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Described by Nestlé recently as a “once in a generation opportunity,” the fervor over plant-based foods and beverages continues at a fearsome pace. From alternative proteins and dairy to snacks and frozen meals, manufacturers across the spectrum of food and beverage categories are introducing products linked to plants at a breathtaking rate. Not to be left behind, the efforts of branded CPG are now being matched by retailers like Kroger with private label plant-based offerings. Similarly, and post trendy menu additions like Burger King's Impossible Whopper, the restaurant world is exhibiting similar signs of interest in developing plant-based options.

To help diverse stakeholders capitalize on opportunities in the dynamic plant-based space, here are five things to know about consumers both intrigued by plant-based products and finding it harder to ignore anxiety surrounding the health, ethical, and environmental implications of animal products.

1. First and foremost, plant-based products really are a very significant opportunity. The Hartman Group’s Food and Technology 2019: From Plant-based to Lab-grown report established that while over half (51%) of consumers said they’d purchased plant-based milk, dairy, or meat alternatives in the past three months, among non-buyers of plant-based, the most significant barrier to trialing was taste. Of interest, non-purchasers seem to accept that plant-based meat and dairy products are better or no different than conventional products (like meat and dairy) along the lines of health, wellness, and ethical benefits. Essentially, for non-buyers of plant-based products, the only place conventional products in categories like meat and dairy outperform those that are plant-based is in taste, underscoring the idea that once taste as a barrier is overcome, a potentially even larger market lies in the wings.

2. Veganism is not the driving force behind consumer interest in plant-based. Instead, consumers with a wide range of flexitarian-like dietary inclinations (including being carnivores) are pursuing a variety of paths toward plant-based products, driven by motivations that include flavor, wellness, and desire for dietary variety. Less than half of plant-based purchasers today (41%) think of themselves as people who are limiting meat, and one in five describes themselves as carnivores. Only 12% of plant-based purchasers describe themselves as vegetarians, while 41% of them describe their eating styles as “omnivore.”

3. There’s no one single path to trying plant-based products. Instead, plant-based products are being fit flexibly into diverse dietary and eating routines, typically as part of three key interacting behavioral changes:

• Reducing the consumption frequency and/or portion size of animal proteins

• Trading in plant-based foods like meat/dairy alternatives or whole plant foods (by increasing vegetable portion sizes, replacing some dairy with plant alternatives, or incorporating more vegan-focused cuisines)

• Trading up within animal products (such as buying only grass-fed, organic or pasture-raised offerings)

Each individual path to trying plant-based products has benefits and drawbacks, leading most consumers to find a flexible middle ground. Consumers tend to move back and forth between periods of trial and periods of stabilization of use in plant-based categories.

4. With growing experimentation and use comes growing, critical scrutiny of plant-based claims. In keeping with overall consumer demand for simpler ingredients and clean labels, we see greater consumer involvement with plant-based products causing an equal rise in scrutiny of ingredients used. Examples would include questions about processed soy, palm oil, long ingredient lists, and excessive amounts of sodium or fat in nutrition information. While consumers are new to many plant-based products and have a general belief that plant-based products are healthier, as the category matures, those opinions could change. This is particularly true among the most engaged health and wellness consumers, who prefer shorter, simpler ingredient lists and who have heightened tendencies to scrutinize ingredient lists and differentiate between levels of process within plant-based categories.

5. Private label is a significant opportunity in plant-based foods and beverages. Skills in retailing natural, specialty and premium foods and beverages play a significant role in stimulating consumers’ discovery of innovative new foods like plant-based products. Consumers entering plant-based categories use retailers as a means of immersing themselves to learn more about the landscape of options available to them. Retailers with strengths in retailing natural and specialty products are perceived as having the most diverse, exciting, and on-trend selections. 18% of plant-based purchasers say they would go to a retailer (online or brick & mortar) if they were interested in learning more about plant-based alternatives.

Hartman’s POV

Food culture has proved fertile ground for the growing range of higher-quality plant-based alternatives. A rapidly diversifying population is increasingly interested in dietary diversity rather than adhering to traditional American ways of eating. Today, consumers are adopting plant-based options motivated by health and wellness, taste and discovery, ethics and beliefs, and cost and convenience.

• High-quality, private label plant-based alternatives represent a significant opportunity for retailers. Plant-based options are perceived as being expensive, and consumers are open to experimentation in this diverse and fast-growing category.

• Consumers are likely to raise more questions over “processing” in plant-based options over time. Manufacturers will need to anticipate and manage these concerns. For mainstream consumers, “plant-based” currently has a strong halo of simplicity, but this terminology is likely to be overused and its halo washed out over time. Consumers will then turn to other cues for reassurance of a healthy product.

• Consumers are likely to become more discerning about the types of protein used in plant-based alternatives (e.g., soy vs pea vs wheat), how they were grown, and their benefits and drawbacks as they become more familiar with the category.