‘Plant-based’ plays way better than ‘vegan’ with most consumers, says Mattson

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

‘Plant-based’ plays way better than ‘vegan’ with most consumers, says Mattson
On the face of it, the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’ might appear to be interchangeable (they both involve avoiding animal products), but consumers do not view them in the same way, reveals new research from food development specialist Mattson.

In a national online survey of 1,163 US adults conducted by Mattson​ last summer, respondents were asked to select either ‘100% plant-based’ or ‘vegan’ to a series of questions, said president and chief innovation officer Barb Stuckey.

Where does the future (lie)?

  • 100% plant-based: 83%
  • Vegan: 17%

Which is more flexible?

  • 100% plant-based: 79%
  • Vegan: 21%

Which offers more for me?

  • 100% plant-based: 76%
  • Vegan: 24%

Which tastes better?

  • 100% plant-based: 73%
  • Vegan: 27%

Which is healthier​?

  • 100% plant-based: 68%
  • Vegan: 32%

In every case, ‘plant-based’ was selected by the vast majority, because consumers tend to see plant-based as a positive dietary​ choice, whereas following a vegan diet is seen as a lifestyle​ associated with serious commitment, deprivation, and allegiance to a ‘cause’ that defines them (animal rights, environmental activism), said Stuckey.

“Simply by changing the conversation you can make food taste better,” ​added Stuckey, ​who was speaking at Mattson’s Plant Based Food Innovation Summit at its new HQ in Foster City, CA on Tuesday.

“’Vegan’ is about deprivation, it’s about saying no, no, no,"​added Stuckey, who noted that consumers were only given two options (vegan or plant-based, and not a third option along the lines of 'both are the same') but said the exercise provided a useful insight into how consumers are thinking.

Almost a third of Americans are flexitarians (even if they don't recognize the term)

Of the respondents – 48% of which said they plan to eat more plant-based foods in future - 2% were classified by Mattson as vegans (no animal products), 4% as vegetarians (no meat), 64% as omnivores (I eat what I want), and 29% as flexitarians - split into those cutting down on meat (20%) and those following a mostly vegetarian diet, but eating meat occasionally (9%).

“29% as flexitarians. That’s almost a third of consumers​,” said Stuckey. “And that’s a big market opportunity.”


Why are consumers interested in plant-based?

Asked why they might choose plant-based foods more often, ‘health benefits ‘was the #1 factor, cited by 76% of respondents, followed by ‘to lose weight’ and ‘to feel better’ (both at 44%) ahead of the ‘better for environment’ (31%) and ‘animal welfare’ (23%), noted Stuckey.

What’s interesting is that when you ask people in focus groups why plant-based foods are better for you, they don’t know​, unless you are talking to very engaged consumers.”

The results were echoed by a national Datassential survey presented at the same event in which ‘overall personal health,’ ‘manage and avoid diseases’ and ‘weight loss’ were cited as the top three reasons for eating less meat.

Why are consumers interested in clean meat, animal-free eggs, dairy?

By contrast, the top three reasons consumers in the Datassential survey were interested in cellular agriculture (growing meat and fish from culturing cells instead of raising and killing animals, or producing dairy and egg proteins via microbial fermentation for example) were 'reducing global hunger,' 'less food contamination,' and 'animal welfare,' highlighting how firms marketing and positioning such products may need to deploy slightly different tactics to compatriots in the plant-based arena.

Where should plant-based meat, dairy, be merchandised?

In a follow up survey, Mattson asked 390 consumers which plant-based burgers and grounds they preferred based on a picture and description (with no branding) of a frozen vs a refrigerated product, and in both cases, shoppers preferred the ‘fresh’ option, echoing the findings of other surveys suggesting consumers perceive chilled food to be fresher and more premium than frozen, said Stuckey.

That said, not every plant-based brand necessarily wants to sit in the meat counter next to meat (a move that significantly boosted sales for the Beyond Burger), noted delegates and speakers at the event, especially if they are deliberately targeting strict vegans or vegetarians rather than flexitarians.

Beyond Meat in the meat case
The Beyond Burger is merchandised in the meat case

“We are an animal activist company and being right next to meat doesn’t feel right for us, but then we don’t want to be shoved away in a place in the store where no one can find us either​,” said Dr Marcia Walker at plant-based meat brand Tofurky.

In the dairy set, merchandising is a mixed bag, with plant-based milks and yogurts typically sitting alongside their dairy-based counterparts, but plant-based cheeses more typically stocked at a separate location, noted delegates.

“People weigh up their options at the shelf, and if we’re not adjacent to what we’re trying to substitute for, we’re lost​,” said Dr Neil Renninger, co-founder at pea-protein-fueled plant-based brand Ripple Foods. 

Taste, functionality in plant-based proteins

While the quality of meat and dairy analogs has improved considerably in recent years, and the arrival of new brands utilizing proprietary technology such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Ripple Foods has increased the profile of the sector, challenges remain when it comes to taste and functionality, said Dr Renninger.

“Traditionally, you have ingredient suppliers and product developers ​[in the plant-based food space], and not a lot of real R&D in either place, so from a taste perspective, the ingredients have been lacking, which is why we created our own ​[Ripple utilizes proprietary technology that strips out unwanted components from commercially available plant protein isolates to yield a neutral-tasting protein, 'Riptein,' that can be incorporated into foods and beverages in high quantities]."

“So you’re seeing companies like ours that innovate on the ingredients side and create IP that allows us to develop proprietary products and bring them to market and capture some of the value from those ingredients. It’s a different business model; and I don’t know how long it will last.”

Cellular agriculture: We were surprised by how open consumers were to it

Cellular agriculture companies such as Clara Foods, Memphis Meats and Perfect Day, in turn, are adopting a different approach.

Rather than trying to mimic the taste, texture and functionality of animal protein with plants, why not produce the dairy, egg and meat proteins consumers enjoy and formulators are familiar with, without raising or slaughtering animals, asked Arturo Elizondo, CEO at Clara Foods, which is developing fermentation technology to produce egg white proteins from yeast.

There is also an environmental element at play here, said Elizondo.

Why devote vast tracts of land and dedicate resources to growing plants if you are only able to utilize certain components in them, he asked. “It’s not very efficient and it creates waste and so instead of this top down approach where you’re extracting what you want, why not just create it directly?”

When it comes to consumer acceptance for foods produced via cellular agriculture, much depends how you phrase survey questions, acknowledged Colleen McClellan, ​director, client solutions, at foodservice market researcher Datassential.

However, consumers surveyed by Datassential about cultured meat and other products have proved “surprisingly​” receptive, she said. “We were shocked by how open people are to it. We thought that the ick-factor would be bigger.”

clara foods
Clara Foods is developing animal free egg whites via microbial fermentation
perfect day
Cellular ag company Perfect Day makes dairy proteins without cows

The GMO factor

That said, any company in this space utilizing genetic engineering has to find a way to communicate that with consumers without scaring people off, said Dr Renninger at Ripple Foods.

“It’s troubling to me that​ [the debate has become so polarized/charged] you can’t even have a conversation about it anymore.”

Further reading: Plant-based only works in foodservice if its crave-worthy, says Datassential​ 

Mattson HQ
Cooking up plant-based treats at the Mattson HQ in Foster City, California

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How about some evidence, Judith?

Posted by JSC,

You have eaten up a fair amount of space giving your opinion. Can you give us one bit of evidence - such as research studies - to justify that opinion? Remember, data is not the plural of anecdote. Also, the inference I draw from you post is that you are diabetic. Is that correct? Type I or type 2? If you are diabetic, why do you think your situation is typical of those who are not diabetic?

On the other topic in this thread, 100% plant based refers to what one eats. Vegan is a broader term, covering a range of beliefs/choices that focuses not just on the health of the consumer but the morality of killing/mistreating other animals.

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Plant-based does not equal vegan

Posted by Mary Finelli,

"Plant-based" is quite vague and is not synonymous with "vegan" which definitively means the product contains no animal products.

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Not for me.

Posted by Judith,

While I eat a lot of veggies I also know that the high starch content of the "plant-based" diet is NOT healthy because starch which was recommended by Dr. John McDougall, is the basic cause of Alzheimer's Disease and countless other high inflammation-based diseases and non-function of body parts. So I eat my beef, pork, chicken, eggs, sour cream, cream cheese, full-fat cheese along with my low-carb non-starchy veggies but NO wheat, NO rice, No quinoa, NO oatmeal, NO potatoes of any starchy quantity or color, NO other starchy foods at all. Starch in food is turned into blood sugar by the amylase enzyme in saliva and that happens in 15 minutes with BG going from 50 to 100 mg/dL (doubling) and going up to 250 mg/dL in 30 minutes and very few people are aware of that fact for several reasons -- it happens almost immediately in the mouth and you're still eating all your food and not checking your blood sugar levels. If a diabetic checks their blood sugar level, they are taught to do it 90-120 minutes after a meal. I've done mine then and it was 335 mg/dL which is WAY TOO HIGH! Most importantly, Dr. John McDougall never studied biochemistry and therefore didn't really know how bad and unhealthy starch was and still is. My biological reaction to a single regular sized hamburger from blood glucose of 51 mg/dL just before eating the single burger, went to 257 mg/dL as soon as I finished it and it alone, just a little bit different than the other test animals. Starch content needs to be on nutrition labels because of its quicker effect on blood sugar levels than even sugar. Very few people even realize the high starch content of our diet which increases weight gain, fat storage, and the high rate of diabetes we have.

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