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Trends in modern approaches to eating: Plant-focused vs. plant-based

With a proliferation of plant-based products in the marketplace today, consumer interpretations and pursuits of “plant-based eating” are just as expansive.

4 min read

Consumer InsightsFood

plant-based food


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Vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian? With a proliferation of plant-based products in the marketplace today, consumer interpretations and pursuits of “plant-based eating” are just as expansive — from entirely meatless approaches to just trying to incorporate lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.   

Consumer eating habits and behavior are dynamic and changing and often reflect the pace of change in the ever-changing food and beverage market itself. Our latest Hartman Group report Modern Approaches to Eating explores in-depth the full spectrum of overall dietary choices, as well as specific eating approaches and diets that consumers pursue today, with in-depth analyses of both plant-focused eating and weight management as they relate to eating strategies.

A deep-dive on the topic of plant-based eating explores the meaning of plant-based to consumers, common eating approaches they use and many associated attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that relate to plant-based consumption, including triggers, sources of plant-based ingredients and alternative proteins sought, and attitudes toward processed plant-based products. 

While consumers have largely adopted the term “plant-based” for describing specific food or beverage products, the meaning of the term remains more ambiguous when applied to eating approaches, ranging from a strictly vegan diet to no limits on meat as long as plenty of produce is included. Specifically, consumers are fairly evenly divided in how they define the term “plant-based,” demonstrating the high degree of confusion that can be associated with the term. 

When asked what the meaning of “eating plant-based” means (when presented with possible definitions), we find among select responses:

  • 18% of consumers cite “not restricting meat, but eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables”
  • 16% say “avoiding animal products entirely” and 
  • 20% say they “don’t know enough to answer that” 

Interestingly, consumers by age cohort have differing opinions: The most common definition of the term “plant-based” among Gen Z is consistent with the definition of “vegetarian” (no meat, but dairy and eggs are okay), while Boomers are most inclined to take “plant-based” to mean simply ensuring that their regular diet includes plenty of produce, without restricting meat. 

As described by a 14-year-old Gen Z respondent in the study:

“[Plant-based means] pretty much things that don’t have to do with animal products, more natural things. Salads, things like that. Also, maybe tofu, that’s not necessarily a plant, but just more healthier greens that actually help your body grow.”

Because of the wide range of interpretations of “plant-based” eating, Modern Approaches to Eating uses a separate term to refer to those who truly eat mostly plants: “plant-focused.” In fact, those consumers who are pursuing a form of plant-focused diet are far more likely to define plant-based eating more narrowly to align with vegan, vegetarian, and/or flexitarian approaches and only a small fraction of US adults participate in eating approaches truly centered on plants. 

The report finds that when asked to describe their typical approach to meat consumption, only 13% of consumers orient to plant-focused eating:

  • 1% describe their approach to eating meat as “Vegan – no animal products of any kind”
  • 2% say “Vegetarian – no meat, but eggs / dairy are ok” and
  • 9% say “Flexitarian – mostly vegetarian, but eat meat on occasion”*

* Note: Percentage differences on plant-focused eating approaches vs. 13% total is due to rounding

Going forward

As the term “plant-based” becomes increasingly common in the marketplace, many consumers who are highly engaged in health and wellness and/or meat-restricting approaches consider it to be “marketing speak” when it is used to describe products. 

As a result, the presence of the term “plant-based” on pack may actually raise questions among these consumers about the motives and actual ingredients or levels of processing. Ultimately, the decision about whether to use the term “plant-based” on pack should take into account category and brand orientation.

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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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