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Plant-based proteins moving from niche to norm

Rimma_Bondarenko/iStock/Getty Images alternative protein or plant-based protein ingredients and products
About 36% of consumers say they follow flexitarian diets to have better balance.

Nearly one-fourth of U.S. consumers report eating plant-based meat, poultry or seafood alternative products, revealing that plant-based products are going mainstream and are no longer niche, market research firm Packaged Facts reported in the new study “Meat, Poultry & Seafood Alternatives: Outlook for Plant-Based & Cultured Cell-Based Consumer Products.”

“Packaged Facts’ August 2020 national online consumer survey found that 23% of consumers claim to eat any variety of plant-based meat products,” Packaged Facts food and beverage publisher Jennifer Mapes-Christ said. “There are opportunities to target this burgeoning minority of consumers, who may be persuaded to use larger volumes of plant-based meat in their diets. The 77% of consumers who do not eat plant-based meat products also suggests that marketers have a lot of room to increase penetration among the population.”

Opportunities abound, indeed. Packaged Facts’ data indicated that a full 37% of consumers who do not eat plant-based alternatives are open to trying these products, revealing that there truly is a lot of room for more household penetration. For the other 63% of consumers who are not open to trying plant-based meat, perceptions may eventually change over time that make more people open to using these products.

Despite so many consumers being curious about and open to trying alternatives to meat, poultry or seafood, it is important to note that they may not become regular buyers if their conditions for trying plant-based meat are not met. In fact, even consumers who already eat plant-based meat products may not do so regularly because it may not be practical at current price points or with limited product varieties being available (leading to less-than-desirable meal variety).

Plant-based meat sales

Sales of plant-based meat alternatives have been sharply higher during the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing a growth trend that started long before the onset of COVID-19, according to Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics. Because gains are derived from a relatively small base, she said growth rates are just one part of a bigger story in the red-hot protein market that includes meat, seafood and plant-based meat alternatives.

Throughout the pandemic and even before it, refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives have outpaced their frozen counterparts in dollar and volume growth.

Data collected by IRI showed that refrigerated meat alternatives reached a high during the first of the two panic-buying weeks of the pandemic at a 258% increase. After many weeks of triple-digit growth, gains tapered off to a 60-90% increase in September and early October.

Data show that frozen plant-based alternatives are more established and did not see quite the same high rates generated by fresh product. Gains peaked at a 116% increase in mid-March and have been very steady from May to October at a 20-30% increase versus year ago.

Roerink relayed that despite robust sales gains each week, dollar sales of refrigerated meat alternatives remained a fraction of meat department sales. In September, meat sales totaled $5.2 billion. In comparison, refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives generated $32.2 million, and frozen and refrigerated alternatives combined generated $85.5 million.

Since the onset of the pandemic-related changes in grocery patterns, the meat department has generated an additional $9.6 billion in sales versus an additional $127 million for refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives. In volume, an additional 1.6 billion lb. of meat and poultry were sold between March 15 and Oct. 4 compared with the year before versus an additional 15.2 million lb. of refrigerated plant-based meat alternatives.

Flexitarianism on the rise

American consumers are eating more plant-based foods these days, especially adults under age 35 and those actively following a specific diet, according to findings published in the new report “Vegan, Vegetarian & Flexitarian Consumers” by Packaged Facts.

Rather than presumably indicating increased adoption of vegan or vegetarian lifestyles, the uptick in plant-based food consumption hints at wider acceptable of flexitarianism.

“Although the population of vegetarians and vegans has remained relatively stable over time and currently makes up a small portion of consumers, flexitarianism is much more widespread,” Mapes-Christ said.

Packaged Facts’ August 2020 national survey asked consumers which diet or eating philosophy they are currently primarily following. The results show that just 3% of consumers follow a vegan diet, 3% are pescatarian and 5% are vegetarian. The majority (53%) of consumers are primarily omnivorous, while 36% of consumers identify as flexitarian because they eat meat or poultry and regularly mix up their diet with vegan or vegetarian meals.

“Despite use of plant-based meat alternative or dairy alternative products being highest among those following vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian diets, omnivores and flexitarians make up the lion’s share of consumers who eat these products due to their sheer numbers. This reveals that both the current and addressable market for plant-based products depends on omnivores and flexitarians using more of these products,” Mapes-Christ said.

It is worth noting that flexitarians express healthy eating and consumption of fresh produce at relatively high rates, suggesting that many people may choose this eating pattern as a way to have better balance in their lives. Rather than completely eliminating dairy or meat, flexitarians consider a well-balanced diet as one containing more vegetables and fruits and less meat or dairy in either portion sizes or presence in meals (compared to some omnivores who may be used to eating meat with most meals or large servings of meat).

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