All Articles Food Consumer Insights Plant-based foods that emphasize plants appeal to consumers seeking less-processed foods

Plant-based foods that emphasize plants appeal to consumers seeking less-processed foods

As the plant-based category evolves, food manufacturers and foodservice operators would do well to keep in mind their customers who are craving plant-based foods that emphasize plants, rather than attempt to replicate the experience of eating meat.

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Plant-based foods

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Consumer interest in diets that reduce meat and emphasize plant-based foods is on the rise, and meat alternatives that aim to mimic the taste and texture of animal products have been garnering attention and funding in recent years. However, while they reflect the public’s interest in the meat alternative category, these types of “simulated meats” can be off-putting to people who are wary of foods they see as too processed and can be an overly complicated solution for consumers whose goal is to simply eat more plants. As the plant-based category evolves, food manufacturers and foodservice operators would do well to keep in mind their customers who are craving plant-based foods that emphasize plants, rather than attempt to replicate the experience of eating meat.

People want more plant-based foods

Personal and planetary health have been driving an increase in plant-based eating for several years. Slightly more than 1-in-5 US consumers are looking to reduce the amount of meat they consume – a 15% increase from last year, according to Datassential’s 2022 “Plant-Forward Opportunity” report.

To that end, about 1-in-5 US households purchase plant-based meat products, and the repeat purchase rate for these products is 64%, according to 2021 sales data from the Plant-Based Foods Association. Sales of plant-based meat alternatives in the US totaled $1.4 billion in 2021, which is just a 1.4% share of the overall meat category. 

“There is ample room in the market for plant-forward meat products,” said Jennifer Holt,  a marketplace development consultant for the Plant-Based Foods Association, which predicts there is a $16 billion opportunity in plant-based meats as consumers seek out more alternatives to animal proteins.

This “proliferation of options in the meat alternative category has shifted the traditional path of entry into plant-focused eating by providing alternative motivations for product trial, including taste and convenience,” according to The Hartman Group’s “Modern Approaches to Eating” report. 

Before meatless options were widely available at quickserve restaurants and in the freezer and snack aisles of the supermarket, consumers faced a higher barrier to entry when it came to limiting meat in their diets. They would often start by “trading up” within the animal protein category – swapping red meat for poultry or fish, or buying organic or pasture-raised meats – and then move on to reducing the frequency or portion size of their meat consumption. Now, consumers who are so inclined can easily order a meatless burger instead of a beef hamburger, or choose plant-based nuggets rather than chicken nuggets at the grocery store.

For many omnivores seeking to adopt a more “flexitarian” diet that limits but may not entirely eliminate animal products, these types of meat alternatives are an appealing option when they want the taste of familiar dishes like burgers and chicken nuggets without the nutritional and ecological baggage that comes with eating meat. 

However, more consumers are beginning to look at these products with a more critical eye. Many meat alternatives that seek to replicate indulgent foods don’t stack up much better in the nutritional department than their meat counterparts, and the processes used to make them can result in ingredient lists that cause people to question what they’re really eating.

Consumers push back against processed 

Concern about plant-based meat alternatives being overly processed is widespread among consumers, according to The Hartman Group’s report.

“While consumers tend to acknowledge the theoretical benefits of plant-based meat alternatives, whether to the environment or to health, and even in terms of convenience or price, many articulate serious concerns about the ingredient profiles and high degree of processing that they associate with these products,” the report says.

This sentiment is echoed in Datssential’s report, in which more than half (55%) of respondents agreed with the statement “we would be healthier by reducing our consumption of meat and eating more whole food plant-based foods that are not meant to replicate meat,” compared with 50% who agreed that “we would be healthier by reducing our consumption of meat and eating more plant-based foods that are meant to replicate meat.”

“Plant-based meat replacements have gotten a lot of attention, but some consumers are embracing and celebrating simple fruits and vegetables on their own merits and shifting away from hyper-processed options,” said Marie Molde, a registered dietitian and trends analyst at Datassential. “We’re starting to hear comments from consumers along the lines of ‘I don’t need my peas to pretend to be a cheeseburger.’”

Earlier this month, Cracker Barrel received some similar feedback online after announcing that it was adding Impossible Sausage to its breakfast menu, including one Facebook comment that said, “I only eat vegetables I can recognize,” TODAY reported.

Elevating plant-based foods that celebrate plants 

To appeal to consumers looking for plant-based options that they can recognize, food brands and restaurants can integrate more plant-based foods that emphasize plants by putting vegetables, fruits, grains and pulses front and center.

Making plant-forward dishes as appealing as meat dishes to the average consumer can seem like a tall order, but there is a hungry customer base waiting for chefs and food brands to rise to the challenge. More than 1-in-3 (36%) vegan/vegetarian/flexitarian eaters said they eat a plant-focused diet because they enjoy the taste of vegetables, fruits and other plant-based foods, according to the Hartman Group’s report. 

“According to our data, 60% of consumers say they prefer plant-based foods that showcase the fruit or vegetable instead of mimicking another food, while 40% of consumers prefer plant-based foods that taste like traditional counterparts, like plant-based beef or milk,” Datassential’s Molde said, citing data from a report fielded in January. “This shows a lot of interest in plant-based foods that mimic animal products, but also suggests we’ll see more innovation around plant-based food products that emphasize the plant ingredients they’re made from rather than trying to emulate animal products,” she said.

Molde said restaurants and retail food brands alike “are highlighting and celebrating whole-food plant-based options,” citing restaurants like Chaia and Shouk in Washington, D.C., and retail brands like Actual Veggies, which are “targeting consumers who want something that tastes like vegetables instead of meat.”

Chef Theo Mourad, who recently debuted a line of vegan jerky made from beets, created his THEO’s Plant Based brand with these consumers in mind. “It is in my opinion that plant-based products should focus on agricultural products rather than trying to be a replica of beef, for example,” he told VegNews.

At restaurants, dishes that emphasize plants have been growing in popularity and showing up on more menus. Buffalo cauliflower – crispy cauliflower florets dressed with Buffalo sauce – appears on 1.1% of menus, having grown 476% over the past four years, according to Datassential’s 2021 Menu Trends report. Plant-based burgers have grown more than 1,000% over the past four years, and 6.3% of menus now offer a meatless burger option.

Although burger patties from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that are meant to replicate beef burgers surely account for a significant portion of the meatless burger options on menus, there are many eateries offering plant-based burgers that make plants the star ingredient. 

“Even White Castle has a veggie patty on its menu, alongside its Impossible slider. They’re proof that unlike the monoliths offered by Impossible or Beyond, the ‘veggie burger’ doesn’t have to be just one thing,” Jaya Saxena wrote in a recent piece for Eater entitled “It’s Time to Put Actual Veggies Back Into Veggie Burgers.” 

This spirit of endless possibility will continue to drive plant-based foods forward, regardless of which category they fall into. 

“While animal-based meat is limited to products that have been in stores for decades, there is no limit to what plant-based meat can be or be made of,” the Plant-Based Foods Association’s Holt said. “Each time a novel ingredient is used, or a new technique is discovered, more ideas are sparked, allowing for continuous and exciting product innovation. In recent years alone we’ve seen an increase in nutritious ingredients like mung beans, oats, peas, chickpeas, lentils, artichokes and fava beans – and the potential for innovation is truly endless.”

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