Sponsored by L.E.K. Consulting
By Manny Picciola, Maria Steingoltz and Justin Craigwell-Graham at L.E.K. Consulting
Plant-Based Products — Not Just for Vegans Anymore
Yes, the grocery aisle is getting greener. Consumers — fueled by a host of concerns, including health and wellness, food safety, environmental sustainability and animal welfare, and adopting restrictive diets due to food sensitivity worries and more general lifestyle choices — are increasingly choosing plant-based food products.
But while the appetite for plant-based products is vast and the sector is already experiencing notable growth, it’s still early days. The market remains difficult to size, and there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed before its value can be fully unlocked.
Why consumers are seeing green
There are myriad reasons why more and more consumers are moving toward plant-based products, with health and wellness topping the list.
Consumer focus on health and wellness. Concerns over health have led many consumers to a greater appreciation of plant proteins, which provide more nutritional value from fiber, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals than that derived from animal proteins.
Increasing food safety concerns. Growing worries about food safety related to the use of hormones and antibiotics in meat and dairy products are prompting consumers to increasingly supplement their diets with plant-based options.
Growing concern for animal welfare. Animal welfare, long a core reason for choosing plant-based foods, continues to play a role as more consumers have become sensitive to the conditions in which animals are raised and harvested. Meanwhile, animal welfare requirements aimed at reducing such suffering can drive up costs, which is causing some consumers to seek less-expensive alternatives in the form of plant-based products.
Increased awareness of environmental sustainability. The massive amount of land, food, energy and water required to raise animals for human consumption is raising concerns about environmental sustainability. Gen X and millennial consumers in particular are seeking increased transparency about how the food they consume is sourced. What they’re learning is leading many of them to seek plant-based alternatives.
Rising prevalence of restrictive diets. Approximately half of Americans have adopted a restrictive diet that focuses on increased consumption of plant-based products. While some of these diets are driven by food allergies or intolerances, others, such as paleo and flexitarian diets, are lifestyle choices aimed at achieving greater well-being.
Driving greater adoption of plant-based products
Despite the challenges, plant-based food continues to gain popularity among consumers. To drive even greater adoption, manufacturers, retailers, distributors and investors can invest in more product development and innovation. How quickly the plant-based food category grows will depend on how quickly, and effectively, the following steps are taken.
Improve the taste and/or sensory experience of plant-based products. Many consumers feel that plant-based alternatives are pale imitations of their animal-based counterparts, lacking in taste or satisfying texture. The barrier is especially high when it comes to replicating the experience of eating meat. To that end, manufacturers of plant-based meat alternatives, such as Beyond Meat uses a combination of beet powder and annatto to replicate the “bleeding” commonly associated with burgers.
Ensure comparable nutritional content. Plant-based products lack the nutritional content found in their animal-based counterpart products, in particular when it comes to protein, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, zinc and iron. Enhancing plant-based offerings to ensure comparable nutritional content can help address this gap.
Minimize processing. Certain plant-based foods are highly processed. For example, plant-based dairy alternatives need to have extensive amounts of oil and fats added in order to replicate the taste of their animal-based counterparts. Finding ways to minimize the amount of processing involved in plant-based products will increase their consumer appeal.
Come up with acceptable labels. From a marketing standpoint, plant-based alternatives face growing legal and regulatory scrutiny as industry associations try to prevent them from using classification terms that assist with consumer adoption. Coming up with classification terms that resonate with consumers without provoking trade groups will go a long way toward facilitating the acceptance of plant-based foods.
Looking toward a plant-based future
Although it can feel like plant-based products are everywhere, in fact the plant-based products industry is still a burgeoning one relative to the overall food and beverage market. This means that while mainstream acceptance of plant-based products remains on the horizon, manufacturers, retailers, distributors and investors need to address consumers’ concerns over quality and nutritional value along with regulatory hurdles such as labeling. In addition, there remain a number of categories — such as new cuts of meat, seafood and savory snacks — in which there has been limited penetration to date. With plant-based products, today’s challenges present tomorrow’s opportunities.
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