environmental issues, from agricultural greenhouse gas emissions to the food packaging waste that ends up in landfill. Therefore, as sustainability becomes central to government policy, it becomes more imperative that food systems are able to play an active role. The dedication of a day at COP 28 to food is just one way in which this is highlighted. Although, at national level, food appears to take less significance in policy making. 

In light of recent national and global events, which have exposed how the food system contributes to food insecurity, inequality and environmental damage, it is easy to feel that the problem is one too big and too complicated to tackle - particularly in an election year in many jurisdictions. Still, hope is on the horizon… So let's take a look at some of the existing and developing reasons to feel positive about the future of food.

Alternative Proteins

The development of new alternative protein sources are on the rise and in the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has received enquiries about cultured (lab grown) meat, plant and algae-based products and edible insects, all of which are positioned as being a more sustainable alternative to traditional meat. The biggest challenge for alternative protein of all kinds is how to get regulatory approval to sell the products. Typically, these products are regulated as novel foods and that is a regime that is notoriously cautious and slow to generate regulatory approval. However, recently the UK has history of taking a more pragmatic approach to expedite approvals. Like it did with CBD, the UK is adopting a slightly more permissive approach for insects. It is allowing the four insect species for which a valid novel food application had been made before 31 December 2023 (Yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor); House cricket (Acheta domesticus); Banded cricket (Gryllodes sigillatus); and Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) ) to remain on the market, as opposed to those that are approved. 

Once that hurdle is overcome, there is the challenge of scaling production, getting the price point and marketing to attract consumers who have historically shunned anything that even sounds like it might by GM or modified. After several years of heavy investment, 2023 saw somewhat of the market turn for the more novel meat alternatives, with many starting to fail and/or struggling to maintain profitability - a trend likely to continue in 2024.

Despite this, UK Research and Innovation has published a corporate report on alternative proteins as a key priority in helping transform the food system to become more 'climate smart'. Additionally, significant funding opportunities have generated wide media coverage. Given that the UK no longer needs to be bound by the EU's approach to novel foods, it is entirely possible for the UK regulators to embrace the FSA's recent report into potential improvements to the novel food process to become a hot-bed for development. Clearly, questions regarding safety and use must be answered, but as it did with CBD products, the FSA can take a more flexible approach in applying the novel food regime to fast track applications for cell cultured meats and other alternative proteins and shift the approach for the future. 

The sourcing and development of new protein alternatives is also a goal of the EU's Food 2030 policy. Since January 2023, house cricket (partially defatted powder) in certain food categories has been authorised as a novel food in the EU, with a UK application currently undergoing a risk assessment. Existing UK businesses are already producing alternative proteins for animal feed and we can expect to see more novel food applications for alternative proteins. New innovative applications of plant-based proteins and the advancement in technologies in cell-cultured and fermentation-grown animal products is also growing as sustainability becomes an intrinsic and mandatory element of new food product development.

What is ultra-processed food and its future?

Much has been written in late 2023 about ultra-processed food, most of it has been bad. The key question, however, is whether ultra-processed foods are by definition bad or whether it is just the case that consumption of too much processed food has the potential to be bad? Even what is meant by ultra-processed is open for debate. There have been growing calls for more regulation of these products and, as obesity and health appears to be gaining a greater focus, we will have to see whether 2024 brings further regulation.

Farming Systems

The second half of 2023 has seen an explosion in brands talking about regenerative agriculture and various methods to ensure that farming is not negatively impacting the land. While there is no clear definition in law for regenerative agriculture, its principles are at the heart of many key topics impacting farming, such as soil use and quality, and water usage. Given the challenges arising from greenwashing allegations, and the lack of definitions creating risk across the green arena, (in the absence of the law) the move by 20 leading FMCG business and farmer cooperatives to commit to a new global framework for regenerative agriculture practices with SAI is key. In the same way that auditing standards for food factories have largely been harmonised for the EU and UK market, these standards offer the same opportunity. If and when the EU manages to release its Sustainable Food Systems policy, and if it is more than just definitions and/or principles, we hope that it builds from this work. In the meantime, having consistency allows people to invest with a degree of security knowing there is a level playing field.

The concept of the vertical farm is no longer a farcical comedy idea but a growing reality UK businesses (1) are already harnessing to lower greenhouse gas emissions, by reducing land space and the use of plant production products. Internal vertical farms can also help in crop stability by ensuing that the growing environment is controlled to the optimum parameters and is not impacted by the changing seasons or extreme weather. Additionally, internal vertical farms, which can be located in more urban areas, benefit climate issues by supplying food that will be subject to shorter transport and supply chains, thus reducing CO2 emissions and energy costs associated with long-distance logistics systems and multiple intermediaries.

For example, there is an underground farm in the heart of London that sows, grows and packs on site for a market less than a mile away for distribution across the capital., Another underground bioponics farm is based in Yorkshire and produces fresh products for local restaurants.


There is a distinctly uncomfortable paradox about food waste: despite the enormous amount of food waste produced, millions of people do not have enough food to eat. This applies globally and within the UK. A number of UK charities (e.g. WRAP and FareShare) in conjunction with manufacturers, retailers and the hospitality industry are working to remedy this by facilitating food distribution models that help to ensure good food goes to people who need it.

Waste beyond food itself (i.e. its packaging waste) is real threat to concept of a circular economy. 'Reduce, re-use and recycle' do not necessarily close the loop, as for most materials these actions cannot be carried out indefinitely. Ultimately, we need to create less waste in the first place and find sustainable ways of utilizing the unavoidable waste. However, there are some practical challenges, including the separation and extraction of certain waste materials, reusing hard-to-recycle waste and regulatory challenges in making products from waste material (waste is a heavily regulated commodity subject to criminal sanctions).

Yet, there are some exciting UK solutions in place and others are considered for development, including current energy-from-waste operators who use waste that would be destined for landfill to generate home grown energy, the development of new novel materials to prevent plastic packaging (2) and everyday consumer product re-use and re-fill schemes – an area where research is being carried out to deeper understand opportunities and barriers.

Regulatory reform is also doing its bit in helping reshape how businesses think about the life of packaging materials once they have served their primary purpose, including the much delayed extended producer responsibility (EPR) rules and mandatory separated waste collections for workplaces (starting in Wales from April 2024 with England TBC but likely to be after the next election).

There is no question that we need to develop a more sustainable, equal and secure food system that provides food which is good for our bodies and good for the planet. There is no one single solution – the food system is, after all, a complex web of interacting sub-systems and agents. From production, to processing, distribution, consumption and disposal. But, we are seeing exciting innovative technologies being tested, an increase in effective practical solutions and a wealth of forward-thinking academic research which are helping to transform the system from its traditional linear model to a more circular one. We're not there yet and there is much work to do, but a curve is certainly emerging… Let's see what 2024 brings.

  1. https://www.fwi.co.uk/news/opinion-vertical-farming-is-key-to-future-food-security
  2. Also https://xampla.com/

If you have any questions or would like to discuss any of these topics and what they mean for you and your business, please get in touch with our Consumer sector and Regulatory experts. 

This insight was authored by Dominic Watkins, Anne Marie Taylor and Georgia Taylor.

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