The plant-based eating trend dominated both panel discussion and the show floor at at the Institute of Food Technologists conference last week.
From tomato extracts used to reduce sodium levels to legumes used for alternative flours, milks and “meat” products, conference exhibitors had a plant-based solution for virtually every consumer need. More interesting, however, was the consensus between scientists, activists and industry executives that this movement is being driven by two mega-trends in the food space: protein demand and clean eating.
These trends are often categorized as competing — or at least parallel — movements, but many panelists asserted that they are evolving together, and the success of each is beneficial to the whole.
Plants and consumers: a changing relationship
“[Plant-based eating] isn’t niche — it’s powerful,” Steven Walton, general manager of research firm HealthFocus International, said during an IFT panel last week. “Once consumers make this move, few are going to go back.”
Walton said that industry players are often distracted by terms like vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian when trying to understand how this consumer behavior is evolving. He suggested that the movement stretches beyond static definitions of consumer diets and reveals a changing relationship between consumers and plants.
“Most consumers haven’t yet conceptualized plant-based eating, but their interests and behavior align with this movement,” he said.
He explained that there is a difference between consumer perception, belief and motivation when it comes to acceptance of a fully or quasi- plant-based diet.
“I don’t believe this is meat vs. plant. That’s not what’s driving this trend. These are parallel universes with equal power and opportunity. It’s fool’s gold if you look at these spheres and pit them against each other.”
General manager of research firm HealthFocus International
According to HealthFocus data, 17% of U.S. consumers aged 15 to 70 currently claim to eat a predominately plant-based diet, while 60% report to be cutting back on meat-based products. Of those who are reducing their intake of animal-based proteins, 55% say the change is permanent, and 22% hope that it is.
Walton was quick to clarify that he doesn’t believe rejection of meat is fueling industry-wide behavior change.
“I don’t believe this is meat vs. plant. That’s not what’s driving this trend. These are parallel universes with equal power and opportunity,” he said. “It’s fool’s gold if you look at these spheres and pit them against each other.”
Instead, Walton suggests that much of this change stems from a desire to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into daily diets — a shift he says is visible across every consumer demographic and age group.
From 2012 to 2016, plant-based product claims in the U.S. grew at a CAGR of 35.8%, with 220 related product launches in 2016 and 320 in 2015, according to HealthFocus. Walton said that as more manufacturers overcome consumer barriers to plant-based eating — such as taste, convenience, availability and cost — the segment will continue to thrive.
“The entry points are multiple… and core to consumer beliefs, motivations, lifestyles and interests,” he said. “Opportunity for growth and new products [in plant-based foods] is strong, and we are in for an exciting time.”
The power of protein
Over the past few years, protein has become a symbol of health and nutrition in the food space. The nutrient may be oversaturating the American diet, but people continue to search for cereal, coffee, ice cream and other products that flaunt a value-added protein label.
“I can’t think of any other nutrient, macro or micro, where more is better in the mind of the consumer,” Walton said.
Eighty-five percent of consumers say they are getting enough protein in their diet, but 66% say they are more than a little concerned about it, according to HealthFocus data. Walton said that the top reasons for interest in protein include consumer desire for healthy diets, weight management, building muscle, boosting energy and managing appetites.
Christie Lagally, senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit promoting the development of plant-based and clean meat, said that growing awareness of health, nutrition and the food industry’s environmental footprint is driving demand for plant-based proteins rather than those from whey or beef.
“It’s better overall to use a pea protein compared to what it takes to source a whey protein,” Lagally told Food Dive. “[Animal-based proteins] have been very hard on our environment, hard on human health and extremely hard on animals.”
Plant-based meat producers like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger have made plant-based proteins more palatable than ever. Lagally said that compared to the traditional meat industry, the segment is still far from mainstream.
“People ask me a lot if it’s going to be better to grow the clean meat industry or the plant-based industry, and my answer is I think they’re the same industry."
Senior scientist at The Good Food Institute
“The meat industry is massive — in the United States, we’ve been overproducing since the 1980s,” she said. “Because supply still outstrips demand in animal-based foods, we’ve got a long way to go to make these [plant-based] products acceptable to the meat-eater, make them convenient and make them cost competitive. ...High-quality plant-based meat actually costs more than regular meat.”
Lagally sees a stronger connection between consumer avoidance of traditional meat and the rise of plant-based foods than Walton does, and expects demand for alternative proteins to rise as researchers continue to question the impact of meat on human health. She cited a recommendation last month from the American Medical Association for hospitals to eliminate processed meats from patient menus and include more plant-based options.
When it comes to clean meat, or meat derived from animal cell cultures, Lagally believes that plant-based “meat” is an ally and not a competitor.
“People ask me a lot if it’s going to be better to grow the clean meat industry or the plant-based industry, and my answer is I think they’re the same industry,” she said. “Clean meat can improve by incorporating the structure [techniques] of plant-based meat, and plant-based meat producers can use clean meat as an ingredient in a plant-based burger to make a hybrid product for lower cost.”
To continue the segment's growth, Lagally said scaling up and manufacturing will be crucial for plant-based meats.
“Plant-based meat doesn’t have subsidies — it isn’t being funded by the U.S. government,” she said. “[Plant-based protein] producers have to be even more innovative and really get down to the nitty gritty of what it’s costing them and figure out how to cut prices down.”
Clean eating as a way to connect
Throughout several IFT panel discussions, consumer desire for plant-based foods and proteins — whether from plants, traditional or clean meat — was ultimately traced back to a growing interest in clean eating.
“Do you ever think about where your food grew up?” Eric Schulze, senior scientist at Memphis Meats, asked the audience at a panel on clean meat last week. “Clean meat can rebuild the connection with consumers about where their food comes from.”
It will be interesting to see if this theory holds true once clean meat becomes better known, as consumers could perceive man-made meat as unnatural or genetically engineered — denotations today’s health-conscious consumers are actively trying to avoid.
Still, clean meat can be optimized to contain as many vitamins, minerals and nutrients as possible and contains no bacteria, Schulze said. These attributes are attractive to clean eaters, who keep long-term health top of mind.
“Nutrition is a very complex science... yet it’s the most personal of sciences. Food literally becomes a part of who you are. There is no other consumer product like that.”
Nutrition expert and consultant
Walton said that the genesis of clean eating comes from a “reason to reject” mindset that sparked avoidance of herbicides, artificial preservatives and additives, as well as pursuit of transparency and recognizable ingredients. Many consumers view meat as a health liability, which is why they consider plant-proteins cleaner alternatives.
Nutrition expert and consultant Richard Black told Food Dive that the concept of clean eating is a shorthand tool that consumers use to feel confident in the safety of their food choices.
“Nutrition is a very complex science. We only know a tiny bit about it, and yet it’s the most personal of sciences,” he said. “Food literally becomes a part of who you are. There is no other consumer product like that.”
Black said that consumers look for terms like "natural," "organic" and "GMO-free" to make quick decisions about the products they buy. Today's consumers seeking to trust a food product find these values to be three to five times more important than technical expertise. Consumers are also willing to pay more for these shared values, he said.
"I think what’s fueling [clean eating] is the fact that we spend very little on our food today," Black said. "During the French Revolution, the average French peasant spent over 80% of their income on bread... now we only spend 10-20% [on all food], so people can afford to pay for these other attributes. People, especially millennials, see themselves in the food they eat and the brands they buy from."
This interest can help plant-based manufacturers — especially manufacturers of plant-based meats — sell their products, which are typically more expensive than their traditional counterparts.
"The question has always been, 'How much more will they pay?' " Walton said. "But the question should be, 'How much value can we create?' "