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Personal, planetary health drive appetite for plant-based foods

Concerns about personal health and climate change are key drivers for consumers to choose plant-based food and beverage options, according to Datassential's “2022 Plant-Forward Opportunity” report.

6 min read

FoodRestaurant and Foodservice

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Concerns about personal health and climate change are key drivers for consumers to choose plant-based foods and beverages, according to the “2022 Plant-Forward Opportunity” report. Datassential, which created the report in collaboration with The Culinary Institute of America, Food for Climate League and the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, unveiled the third iteration of the yearly consumer survey at the 10th annual Menus of Change conference at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., earlier this month.

More than 1 in 5 (21%) of the 1,500 US consumers surveyed said they are looking to reduce their meat consumption – up from 15% who said the same last year, according to the report. Fifty-seven percent of consumers want to increase their fruit and vegetable intake, and about a third of those surveyed want to increase their consumption of meat or egg substitutes or other plant-based proteins.

Choosing plant-based foods is a long term health strategy 

One of the key drivers of the plant-based movement is health and nutrition, and Datassential polled consumers on what health benefits they hope to get by eating a more plant-based diet.

The main health benefit consumers seek from plant-based foods and beverages is digestive health, with 39% of respondents saying they seek out plant-based options for this reason. Protection from long term disease is a key value for 32% of consumers, while 29% look to plant-based foods for weight loss. 

“I think that suggests that consumers are looking to plant-based foods with a longer runway in mind,” Datassential researcher Marie Molde said while addressing the audience at Menus of Change on June 14. 

“So it’s not that ‘I’m choosing a plant-based or plant-forward choice to avoid getting a cold tomorrow’ – there is some of that – but more so it’s this notion of ‘I want to choose plant-based because I want this longterm runway of health in my life,” Molde said.

Consumers connect food choices to climate concerns

Another factor driving consumers to limit meat intake and eat more plant-based foods is the effect food production has on the environment. More than half (55%) of consumers overall view the issue of climate change as extremely or very important, while those who limit their meat consumption were more likely to list climate change as a major concern. Seventy-one percent of  vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian and flexitarian consumers said climate change is an important issue to them. 

Unsurprisingly, consumers who are concerned about climate change are more likely to believe that the food choices they make have an impact on the environment. Three-quarters of respondents who are concerned about climate change said they think the choices they make about what to eat have an impact on the environment, while only 57% of total respondents said the same. Furthermore, two-thirds of climate-concerned respondents said plant-based foods are generally better for the environment than animal-based foods, compared to half of overall respondents who said the same.

Flavor, format are key to appeal of plant-forward options

While consumers express a growing interest in plant-based eating for health and environmental reasons, there are still several factors that can keep them from choosing plant-based options on the menu or the store shelf.

The factor that most often keeps consumers from choosing plant-based foods is taste. More than half of those surveyed (53%) said taste concerns hold them back from eating plant-based foods at all or more often, while 39% said the same about affordability concerns. Rounding out the top five reasons were texture concerns (32%), uncertainty about nutritional value (21%) and uncertainty about how to cook or prepare plant-based foods (19%).

The survey also delved into how consumers view traditional plant-based foods – such as beans, lentils and tofu – compared to the wave of new plant-based protein products that are meant to emulate meat – such as the burgers and chicken nuggets from brands like Impossible Foods. 

With so many headlines and menu items dedicated to this new breed of plant-based foods, it may come as a surprise that plant-based whole foods edged out plant-based protein products that are meant to be meat analogues.  Twenty-three percent of consumers said they are more interested in plant-based or plant-forward choices that emphasize whole, less processed foods, compared to 18% who said they would prefer to be able to order plant-based substitutes that taste just like their favorite burgers and sausages. 

Plant-based whole foods also came out slightly ahead when it came to consumer perceptions of their health and environmental benefits. Among consumers who said they are concerned about the environment, slightly less than two-thirds (64%) said we would have less of a negative impact on the environment by reducing our consumption of meat and eating more plant-based foods that are meant to replicate meat, while 69% said the same about eating more whole food plant-based foods that are not meant to replicate meat. Only 33% of  consumers think new meat analogues are healthier than traditional plant-based options like beans and soy products such as tofu, and just 21% believe these newer meat analogues are actually a better substitute for animal proteins.

Key takeaways for restaurants and food brands

To ensure that consumers continue to make choices that benefit personal and environmental health, it is essential that restaurants, retailers and food and beverage manufacturers offer options that appeal to consumers’ values and taste buds. 

The survey suggests that consumers are already looking to brands and restaurants to lead the way. Nearly 6 in 10 consumers (58%)  are already choosing environmentally-conscious brands at least occasionally when shopping retail, and 33% said they are open to doing so in the future. Forty-six percent said they often or occasionally choose to visit restaurants that care about the environment, and almost as many (44%) said they would be open to dining at climate-conscious restaurants in the future.

In addition to the food they offer, Molde said restaurants and manufacturers should also consider how they deliver it to consumers.

“Something that really continued to pop was packaging…and how that is coming into the consideration set of consumers when they’re making sustainable food choices,” she said, noting that 77% of those surveyed said they believe the type of material used to package food has an impact on the environment.

“Although, of course, most of us in the room are focused on food and beverage and flavor and things like that, we have to think about packaging too because our consumers are thinking about that.”

Paying attention to the full package – from the food to the packaging that contains it – will help brands and restaurants move the needle toward a more sustainable future by making it easier for consumers to make virtuous choices.

As Datassential writes in the report, “[c]hefs and restaurant industry leaders who care about planetary health have an enormous opportunity to raise the visibility of their efforts and better engage an increasingly sustainability-minded dining public.”


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