Health, environmental consciousness driving plant-based demand

Consumers’ physical health goals and concerns about the environment continue to be the leading factors in driving demand for plant-based food.

That’s according to the new “2022 Plant-Forward Opportunity” report from Datassential in collaboration with The Culinary Institute of America, Food for Climate League, and the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative.

The research found that more than one in five (21 per cent) of the US consumers surveyed are looking to reduce their meat consumption – up from 15 per cent who said the same last year. In tandem, more than half (57 per cent) of consumers want to increase their fruit and vegetable intake, and about a third want to increase their consumption of meat or egg substitutes or other plant-based proteins.

The report found several long-term health-focused motivations for making a switch to plant-based foods.

The main health benefit consumers said they are seeking is digestive health (39 per cent of respondents), ahead of safeguarding against long-term disease (32 per cent) and weight loss (29 per cent).

Meanwhile, more than half (55 per cent) of consumers said the issue of climate change is extremely or very important to them. That figure climbed among those who limit their meat consumption; seven in 10 (71 per cent of) vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, and flexitarian consumers said climate change is an important issue to them. 

Three-quarters of consumers who indicated concern about climate change said they think the choices they make about what to eat have an impact on the environment, significantly higher than the total proportion of 57 per cent. Two-thirds of climate-concerned respondents said plant-based foods are better for the environment than animal-based foods, compared to half of overall respondents who said the same.

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Consumers want flavour and variety

Despite these motivations, consumers can be put off by a lack of flavour of variety.

More than half (53 per cent) of those surveyed said taste concerns hold them back from eating plant-based foods at all or more often, and 39 per cent said the same about affordability concerns. Those two factors came in ahead of texture concerns (32 per cent), uncertainty about nutritional value (21 per cent), and uncertainty about how to cook or prepare plant-based foods (19 per cent).

When it comes to the type of plant-based options available, nearly one in four (23 per cent of) consumers said they are more interested in plant-based or plant-forward choices that emphasize whole, less processed foods, compared to 18 per cent who prefer plant-based substitutes that taste just like their favourite burgers and sausages. 

Plant-based whole foods also came out slightly ahead when it came to perceptions of health and environmental benefits, with only one-third (33 per cent) of consumers thinking new meat substitutes are healthier than traditional plant-based options like beans and soy products such as tofu.

Cost may also be a prohibitive factor for plant-based meat alternatives. Recent analysis found that in all but one meat category, plant-based products are more expensive than their meat counterparts.

Ultimately, the report stressed that restaurants, retailers, and manufacturers must ensure they offer options that appeal to consumers’ values and preferences.

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Nearly six in 10 consumers (58 per cent) are already choosing environmentally conscious brands at least occasionally at retail stores, and 33 per cent said they are open to doing so in the future. When it comes to restaurants, nearly half (46 per cent) of respondents said they often or occasionally choose to visit restaurants that care about the environment, and almost as many (44 per cent) are open to dining at climate-conscious restaurants in the future.

“Chefs 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,” concluded the report.

Read the full report here.