CHICAGO – New research just released from Chicago-based Mintel states that only 7 percent of consumers identify themselves as vegetarian, however 36 percent indicate they use meat alternatives. Less than half of the consumers using meat alternatives use them as an alternative for meat, while 16 percent use the products along with meat offerings.

"This data suggests participation in the alternative meat category stretches far beyond necessity, and creates an opportunity for future growth based on the products' ability to meet general consumer food interests, such as health, price, variety and convenience," said Beth Bloom, Mintel food and drink analyst. "The bottom line is vegetarians and vegans aren't the only people eating ‘fake’ meat, meat eaters are also exploring this new-found protein superpower."

Use of meat alternatives is swayed, in large part, by health perceptions. One-third of consumers said they use alternative meat products because they are healthy, which is the most cited reason measured in the report. And 51 percent of users believe meat alternatives are healthier than real meat. In addition, some 31 percent are trying to reduce meat consumption while 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.

In 2011, vegan claims on new products released in the meat alternative category surpassed vegetarian claims to take the top spot. Combined with the fact that the "no animal ingredients" claim saw the strongest growth from 2008-12 (200 percent), this is an indication consumers are becoming more extreme in their dietary habits. GMO -free is the next leading claim to see strong growth (155 percent growth, 2008-12). Products that can present a clean profile will be best positioned to attract shoppers.

Not everyone, however, is jumping on the meat-free bandwagon. The greatest percentage of non-users (67 percent) indicate a preference for meat, 34 percent say they don't care for the taste of meat alternatives and 20 percent don't like the texture.

While, at one time, products in the meat-alternative 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, Bloom said.