Nielsen: Meat remains 'formidable opponent' to plant-based alternatives

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages / NatashaPhoto
©GettyImages / NatashaPhoto

Related tags flexitarian Nielsen Meat plant-based

Flexitarians -- a concept that generally refers to consumers who are eating a more plant-based diet but still eat meat -- are ushering in a new area of protein consumption that is helping lift instead of hinder meat sales, according to Nielsen research.

Despite increased attention to plant-based eating and reduced meat consumption, just 5% of US households are vegan or vegetarian, according to Nielsen, leaving 95% of households as omnivores. 

"As well-intended as many recent diet fads may be, the protein landscape today and going forward will be defined more by the word 'and' than 'or',"​ said Nielsen. "Plant-based meat alternatives are not a passing fad, but scale takes time."

Additionally, nearly 60% of US consumers agree that having the right dietary balance of both animal and plant foods is important. Nielsen data also show that nearly all (98%) meat alternative buyers also purchase meat, and they do so more than the average meat buyer ($486 vs. $478 per year). Less than a third (27%) of meat alternative purchasers buy meat alternative products five or more times a year. Nielsen added that 21.6% of US households buy meat alternatives, up 1.6% from last year. 

"So if we define flexitarian as medium and heavy buyers of both meat and meat alternatives, they account for 37% of all meat alternative buyers and they spend $643 on meat every year—a whopping $165 more per year than the average meat buyer,"​ noted Nielsen. 

Interest in reduced meat consumption

However, the trend of reducing meat consumption and increasing meat alternatives into the diet is growing. A majority of consumers (62%) said they are willing to reduce meat consumption due to environmental concerns, and 43% say they would replace meat-based protein with plant-based protein.

"Interestingly, while not yet commercially viable, 12% of consumers stated they would be willing to eat cell-cultured meat grown in a lab,"​ added Nielsen. 

Meat still a formidable opponent to plant-based alternatives

While plant-based options are seeing strong market success fitting into many different consumers diets, "meat is formidable and resilient—due in part to its relative affordability. Chicken, pork and turkey cost the least per gram, at 2 cents, well below the 10 cents for meat alternatives, 13 cents for nuts and 20 cents for nutrition bars,"​ noted Nielsen.

Aside from cost savings, meat's sheer industry scale means it will be holding out as a top protein for a while. According Nielsen, sales of meat reached over $95bn last year, compared to meat alternatives are just short of crossing the $1bn mark. 

"Convenience is also a positive for meat, as the deli department remains a powerful and reliable growth engine, creating convenient and quick meal solutions for consumers. And while meat from the deli department represents only 17% of total meat sales, it represents 31% of US dollar growth within meat overall."

Protein - A lasting trend that will take different forms

Accounting for nearly $190bn in US sales across the store, protein -- and its various forms -- will remain top of mind for many consumers, according to Nielsen. 

The market intelligence firm's advice to brand and retailers is to continue to offer a innovative and diverse set of protein offerings in order to win consumers' protein purchases. 

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