Plant-based plate

In a previous article, How Did We Get to the Term “Plant-Based?”, we discussed how today’s language around “plant-based” draws on cultural history and the connection of plants to good health, sustainability and animal welfare. But what do consumers see in the plant-based trend today and what are some of the ways we see this halo manifesting throughout the food and wellness industries?

The halo around the plant-based term draws its strength from its relevance to four key motivations that guide consumers’ eating choices: health and wellness, taste and discovery, cost and convenience, and ethics and beliefs. That is, what’s best to eat, what’s good to eat, what’s possible to eat, and what’s right to eat.

How do these play out in terms of consumers purchasing plant-based meat and dairy alternatives? According to The Hartman Group’s Food & Technology 2019 report, it’s not ethics and beliefs at the top, but taste and discovery (refer to following figure), followed by health and wellness motivations.

The halo around the plant-based term

Ethics and convenience are not unimportant; they’re just farther down the list of factors.

Taste & Discovery

Plant-based eating is a way to add variety to consumers’ diets and meal repertoires. Many consumers really love novelty, sampling new flavors and cuisines, and working to incorporate new things into their diets — and this is especially true for Millennials. Plant-based eating offers a way to move beyond the traditional American diet and its assumptions about what constitutes a good meal, opening up a whole world of options.

The bowl trend exemplifies how plant-based eating can move consumers beyond the “meat and two sides” of the traditional American meal. As Adam Danforth, an award-winning butcher, notes, one way to eat less meat is to rethink your dishes. To put a whole meal into a bowl necessitates less meat and more plants. In addition, bowls are more typically associated with “global” cuisines and new flavor combinations.

The bowl trend perhaps reached its apex earlier last year when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle bucked tradition and served them at their royal wedding to the delight of some and the consternation of others.

Health & Wellness

Consumers’ ideal healthy and indulgent meals are remarkably consistent across demographics and household types. “Healthy” meals have lean protein, lots of vegetables, and healthy carbs. Plant-based, and specifically vegetable-based, foods are central to today’s idea of a healthy meal.

In contrast, consumers’ ideal indulgent meals look more like standard American favorites — heavy, refined carbs, fatty and red meats, sugary toppings. Now, there are some plants on those plates as well — mostly in the form of potatoes — but when consumers think of “plant-based” they tend to think of a “healthy” bowl of lean protein and lots of veggies rather than the refined grains and french fries that comprise the sides on an indulgent lunch or dinner.

Cost & Convenience

Cost remains the primary barrier to consumers eating more fruits and vegetables. However, cost and convenience are closely linked — part of what is costly about fresh produce is that it spoils quickly and requires time and skill to cook. We’ve found that consumers are willing to pay for convenience at all income levels, and when it comes to plant-based convenience foods, consumers have more options than ever, which helps bring down entry costs.

In addition to a wide range of meat and dairy alternatives, both new and legacy food companies have added to their offerings for those looking for less meat and more plants but who still need something quick and easy.

In addition, value-added produce, such as pre-chopped onions, spiralized veggie noodles, and salad kits, has made adding vegetables easier for households that may not always have the time, space, or inclination to do the prep required.

Ethics & Beliefs

Circling back to our discussion of vegetarianism through the ages, plants have not lost their associations with a more ethical way of eating. In fact, they’ve gained in this regard as consumer concern has grown around industrialized animal farming and slaughter as well as the impact meat and dairy have on the environment and climate. Plant-based eating still connotes a high regard for ethics, animal welfare, the greater good, and a closer connection to a more “natural” way of eating.

Another addition to plant-based food’s ethical halo is the rise of plant-based compostable and biodegradable packaging as an alternative to plastic. Like questions about ethanol in our gasoline, there are a lot of sustainability questions around plant-based packaging, but it still functions as a virtue signal.

Vulnerability of Plant-Based: The Limits of Plants’ Halo

As we’ve discussed, the plant-based halo can confer many benefits, but we need to also offer a word of caution.

The plant-based trend is ripe for parody, and Arby’s is already there with their “meat-based vegetable.” The relationship between plant-based eating, health and wellness, and privilege is also fraught and easily parodied, or at worst politicized. Portlandia represents this relationship in its gentle mockery of earnest, twee hipsters, while lifestyle gurus like Gwyneth Paltrow represent more politicized territory around whom wellness is really for.

So tread with caution here: with 51% of the population having purchased a plant-based meat or dairy alternative product in the past three months, plant-based eating is for everyone, not just the elite. However, these consumers do want to feel like they are forward-thinking in their food choices.

More concerning for us here is that consumers are already checking themselves when they describe plant-based as healthier. They already sense that plant-based language and imagery can be used to:

• Overemphasize vegetable content

• Suppress scrutiny of other problematic ingredients

• Suppress scrutiny of other questionable production methods

For instance, the Certified Plant Based seal is both confusing (what does it apply to, what exactly is being clarified here?) and likely out of alignment with consumer expectations that plant-based foods should also be less processed and more ethical.

To make matters more complicated, there is the very green and planty bioengineered label competing for attention. All of this is to say that as a term that is already a bit fuzzy at the edges, “plant-based” is at risk of being quickly diluted of meaning, with a fate similar to the word “natural.”