KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The US meat and poultry industry always has its share of challenges from year to year and one major challenge that never diminishes is competing against a wide array of pretty tough competitors — both inside and outside of the industry. In recent decades, more industry folks have been paying closer attention to —and keeping a much closer eye on — the seemingly increasing number of US consumers who claim they don’t eat meat and poultry. Admittedly, such statistics vary by source, but these numbers are worth noting and following.

According to the Vegetarian Research Group, Vegetarian Times and Harris Interactive Service Bureau as of June this year, 7.3 million Americans claim to be vegetarian; 22.8 million follow a vegetarian-inclined diet while 1 million consider themselves as vegan. Last year the US population totaled almost 314 million. A poll for the year 2000 claimed 2.5 percent of the total 281 million US citizens at that time were vegetarians. In August 2013, Mintel released a report that states 7 percent of American consumers identify themselves as vegetarian.

One emerging competitor industry should keep its eye on is processors of meat analogs—imitation meat products made from non-meat ingredients. Thirty-six percent of respondents in the Mintel research indicated they eat meat alternatives. Less than half of consumers using meat alternatives use them in place of real meat while 16 percent indicate they use meat analogs along with meat offerings for a given meal.

“The bottom line is that vegetarians and vegans aren’t the only people eating ‘fake’ meat; meat-eaters are also exploring this new found protein superpower,” said Beth Bloom, Mintel food and drink analyst.

Health perception plays a large role in use of meat alternatives, Mintel’s research indicates. One-third of consumers indicate using alternative meat products because they are healthy, which is higher than any other reason measured in the Mintel report. Fifty-one percent of users perceive these analogs are healthier than real meat. Approximately 31 percent are trying to reduce their meat consumption and another 31 percent say they enjoy the taste of meat alternatives.

“While meat alternatives have the potential to meet a range of consumer needs, targeted health positioning has the potential to attract the specific attention of consumers,” Bloom said.

Vegan (i.e., a person who does not eat any food that comes from animals and who often also does not use animal products such as leather) claims on new products released in the meat-alternative category surpassed vegetarian claims in 2011 to take the top spot. This, combined with the fact that the “no animal ingredients” claim saw the strongest growth from 2008-12 (200 percent), is an indication consumers are becoming more extreme in their dietary habits, Mintel relays.

The next leading claim to see strong growth is ‘GMO free’ (155 percent growth, 2008-12). Given the interest in health among consumers of meat alternatives, products that can present a clean profile will be best positioned to attract the attention of shoppers, the research points out. Other sources point to animal welfare as the main reason why vegetarians, which are mostly women, are vegetarians.

But Mintel’s research admits not everyone is jumping on the meat-free bandwagon. The greatest percentage of non-users of meat analogs (67 percent) indicate a preference for real meat, and 34 percent say they don’t care for the taste of meat alternatives, while 20 percent don’t like the texture.

“While, at one time, products in the category were seen as a substitute for meat consumption, the expansion of formats and flavors has allowed the category to grow beyond one of necessity to become one of desire. Product manufacturers and marketers have a chance to come out from behind the veil of ‘substitute’ and stake a claim as a food option that stands on its own,” Bloom concludes.

Although I realize I’m preaching to the converted, it is absolutely essential for industry packers and processors to routinely communicate the benefits of including meat in a well-balanced diet to consumers. Despite industry’s past efforts to do so, many consumers—particularly the younger ones — remain unaware of the main benefits of eating meat. At the same time, anti-meat forces keep chipping away through the mainstream media on why consumers should eat less or no meat at all.

There are clear health benefits of eating meat that all contribute to carrying out vital metabolic functions plus giving one a lot of energy as well, according to Medical Daily reports. For one, meat contains a large amount of protein, which could be beneficial to the body. Since protein is said to improve the overall health and well-being of one’s body, there are other benefits such as the repair and building of body tissues as well as the production of antibodies that will protect the body from infections, thus strengthening the immune system as well, MD points out. Most importantly, since meat contains all the essential amino acids, meat definitely ranks as one of the best protein sources.

Meat is rich in many nutrients such as iron, zinc and selenium. While iron helps in forming hemoglobin that transports oxygen to different parts of your body, zinc helps in tissue formation and metabolism while selenium breaks down the fat and chemicals in the body.

Important vitamins such as A, B and D are commonly found in meat. These vitamins promote good vision, stronger teeth and bones plus they support the central nervous system and promote mental health as well. Another big benefit of eating meat is maintaining healthy skin.

It would behoove meat and poultry packing companies to tout these and other benefits on a routine basis—particularly since consumers are constantly barraged with propaganda and mistruths from non-meat and radical animal-activist camps. When it comes to informing consumers about the benefits of eating meat, knowledge is power and who better to supply this knowledge than industry itself.