KANSAS CITY — The target consumer for plant-based products has evolved over the last few years, leading to an explosion of plant-based and blended products in all corners of the supermarket perimeter. 

“One of the key distinctions of today's alternative protein market is the target consumer has changed,” said Emma Ignaszewski, corporate engagement project manager for Washington DC-based The Good Food Institute (GFI). “Vegans and vegetarians make up a very small percentage of the population here in the US — about 5% — and instead of targeting only those consumers companies are targeting a larger group of omnivore consumers.”

GFI’s 2021 State of the Industry Report | Plant-Based Meat, Eggs and Dairy, shows that plant-based foods are going mainstream as they appeal to a broader swath of consumers. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, there has been a significant increase in the number of consumers who have eaten or are aware of plant-based products:

  • Half of US consumers are familiar with plant-based meat products.
  • Forty-one percent of US consumers have tried plant-based meat.
  • Of Americans who have tried plant-based meats, 60% are very or somewhat likely to continue eating them. Additionally, a 2020 Mintel study found that of US consumers who eat plant-based meat, almost 50% eat more plant-based meat than they did in 2019.

According to a Matson survey conducted in June 2020:

  • While only 5% of consumers are vegan or vegetarian, 32% identified as “mostly vegetarian” or stated they were trying to reduce their intake of animal products.
  • Nearly 60% of consumers believe plant-based diets are a fundamental change in how people eat and will continue for a long time.
  • Another 25% of consumers feel that plant-based diets are a fundamental shift that will continue forever.
  • Shifting consumer behaviors lead to plant-based
  • The shifting key motivators driving shoppers to plant-based products is a significant contributing factor to the growth of the category.
  • “The overall message is that there is shifting consumer behavior in an accelerated way that that will drive future growth,” said Julie Emmett, the senior director of the San Francisco-based Plant Based Foods Association. “Flexitarians have grown to almost half of the population, and underneath that we have what’s been happening with COVID and how that translates into future growth.”
  • A 2020 Mintel study noted that 56% of US consumers eat plant-based for their health, 16% eat plant-based for environmental issues and 13% eat plant-based for animal welfare.
  • GFI’s State of the Industry report identified that while health remains the primary motivator for trying to eat more plant-based foods (rather than exclusively or mostly plant-based foods), the percentage of consumers trying to eat more plant-based foods for health reasons decreased from 82% in 2018 to 65% in 2020. Meanwhile, the percentage of consumers trying to eat more plant-based foods for environmental reasons increased from 31% in 2018 to 48% in 2020. This suggests that environmental and sustainability concerns play an increasingly important role in the decision to try increasing plant-based food consumption.
  • Primary motivation behind plant-based eating varies largely depending on age. Millennials care more about ethical considerations. Product attributes commonly associated with plant-based foods including “sustainable, environmentally friendly, and humane,” rank more important to millennials than any other age demographic, according to a 2019 Mindlab study published by GFI.
  • Meanwhile, health and naturalness are bigger motivators for Baby Boomers. Mindlab’s study found that health attributes such as “fresh, healthy, high-fiber, low-sugar, low-salt, low-fat, and unprocessed,” ranked as more important to baby boomers than to any other age group.
  • “The younger generations buy based on their values,” said Emmett. “With older generations it’s most often that they are recommended by their doctor, tends to be more around health.”

Drawing omnivore shoppers to plant-based

Mindlab’s study identified that the top drivers of individual plant-based product sales are taste, familiarity and tradition.

 “The primary considerations when deciding whether to purchase a plant-based product all relate to how the product will benefit the individual consumer,” the study said. “Unless the product meets taste expectations and fits in with consumers’ existing perceptions of an animal-based meat or dairy product its environmental or ethical profile is unlikely to influence the majority of consumers.”

Ignaszewski noted that the plant-based industry and retailers have come a long way in marketing plant-based products to omnivore consumers.

“In particularly, messaging has changed to leaning into plant-based terms instead of restrictive terms like vegan or vegetarian that don’t really speak to omnivores,” Ignaszewski said. “65% of retailers are using plant-based language on instore signage and promotions, and that terminology is anywhere between 15 to 20 points more effective at driving purchase intent compared to vegan or vegetarian.”

Making small changes like that can help retailers tap into a new batch of consumers. Ignaszewski pointed out that almost 40% of consumers in the US still haven’t tried plant-based products but indicated they are open to purchasing them. She also noted that there has been a large uptick in trial and repeat customers who are trying plant-based for the first time and coming back to buy more.

Packaging can also make a huge difference and is often the most effective way to generate positive taste perceptions. GFI’s 2019 Mindlab study examined what aspects of plant-based product packaging appealed most to consumers and found:

  • Vivid imagery: using a professionally shot image with vivid colors that look tempting to the customer dramatically increased positive taste associations for both plant-based meat and plant-based dairy products. It also increased general product appeal.
  • Familiarity is key: Imagery will only be effective if it is familiar to omnivore consumers in some way. Vivid imagery of food that looks unusual in some way, such as a green burger or shredded veggie pork, drove negative taste connotations.
  • Contrasting colors: To increase both appeal and positive taste associations, images should stand out on a light or dark background, and colors should be bright and saturated.
  • Boxes and pouches: Generate the most positive associations, and cause products to be seen as more appealing than any other packaging type.
  • Showing the product: Products in shrink wrap were seen as comfort food and as artisan and fresh, but only if the product visible through the packaging looked like its conventional counterpart.
  • Dark colors positive: Dark or brown packages were the most effective. They ranked highest of all for the attributes delicious and tasty—two of the most desirable. They also ranked as the most healthy and nutritious.
  • Green coloring neutral: Green packaging is effective at increasing appeal and makes a product appear more indulgent and exciting. However, it was also seen as more disgusting, strange, and bland than other packaging colors.
  • Avoid red: Red packaging was not well liked and was less often seen as comfort food or as appealing.

Ignaszewski emphasized that more retailers need to be featuring plant-based products alongside their traditional counterparts — both instore and in online and printed promotions.

“So in the grilling promotion (for example), having those plant-based burgers and sausages side-by-side with the conventional products can show customers that a retailer has all of their needs covered for anyone who is coming to their barbecue,” she said. “Another marketing opportunity is tapping into those wellness and health programs — consumers really appreciate the health benefits of switching to plant-based protein and that’s definitely a narrative that can attract customers.”

Both GFI and the Plant-Based Food Association can provide retailers resources that can guide execution of marketing and merchandising plant-based products.

Products geared toward flexitarians, omnivores

The majority of consumers identify as omnivores (53%), while 36% of consumers consider themselves flexitarians who consume both meat-based and vegan meals, according to a survey published by Packaged Facts in late 2020.

As plant-based products expand on the market, a new category somewhere in between meat and plant-based is also growing: blended products. Typically made from a mixture of animal-based and plant-based proteins, blended products typically offer the increased health benefits of plant-based foods, while maintaining the taste and texture of animal-based meat.

In July 2021, Hatfield, Pa.-based Clemens Food Group made its debut in the plant-forward segment with the launch of its Hatfield Recipe Essentials Blended sub-brand.

The banner’s Ground Pork with Mushrooms combines roasted button mushrooms with all-natural ground pork. The pork and mushroom blend allows consumers to savor the flavor of the pork, enriched with heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich, Vitamin D-packed mushrooms that provide several of the same nutritional benefits as vegetables. 

“While beef is leading in plant-forward blends to date, there is a void in the marketplace for a blended pork option. Clemens Food Group will be the first to offer a plant-forward option in pork,” said Michele Williams, senior retail marketing manager.

Earlier this year, Dietz & Watson joined the blended-product market with its Blends line of chicken sausage products. Available in three flavor profiles, the new products are a half-and-half blend of antibiotic-free chicken with a variety of vegetables and quinoa.  The casing-free links contain 10 grams of protein and are gluten free with no nitrates or nitrites, according to the company.

“Our research shows that consumers would like to see more blended protein products, and their numbers will surely rise as these types of products become more readily available,” said Lauren Eni, vice president of brand strategy.

Meat blends aren’t the only products benefiting from the category either. At the start of 2021, Chicago-based Bel Group paired plant-based ingredients with cheese in its new line of cheese spreads under The Laughing Cow label.

The Laughing Cow Blends combine spreadable cheese with beans, chickpeas or lentils. Packaged in pre-portioned wedges, the spreads contain two grams of protein per serving and are available in three flavors: chickpea and cheese with herb, lentil and cheese with curry, and red bean and cheese with paprika.

The future of plant-based

Going forward, Ignaszewski anticipates a huge improvement in the taste of plant-based products.

“There’s no reason plant-based products won't be able to achieve matching or even becoming better than conventional meat on taste,” she said. “Right now, the top barriers for plant-based tend to be moisture, flavor and texture and closing those gaps can help transform plant-based from a substitute to a default for omnivores everywhere.”

Until recently, the vast majority of plant-based products relied on proteins from commodity crops, such as wheat or soy, which historically have not been bred for protein content. Genomically informed trait mapping and crop breeding can increase protein yields and improve innate functionality, which in turn can decrease cost and avoid extensive downstream processing.

Recent advancements in protein sourcing, ingredient optimization, and manufacturing methods that significantly improve plant-based products include:

  • Optimizing the organoleptic and functional properties of plant proteins.
  • Establishing biodiverse plant protein supply chains for specialty crops, such as millets and pulses, as well as develop novel crops and customized varietals.
  • Developing products in new categories, such as plant-based seafood, to cater to increasing demand and evolving consumer preferences.
  • Surpassing twin-screw extrusion to produce whole-cut meat products through spinning, shear-cell texturization, and 3D printing.

Price is also a huge opportunity for the category going forward, Ignaszewski noted.

“There's a diminishing small number of reasons why the typical consumer would choose conventional meat, so we're already seeing large drives of approaching price parity,” she said. “We'll need to see some scaling of the supply chain. That can include things like increasing crop yields and optimizing byproduct use, and also for economies of scale that come with larger and more facilities that streamline admin expenses and offer more bulk purchase benefits with materials and packaging.