Partner, JPG Resources
Consumer perception of plant-based products is continually evolving. While the powerful combination of health and environmental benefits that plant-based foods deliver is not new, the levels of awareness and demand among consumers for these benefits is at an all-time high. At JPG Resources, we wanted to dive deeper into the history and evolution of plant-based products to understand better how these twin forces of health and sustainability have pushed the industry to where it is today, and could shape where it’ll be tomorrow.
In the US, plant-based products first came to the market to meet the health needs of leading-edge wellness consumers, primarily focused on vegetarians and vegans. But as wellness trends have evolved and expanded, we’ve seen continued fragmentation within our food culture. There is no longer one food trend peaking at a time, but many variations growing (or ebbing) at once. Diets are also becoming more individualized, with each consumer modifying and combining approaches to food to best meet their individual needs (e.g., vegan keto), making it more difficult for brands to pursue trends in simpler, more basic ways to appeal to a broader demographic.
What we can expect is that people will continue to want to eat healthier, and plant-based foods offer an increasingly compelling alternative for consumers to pursue that goal. For example, plant-based protein comes in a package that is perceived to be more healthful, as much for what it doesn’t have – such as saturated fat/cholesterol – as for what it does, given it provides nutritional benefits that can only be found in plants, which most consumers are striving to eat more of within their daily diets. This increasingly held belief that plants are a healthier source of nutrition than animal-based equivalents has therefore opened up significant product-development opportunities for food companies of all sizes and across many categories.
Not only do plant-based products meet consumers’ health needs, but they also have environmental benefits. It is now clear that the environmental crisis facing humanity will deliver unprecedented impacts for all aspects of our daily life, including on how and what we eat. And the production of plant-based products requires significantly fewer resources and has a less destructive impact on the earth than the production of animal-based counterparts. Plant-based diets on average are more efficient, in that they require less energy, less land and less water to produce, and what’s more, removing animals from the supply chain also makes sense ethically.
While the health and sustainability benefits of plant-based eating are not new, two forces have worked together to unlock the rapid growth for the segment that we see today: a desire for differentiated food experiences, and a shift in language from “vegan” to “plant-based.”
Taste is still King
Few consumers will compromise on taste. To reach their full potential, plant-based foods must still taste great in their own right. For decades, food manufacturers have been creating plant-based burgers ranging from more vegetable-forward offerings to those attempting to get as close as they can to a traditional burger experience. However, recent innovation has created a quantum leap in the ability of plant-based offerings to approximate this traditional meat burger experience, leading to a new appreciation of how great alternative burgers can taste. We see a similar evolution in plant-based milk, where innovation now delivers creaminess, frothability, and taste not previously found in the segment. These breakthroughs suggest that we have now reached the point where plant-based food alternatives can fully meet the expectations of a broad enough set of mainstream consumers to unlock significant adoption and growth.
Another significant challenge historically has been the polarizing effects of the term “vegan”. Vegan is a word that has often been associated with dairy and meat alternatives, but one that consumers also traditionally associate with (among other things) compromised taste. Perhaps as a result, consumers adopting a “vegan” diet still represent a small portion of the population. Most consumers do not aspire to eliminate animal-based products from their diet entirely and, as such, have a hard time identifying with the term “vegan.” “Plant-Based,” by contrast, is framed in the positive and cues healthy while speaking to behavior that most consumers DO aspire to – eating more plants. As such, the rise of the use of ‘plant-based’ to describe these segments of the industry has made the concept more approachable to a wider swath of consumers, helping to fuel acceptance – and growth.
How to win
It’s now about Both/And, not Either/Or. Consumers today want it all. They want healthy products that also taste great. They want to know not only that their food was grown sustainably, but how and where it was grown, harvested and processed on its way to the shelf. This movement provides a window into how plant-based brands can further differentiate themselves from “conventional” versions of products. Consumers want to buy from brands that share their values. These demands put new pressures on farmers to revise how they farm, and on brands to take this into account as they innovate and modify their supply chains to better satisfy these evolving consumers’ needs. As plant-based brands typically are already advantageous to animal-based counterparts in areas like nutrition, sustainability and ethics, they should seek to accentuate these differences in their brand values and messaging, to further connect with consumers sharing these same values.
We believe the underlying health and sustainability trends driving plant-based growth today will continue to drive its development over the coming years. We expect that plant-based growth will be particularly evident in three areas – unique protein sources and processes, differentiated taste and experience, and plant-forward expressions.
Plant-based protein offerings started primarily with soy and have evolved to include several other legumes, nuts, grains, etc. We also expect to see more unique processes to create and extract these proteins in the future.
As mentioned earlier, taste remains king. And the innovation that unlocked growth by creating superior plant-based tastes and experiences will only continue, expanding beyond burgers and dairy into other categories across the store.
Finally, we think there is an opportunity to follow in the steps of brands like Caulipower – bringing plants forward in ways that are not focused solely on protein and are not attempting to replicate the meat or dairy experience, but that instead celebrate plant-based ingredients for what they are, trumpeting their unique nutrition, taste, visual or textural qualities.
Reach out for help on your plant based journey.