Whether flexitarian, vegetarian, vegan or simply eating healthy, plant-based foods are making inroads with consumers. However, new research from Mintel reveals that taste is the top reason US adults who eat plant-based proteins* do so (52 percent), outranking concerns over diet** (10 percent), animal protection (11 percent), the environment (13 percent) and even health (39 percent).
While taste tops the list of reasons to eat plant-based proteins, perceived health benefits are on consumers’ minds, as nearly half (46 percent) of Americans agree that plant-based proteins are better for you than animal-based options, and three quarters (76 percent) say plant-based foods are healthy. Whether a desire to avoid processed foods (39 percent), manage weight (31 percent) or promote muscle growth (16 percent), many plant-based protein consumers are motivated by maintaining or improving their health and well-being.
When it comes to making decisions in the grocery aisle, again, taste (65 percent) is the driving factor for those who eat plant-based proteins, followed by health-centric attributes. These consumers are more likely to seek plant-based protein products with no artificial ingredients (41 percent), that are high in protein (35 percent) and fiber (28 percent), and those that are non-GMO (28 percent). Non-GMO claims in particular are driving innovation in the category, as US launches of foods and beverages with plant-based proteins with a non-GMO claim grew from 3.8 percent in 2012 to 19.6 percent in 2017, according to Mintel Global New Products Database.
“Americans are more and more avoiding food products with artificial ingredients and GMOs, and vegetarian, vegan and free-from foods have grown to be regarded as healthier options. Despite the fact that health attributes, particularly free-from, factor strongly in consumer decisions when purchasing plant-based proteins, at the end of the day, taste is the driving force behind purchase and eating decisions. While overall consumption of plant-based proteins remains low, these products benefit from a generally healthy reputation both for consumers’ diets and for the environment, and growing consumer interest in better-for-you lifestyles will continue to drive interest in the category,” said Billy Roberts, Senior Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel.
While healthy and functional attributes are of interest to consumers, with less than half (46 percent) of Americans saying they trust the functional claims made by plant-based foods, there is opportunity for brands to further communicate the benefits. In fact, seven in 10 (71 percent) Americans agree that brands should provide more information about product/ingredient origin on packaging.
“Busy consumers look for shortcuts for how to live well, and labels offer a quick and easy understanding about what a product contains and how it has been treated. In order to appeal to consumers, brands should offer a tasty product offering boasting no artificial ingredients, protein content, non-GMO, and fiber content and be sure to highlight these features on-pack,” continued Roberts.
While plant-based proteins consumers are most likely to say they eat plant-based proteins in prepared meals (66 percent), traditionally animal-based products, such as meat (51 percent), cheese (45 percent) and milk (41 percent), are also popular plant-based options. This is especially true for consumers aged 18-34 as they are the most likely age group to eat plant-based proteins in meat (58 percent), cheese (56 percent) and milk (53 percent).
Despite this interest, it seems price may be a deterrent. Nearly two thirds (64 percent) of Americans aged 18-34 agree that plant-based foods are more expensive than others, compared to 57 percent of consumers overall. However, some brands may be worth the price as almost half (47 percent) of those aged 18-34 say brand name is important when buying plant-based foods, compared to 40 percent of consumers overall.
“Faux meat has come a long way in terms of both innovation and consumer acceptance, with meatless, ‘bleeding’ burgers and lab-grown chicken found on menus and in grocery store aisles across the country. The majority of consumers look for plant-based proteins in meat, cheese and milk, which suggests that alternative meats and dairy products will find appeal, resulting in increased consumption. Additionally, a value-oriented plant-based protein may resonate well with members of the iGeneration, Millennials and younger members of Generation X, as these consumers are more likely to say plant-based proteins are too expensive. Thus, major brands’ involvement in the category could bode well for the category as a whole,” added Roberts.
Finally, while interest in plant-based proteins is on the rise, animal-based meat is here to stay. More than two thirds (67 percent) of Americans agree that meat is essential to a balanced diet, and just over half (51 percent) believe a meal is not complete without meat.
“The opportunity for plant-based proteins appears more as a complement to animal-based proteins than as a wholesale replacement, as our research shows that many consumers are interested in plant-based proteins but still view meat as an important part of a balanced diet. The biggest challenge for the plant-based proteins category continues to be finding the right balance between flavor and health, and discovering the categories where consumers will accept the addition of plant-based varieties,” concluded Roberts.
*1,876 US internet users aged 18+ who eat plant-based proteins
**Specifically eating a vegetarian diet