Innovative plant-based food options outperform traditional staples, Nielsen finds

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Whether it be due to health, ethics or sustainability concerns, the proportion of U.S. consumers seeking out adding more plant-based products to their diet is growing, Nielsen says. ©GettyImages/GeorgeRudy
Whether it be due to health, ethics or sustainability concerns, the proportion of U.S. consumers seeking out adding more plant-based products to their diet is growing, Nielsen says. ©GettyImages/GeorgeRudy
Plant-based food options continue to win over Americans’ share of stomach and wallets accounting for nearly 20% of food and beverage dollars spent last year, according to a new report by Nielsen.

More than one-third (37%) of Americans say they are following a specific diet in 2018, up from 35% last year and 29% in 2016. However, just 6% said they follow a strictly vegetarian diet and 3% adhere to a vegan lifestyle.

Whether it’s just one nutritional component of their diet or a complete vegan or vegetarian overhaul, a Nielsen Homescan survey conducted last year found that 39% of Americans are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods.

US consumers' interest in plant-based options will continue to grow, according to Nielsen, presenting a "notable opportunity for brands and retailers looking for ways to capitalize on specific needs and desires among consumers opting for plant-based food and beverage options, particularly in cases where no or few options currently exist."

Plant-based consumption across demographic groups

  • African Americans are 48% more likely than the average US consumer to incorporate plant-based foods
  • Asian Americans are 47% more likely than the average US consumer to incorporate plant-based foods
  • Hispanic consumers are 46% more likely than the average U.S. consumer to incorporate plant-based foods
  • Caucasian millennials are 47% more likely than the average US consumer to incorporate plant-based foods

Source: The Nielsen Company

Wilting fresh produce snack options

Vegan and produce options increased their dollar share by nearly 2% between 2014 and 2017 and outpaced total food and beverage on a dollar volume basis.

Although Americans may rank eating more fruits and vegetables as a cornerstone of healthy eating, they are not flocking to on-the-go fresh produce options as much as they are to other snack options, Nielsen’s June 2018 consumer report noted.

The on-the-go fresh produce segment, a $45.7bn category, saw a 1.8% drop in absolute dollar growth last year as nearly all major offering such as apples, pre-cut watermelon, and mixed fruit products registering significant declines.

Plant-based options sprouting most growth

To capitalize on consumers’ strong interest in plant-based options, retailers must look beyond typical offerings, according to Nielsen.

“To meet their goals, however, many shoppers aren’t looking to traditional plant-based staples like tofu, brown rice and granola,”​ the Nielsen report stated.

In fact, sales of traditional plant-based options were down 1.3% in the year ended April 7, 2018. The real growth is coming from “innovative”​ options across categories, most notably in plant-based dairy, meat alternatives, and veggie noodles.

Within plant-based dairy alternatives, cheese, yogurt, and cream products saw the most growth – 45%, 31%, and 25%, respectively (52 weeks ended April 7, 2018).

Dairy milk substitutes continue to hold a prominent spot in the plant-based food and beverage space, Nielsen noted, with almond milk leading the pack posting an 8.2% three-year combined annual growth rate.

Meat-based options may still dominate the $3.3bn burger category in the US, but sales of alternative-protein burgers are growing sales by double-digits.

While the freezer aisle remains the most common section to find meat alternatives, brands such as Beyond Meat​, makers of the ‘Beyond Burger’, have made a play into the fresh prepared meat case. 


When Beyond Meat first started rolling out its products into Whole Foods’ meat counters in June 2016, CEO Ethan Brown told FoodNavigator-USA:“Our frozen Beast Burgers have been doing very well, but our goal has always been to get in the meat case, where you have a market that is orders of magnitude higher in terms of purchase frequency and volume ​​[compared to the frozen vegetarian/meat alternatives section of the grocery store].”

The strategy of placing meat alternatives where meat eaters shop seems to be working as an estimated 70% of Beyond Burger​ purchasers are meat eaters, not devout vegans or vegetarian, executive chairman Seth Goldman pointed out.

“As the popularity of plant-based foods continues to rise, the importance of meat alternatives in the burger space is expected to rise with it,” ​Nielsen said.

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