Even consumers who don’t identify as vegan or vegetarian are showing more interest in plant-based foods. Vegans and vegetarians represent only a small percentage of the US population, yet more than half of American households bought plant-based foods last year.

So what convinced them to try plant-based? Package labels might be partly responsible, as “plant-based” label claims are much more inclusive than “vegan” and “vegetarian” claims. But there are several perks that have consumers reaching for plant-based products, as well as a few obstacles that turn potential buyers away.

Motivators for making the switch

While it helps to have adventurous taste buds, consumers often choose plant-based foods for more meaningful reasons, such as supporting animal welfare or seeking to improve their health.

Animal welfare and environmental concerns

It’s clear that many consumers care about the treatment of animals in our food supply chain. This concern has led them to seek more information from companies and limit how much meat they eat. More than half of Gen Z consumers and 34% of baby boomers now shy away from meat and animal-based products.

As part of Veganuary 2021, 582,538 consumers accepted the challenge to go vegan for 31 days, and 43,982 of them participated in a follow-up survey. Nearly half of the survey participants considered animals a top motivator for trying out a vegan diet. And, after finishing the Veganuary challenge, 48% of the participants committed to reducing their consumption of animal meats by 75% or more.

Consumers are also concerned about whether animal products support a sustainable future. The environment was a primary motivator for 21% of Veganuary participants to go vegan and 48% of surveyed Americans to eat more plant-based foods. 

Experts from Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon estimate that, by 2035, a transition away from animal agriculture could save as much carbon dioxide equivalent to what Japan emits annually and enough water to keep London supplied for 40 years. Replacing some animal products in their diet with plant-based alternatives helps consumers feel that they’re doing their part to reduce animal agriculture’s impact on the environment.

Health and wellbeing

Especially within the past year, consumers have been careful to make more health-conscious food choices. And many perceive plant-based foods as healthier alternatives to animal products. 

Health-related benefits continue to be a significant influencer of plant-based choices and purchases:

  • Among global consumers who identify as vegetarian, 42% adopted the diet because it made them feel healthier. 
  • Personal health was the top motivator for 22% of survey respondents to participate in Veganuary this year, and 21% said they experienced improved health during their plant-based eating trial. 
  • In a 2020 survey, three of the top five reasons American consumers chose plant-based foods were health-related: general health benefits (65%), feeling better when eating plant-based foods (46%), and losing weight (30%). 

Convenience 

Fresh foods have a short shelf life, take more time and effort to prepare, and often contribute to food waste. On the other hand, packaged plant-based products make it easier for consumers to include more fruits and vegetables in their diets without these challenges. Plant-based meals also tend to cook faster than meat-based meals, speeding up prep time for consumers who are doing more at-home cooking.

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Barriers to plant-based adoption

However, despite the benefits, not everyone is sold on plant-based products just yet.      

Taste and texture

Taste is perhaps the greatest challenge in getting consumers to accept plant-based alternatives. A survey of European consumers found that more than a third of respondents want plant-based foods that taste better, while nearly 30% want meat alternatives with a better texture. 

While trying out a vegan diet, cheese was the top food participants missed, suggesting there are still opportunities to improve the taste and texture of plant-based cheese. 

Price and value

Value is an important influencer of consumer shopping behavior, and it’s become even more so during the pandemic. It’s the main reason shoppers decide to switch brands and change where they shop.

Half of the consumers Mattson polled in June of last year said the expense kept them from buying beef, poultry, and pork alternatives. And nearly half said the same about dairy alternatives. 

Currently, plant-based spending is lowest among households with incomes less than $35,000 and highest in households earning over $100,000. As long as the prices of plant-based meat alternatives continue to be higher than their meat-based equivalents, families with lower incomes, in particular, will be less likely to make the switch.

As plant-based food companies overcome these challenges, they’ll likely see sales continue to grow and a wider variety of consumers trying their products.