Today’s more veggies, less meat culture: What’s behind the momentum into the mainstream?

Plants are playing an increasingly important role in consumer food culture; they are a symbol of the natural world, traditional approaches to medicine and global food. Plant-based is bound up with a host of positive connotations of simplicity and healthfulness. Consumers are turning to plants to help them avoid other problematic ingredients of the day, add variety to their diet and address a growing number of specific health and wellness needs. In particular, the plants of traditional medicine are being reinterpreted and optimized for a modern age, resulting in a dynamic landscape of functional ingredients such as botanicals, adaptogens, nootropics and CBD.

The perception of plant-based is that it’s healthier and more sustainable, yet many products with plant-based callouts include hyperprocessed sugars, grains and omega-6 oils while lacking antioxidants and polyphenols found in actual plants. With a plethora of non-health-supportive ingredients claiming the plant-based attribute, does the callout require further definition? It’s quite clear that we will see a proliferation of plant-based products in the months to come, but long-term success requires understanding consumer permission when it comes to processing and ingredients.

What’s behind consumers’ interest in plant-based foods that has been gaining momentum for several years?

The Hartman Group’s Food & Technology 2019 report finds that over half of consumers (51%) report having purchased plant-based milk, dairy, or meat alternatives in the last three months highlighting the idea that these products are no longer a niche lifestyle choice but a prominent feature of mainstream food culture.

Plant-based purchasing is happening in a cultural atmosphere that is very different from the sustainability-driven vegetarianism of the 1970s: Less than half of plant-based purchasers today (41%) think of themselves as people who are limiting meat, and one in five actually describe themselves as carnivores. Furthering the insights on the complexity behind plant-based buyers’ diets, only 12% of plant-based purchasers describe themselves as vegetarians, while 41% of them describe their eating styles as “omnivore.”

Such variety in motivations behind consumption of plant-based products underscores a fundamental reality about why consumers are purchasing such products today: Growth in consumption of meat and dairy alternatives is not being driven by consumers eradicating animal products from their diet based on moral principles, but instead the market for meat/dairy alternatives is spread more broadly across consumers who are adopting them as part of a diet that typically still includes meat. This is what truly characterizes the animal product avoidance of the modern era and distinguishes it from the hardline vegetarianism of decades past.

When we drill down into some of the specifics behind why consumers are adopting plant-based options we find that they are strongly motivated by health and wellness, taste and discovery, followed by more tempered thinking about ethics and sustainability, as well as cost and convenience. While concern for animal welfare and sustainability is part of the motivation equation, it is far less persuasive than the perception that plant-based options taste good, offer variety, and are generally viewed to be healthier than meat and dairy.

Adoption of plant-based alternatives can be a gateway to re-evaluating the tenets of the traditional American diet. While there are patterns in consumer “journeys” in plant-based eating, the process is often non-linear. Consumers move between stages of adoption, varying how they trade out of animal products in their diet in response to changes in their lives and the marketplace of plant-based alternatives. As consumers move between these phases, they can experience a growth in knowledge about health and wellness, sustainability and cuisine. Some begin to question their assumptions about the rules of what “makes a meal” and find themselves opening up to more diverse plant-based (and beyond) cuisines.

What’s driving consumers toward plant-based proteins?

The rise in consumer demand for meat analogues is being driven by three dynamic trends in food culture today: health and wellness, sustainability and culinary engagement.

Health and wellness. Consumers are expressing greater interest in enhanced mind/body functionality by replacing refined carbohydrates with a wide range of proteins and fat-rich foods. They are also looking for a greater diversity of nutrient sources in their diets while expressing concerns relating to the perceived health impacts of industrially processed red meat, notably chemicals (e.g., antibiotics, hormones).

Sustainability. Sustainability is playing a role in demand for meat substitutes; namely, in desires to promote animal welfare coupled with a growing awareness of the ecological impacts of meat eating. Underscoring such thinking, our Sustainability 2017 report finds that 71% of consumers say that when making purchase decisions, “It is important that companies avoid inhumane treatment of animals.”

Culinary engagement. As consumers broaden their culinary engagement through new food and beverage experiences, meat substitutes are proving fertile territory for experimentation and novelty in their diets. Culinary engagement is also creating greater exposure to and interest in vegetable-focused cuisines and traditions.

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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

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