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Lessons Learned from the Latest Plant-Based Food Research

Dec 13, 2021

Written By
Danielle Muller

Thanks at least in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are growing more and more concerned with their own health as well as how their consumption impacts the planet. As a result, the plant-based alternative (PBA) foods space is having a big moment.

Optimism is growing for the category by the day. Let this sink in: Half of all participants in a recent, comprehensive PBA study intend to purchase some form of plant-based food in the next three months alone. 

But it’s not just that consumers are buying —- and plan to continue to buy — PBAs. Many are also willing to pay a premium for these products.

All to say, if you’re in the PBA space, it’s time to double down. And if you’re not in the category, it might be time to expand. Create new products and optimize your current ones to suit consumers’ tastes. 

If you’re wondering what consumers’ tastes are, have no fear. We’ve summarized our key takeaways from the latest research just for you. 

Arrive Fashionably Early to the PBA Party 

It’s generally accepted that people are most likely to prepare PBAs for themselves in their own homes, rather than for the purpose of entertaining.  But it doesn’t have to be a solo activity.

You could come out ahead of your competition as an early adopter if you manage to position your brand as a special occasion PBA product. After all, there aren’t many (if any) PBA options marketed this way in the current landscape.

Consumers may feel self-conscious about their PBAs,  but you can position them as something different, exciting, and worth sharing with friends. Teach your audience that treating themselves and their guests with plant-based options can be just as indulgent and fun as their go-to entertaining meal! 

If your customers are specifically trying to appease non-plant-based consumers, it might be worth your while to call out that your food tastes like the “real thing.” Admittedly, this isn’t a crucial driver for regular PBA consumers (they’d rather your product actually taste good than talk about tasting good — more on this below). But it could make all the difference for skeptics who are accustomed to “regular” party food. 

Just as nonalcoholic drinks are becoming more mainstream and accepted at parties, so can PBA foods — with the right marketing, of course. 

Create Products that Truly Taste Like the “Real Thing”

It can be hard to know what to prioritize when you’re creating PBAs. After all, all sorts of consumers are now purchasing these products. It’s no longer just vegans or vegetarians you have to cater to. Flexitarians and even full-fledged carnivores are giving plant foods a go as well. 

The research has good, clarifying news on this front. All PBA shoppers say taste is the most important driver when they’re considering a purchase. 

We can drill down even further and say consumers (71% of all survey participants, to be exact) want their plant-based products to taste like their meat/dairy/whatever counterparts. In other words, your products need to deliver on familiar taste experiences if you want to reach peak success. So make sure they pass a taste test that includes the palates of vegetarians and meat eaters. The exclusively plant based palate may skew taste test results.

Communicate Your Plant-Based Food’s Nutritional Value 

Taste tends to matter the most to PBA consumers. But that doesn’t mean you can sacrifice nutrition and substance. This is especially true if your primary audience is vegetarians, vegans, or flexitarians as opposed to more conventional meat-eaters testing the plant-based waters. Why? Because 4 in 10 of these more devoted PBA lovers pin nutrition as their number one decision-making factor. 

This focus on nutrition in PBAs likely stems from confusion. No one is ever sure exactly what plant-based products are made of. Seriously, what’s in an Impossible Burger? Without an understanding of the ingredients, consumers just aren’t sure what’s good for them. And they’re not convinced PBAs are any less processed than mainstream picks. And really, are they? 

Case in point: Only 59% of survey respondents believe eating plant-based foods provides enough protein, vitamins, and nutrients for a healthy diet. Additionally, only 47% percent of respondents agree plant-based foods are minimally processed. 

How can we get those numbers up? First off, use high-quality, recognizable ingredients whenever possible. There are plenty of shoppers looking for plant-based foods that are actually made from plants other than wheat or whatever the heck seitan is. We know, it’s shocking. 

Furthermore, communicate your product’s nutritional value to consumers with clear claims. If your product is healthy, we give you full permission to brag about it with your claims. 

Choose Your Front-of-Pack Claims Wisely 

Speaking of claims, you’re probably wondering what the research suggests for the front and back of your packaging. Here are our major takeaways:

  • Tout food that’s made in the United States. Most consumers — particularly Gen-Zers — like to know their PBAs are produced in the U.S. In fact, this claim makes half of all people much more likely to buy a product. It’s truly a point of differentiation. 
  • Elevate the simplicity of your ingredients. All consumers want to know that their food is simple and clean. And the most impactful claims speak specifically to the simplicity of ingredients and process. Flexitarians in particular say that the ingredient list is “very important” in their decision making process. 
  • Claim “Plant-Based” over “Vegan.” Vegan isn’t a bad word, but references to “plants” seem to get brands further. It could be because more flexitarians and non-PBA shoppers are buying more PBAs; they don’t care as much about the specifics of veganism. And actual vegans will turn over the pack to verify your product’s veganess. To that end, opt for the claim “Plant-Based.” 
  • Do away with certain certifications. The research suggests that the claim “Plant-Based” is just as impactful as “Certified Plant-Based.” If that’s true, it means you can ditch time-consuming, expensive certification processes. Just be sure that’s the right choice for your brand. Though this is not true of certifications for non-GMO or organic.

Act While the PBA Market is Hot 

PBAs are especially hot right now, it’s true. But we predict plant-based foods are much more than a passing trend. As more Americans look for ways to care for their bodies and the planet, expect more vegan, vegetarian, and casual PBA shoppers. 

With this research, you have what you need to produce PBAs consumers are attracted to — products they’ll actually buy. Grab your place in the category now before you’re lost in the ever-expanding crowd of plant-based brands.

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