Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: What does ‘plant-based’ mean to consumers? FMI investigates

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Yagi Studio
Source: Getty/Yagi Studio

Related tags Soup-To-Nuts Podcast plant-based FMI Dairy alternatives plant-based meat vegan

As consumer interest in ‘plant-based’ products has grown in recent years, so too have products proudly proclaiming their status as such – but what does the term actually mean, and how influential is it really?

The near-ubiquitous term appearing on everything ranging from mock-meat and -milks to minimally processed grains and produce, is highly lucrative with most ‘plant-based’ categories growing in the high double – if not triple – digits in the past three years. But it is also a source of confusion, and by extension, contention in large part because it isn’t clearly defined.

According to new research from FMI: The Food Industry Association, consumers, brands, retailers and even regulators all apply different descriptors, values and parameters to the term ‘plant-based’ – making it difficult to know how best to meet demand without misleading shoppers or running afoul of regulatory standards.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nut Podcast​, FMI senior director of health and well-being and registered dietitian Krystal Register shares insights from the group’s inaugural report The Power of Plant-Based Foods And Beverages​ that was released last week to help retailers and manufacturers better understand the diverse views on eating preferences, nutrition, health, sustainability and other topics related to ‘plant-based.’ She also shares strategies and next steps for brands and retailers as the plant-base space continues to grow and evolve.

[Editor’s Note: Never miss an episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast – subscribe​ today.]

How the study was done and sense of the landscape

Like most of FMI’s “Power Of” category reports, which include The Power of Meat, Seafood and Produce, Register explains the new Power of Plant-Based Foods And Beverages​ is an engaging and insightful report that draws on multiple levels of research with help from MotivBase and NielsenIQ.

But, Register notes, one big difference between this report and other “Power Of” reports, is this one doesn’t begin with an overview of the market and key sales metrics, because unlike meat or seafood or produce, plant-based products cut across store categories, making it just as difficult to measure as define.

Wanting to capture a “good snapshot in time”​ of how consumers and retailers think about ‘plant-based,’ Register explained that FMI decided to “explore everything under the plant-based umbrella,”​ and to take a broad approach to the term to include naturally plant-based foods, such as produce and whole grains, as well as alternatives to traditionally animal-derived products

To do this, the trade group surveyed consumers, conducted individual interviews with consumers and retailers and some product suppliers as well as dietitians. It also worked with Nielsen IQ to better understand the market. And while the Nielsen IQ categories didn’t quite match FMI’s, excluding produce for example, it still ballparked the market at $9.7bn for the 52 weeks ending June 11.

“We’re talking about a huge, huge segment of the industry,”​ Register said.

“And really, I think an interesting note is that our analysis found nearly half of shoppers, 42%, are putting either a lot or some effort into selecting plant-based foods or beverages in all those categories,”​ she said, adding, “More than 40% of shoppers at least occasionally eat a meat, dairy or seafood alternative.”

Confusion abounds

With numbers like that, it is no wonder that ‘plant-based’ has become such a popular marketing buzz word and why, in the absence of a clear definition, many brands and retailers are desperate to better understand how consumers think about and define ‘plant-based.

According to FMI’s research, consumers’ most frequent association with ‘plant-based’ was healthy – but after the descriptions and values that shoppers tied to the term varied widely.

Leveraging AI to dig deep into the digital ethnography of the space, FMI found other associated words were vegan, vegetarian, organic and natural, which Register says as a dietitian were encouraging. But, she added, others associated the term with tasteless, expensive, fake and even yuck – illustrating the category has lot of room for improvement both within product innovation, but also managing its image.

Consumers are not alone in their confusion about what ‘plant-based’ means or the words used to describe these products. In fact, the extent to which ‘plant-based’ products can use the same names or descriptions as their animal-based counterparts is being hotly debated and FDA has yet to weigh in. Although, Register notes, industry may get some answers before the year is out.

She explained the agency is in the process of developing guidance documents around labelling various plant-based products and clarifying the standards of identity for categories long dominated by animal-based products. Those highly-anticipated documents should be published by the end of the year.

Nutrition, health top reasons consumers embrace plant-based

Ultimately, what a product is called isn’t the primary driver for most consumers – rather, Register said, how it fits into their diet and lifestyle and how it tastes are more important.

“When looking at consumers overall approaches to eating … the top most common ones are heart healthy followed very closely by plant-based … and it is interesting to see how many other approaches to eating”​ align with plant-based, including flexitarian, Mediterranean, plant-forward and whole food diets, she said.

FMI’s research also revealed that how consumers rank these values and define plant-based also varies tremendously by age with younger shoppers, particularly Millennials, showing a greater inclination than Gen X or Baby Boomers to select plant-based options. They also tend to live in larger households with at least three people and have household incomes of at least $100,000 as well as higher weekly grocery spend in the range of $184 versus $163.

What turns consumers off about plant-based?

As popular as plant-based products are, they are not for everyone. FMI found some consumers said they never​ want to try them and other said that while they tried them once or twice, they were put-off because they didn’t taste “right.”

“For shoppers who’ve not tried animal product alternatives, taste was the number one reason shoppers stated, and if we think about this, it’s kind of funny, because that means it’s totally reliant on a preconceived notion about taste,”​ Register noted.

According to the report, cost is another significant stumbling block for about a third of consumers who tried meat and dairy alternatives but decided not to continue buying them. Other factors lower on the list, include the products having “too many ingredients,” their appearance, quality or not as nutritious as expected.

Next steps

While conflict and confusion often are uncomfortable, Register notes that when it comes to plant-based they can also highlight opportunities for retailers and brands to improve product innovation, merchandising and marketing, which ultimately if handled correctly could boost sales across the store.

“Key next steps for the food industry really include pushing shoppers to further explore plant-based foods and beverages,”​ which might include reconsidering the placement of these products in the store to help them better understand the nutrition and health piece as well as how to use them, she said.

In addition, she said, brands and retailers should work together to help consumers understand how to make personalized swaps or find substitutes so they can work more plant-based products in their diets, even if they don’t want to give up animal-based products. This might include more recipes, in-store demonstrations to sample or learn how to prepare these items or videos online, she said.

As discussed in this episode, the extent of consumer demand and confusion around the plant-based space are vast, and while no one may have all the answers, FMI has a lot in its new report The Power of Plant-Based Foods And Beverages​, which readers and listeners can find at​.

Additional resources are also available on FMI’s website through its health and wellbeing industry topics page, which provides nutrition and health information, and the previously mentioned “Power Of” reports, which Register says nicely complement this report to provide a fuller and more robust picture of what is happening in the market.

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