While taste was king in reasons why consumers eat plant-based proteins, their perceived health benefits also proved to be important. Forty-six percent of Americans said that plant-based proteins are better for you than animal-based options, Mintel said, and 76 percent said they believe plant-based foods are healthy. These health-conscious consumers are driven to plant-based proteins for varying health-related reasons, including avoiding processed foods (39 percent), managing weight (31 percent) and promoting muscle growth (16 percent).
“Consumers are open to plant-based alternative proteins, and while they recognize health concerns as a distinct selling point for these, they will not waver when it comes to taste,” said William Roberts, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel.
While 65 percent of consumers said taste is the driving factor when deciding which plant-based product to purchase in the grocery aisle, health-centric attributes were also heavily influential, Mintel said. Forty-one percent are more likely to seek such products with no artificial ingredients, 35 percent look for high protein content, 28 percent seek out fiber claims and another 28 percent prefer products that are non-GMO.
Non-GMO claims in particular are driving innovation in the plant-based protein category. US launches of foods and beverages containing plant-based proteins with a non-GMO claim grew to 19.6 percent in 2017 from 3.8 percent in 2012, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database.
“Americans are more and more avoiding food products with artificial ingredients and GMOs, and vegetarian, vegan and free-from foods have grown to be regarded as healthier options,” Roberts said. “Despite the fact that health attributes, particularly free-from, factor strongly in consumer decisions when purchasing plant-based proteins, at the end of the day, taste is the driving force behind purchase and eating decisions. While overall consumption of plant-based proteins remains low, these products benefit from a generally healthy reputation both for consumers’ diets and for the environment, and growing consumer interest in better-for-you lifestyles will continue to drive interest in the category.”
While these healthy and functional attributes do draw consumers, only 46 percent of Americans said they trust the functional claims made by plant-based foods. This provides an opportunity for brands to differentiate by further communicating their products’ benefits, Mintel said, as 71 percent of Americans said brands should provide more information about product and ingredient origin on their packaging.
“Busy consumers look for shortcuts for how to live well, and labels offer a quick and easy understanding about what a product contains and how it has been treated,” Roberts said. “In order to appeal to consumers, brands should offer a tasty product offering boasting no artificial ingredients, protein content, non-GMO and fiber content and be sure to highlight these features on-pack.”
Sixty-six percent of plant-based protein consumers said they eat these proteins in prepared meals, but traditionally animal-based products are popular vehicles, too, Mintel said. Fifty-one percent said they are most likely to eat plant-based proteins in meat, 45 percent in cheese and 41 percent in milk. Consumers aged 18 to 34 are most likely to seek out such products.
“Faux meat has come a long way in terms of both innovation and consumer acceptance, with meatless, ‘bleeding’ burgers and lab-grown chicken found on menus and in grocery store aisles across the country,” Roberts said. “The majority of consumers look for plant-based proteins in meat, cheese and milk, which suggests that alternative meats and dairy products will find appeal, resulting in increased consumption."
However, a few roadblocks stand in the way of growth in the plant-based protein segment. Price may be a deterrent, Mintel said. Fifty-seven percent of Americans said plant-based foods are more expensive than others, and that number jumps to 64 percent among consumers aged 18 to 34. Certain brands may be able to overcome the sticker shock, however, as 40 percent of consumers said brand name is important when buying plant-based products.
“A value-oriented plant-based protein may resonate well with members of the iGeneration, millennials and younger members of Generation X, as these consumers are more likely to say plant-based proteins are too expensive,” Roberts said. “Thus, major brands’ involvement in the category could bode well for the category as a whole.”
While plant-based protein popularity is on the rise, animal-based meat is here to stay, Mintel said. Sixty-seven percent of Americans said meat is essential to a balanced diet, and 51 percent said they believe a meal is not complete without meat.
“The opportunity for plant-based proteins appears more as a complement to animal-based proteins than as a wholesale replacement, as our research shows that many consumers are interested in plant-based proteins but still view meat as an important part of a balanced diet,” Roberts said. “The biggest challenge for the plant-based proteins category continues to be finding the right balance between flavor and health and discovering the categories where consumers will accept the addition of plant-based varieties.”