Thursday, May 23, 2019

Food for Thought: What do consumers think of plant-based diets?

Pictured: Hudsonville Ice Cream, Holland, Mich., has been making traditional dairy ice cream with the same base recipe since 1926 and is the latest to enter the plant-based frozen dessert segment. The product is made with a blend of oat milk and coconut cream. The company is rolling out seven pint flavors to Meijer stores this week, retailing for $4.99.

If you are sitting on the fence regarding entering the plant-based, non-dairy segment, here’s some data to consider from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2019 Food and Health Survey. Recently released, this edition marks the 14th consecutive year that the IFIC Foundation has surveyed American consumers to understand their perceptions, beliefs and behaviors around food and food-purchasing decisions. This is the first year plant-based questions were included. The findings are mixed. It will be interesting to see how they compare in a year.

Familiarity and interest in plant-based diets is high. Interestingly, even a seemingly straightforward term like “plant-based” is subject to interpretation. About three-quarters (73%) of people say they have heard of plant-based diets, and about half (51%) are interested in learning more about them. Consumers who have tried any diet in the past year are far more likely to have heard of plant-based diets than those who have not tried a diet in the past year (82% vs. 68%).

But consumers are split on what they believe a plant-based diet means. About one-third (32%) say it is a vegan diet that avoids all animal products, including eggs and dairy. A similar percentage (30%) define it as a diet that emphasizes minimally processed foods that come from plants, with limited consumption of animal meat, eggs and dairy. Another one in five (20%) believe it to be a vegetarian diet that avoids animal meat, while 8% say it is a diet in which you try to get as many fruits and vegetables as possible, with no limit on consuming animal meat, eggs and dairy.

Animal products are a more popular source of protein than plants, with 52% of survey takers saying they eat animal protein at least once per day versus 34% who say they eat plant-based protein. Within the past year, 24% of consumers reported eating more plant protein than the previous year, while only half as many (12%) said they ate more animal protein.

Plant-based diets play into sustainability; however, the survey shows that consumers struggle to know how to recognize environmentally sustainable sources. While environmental sustainability is the lowest of purchase drivers discussed in the survey, six in 10 consumers say it is hard to know whether the food choices they make are environmentally sustainable, and of those who agree, 63% say it would have a greater influence on their choices if it were easier.

Regardless of the impact on purchasing decisions, over half of consumers (54%) say it’s at least somewhat important that the products they buy be produced in an environmentally sustainable way. Among those 54%, many look for specific labels or attributes to assess whether they believe a product is environmentally sustainable: 51% perceive products that are locally produced as environmentally sustainable, followed by products literally labeled as sustainably produced (47%), labeled as non-GMO/not bioengineered (47%), labeled as organic (44%), having recyclable packaging (41%) and having minimal packaging (35%).

If you are in the plant-based business, you may want to consider some sustainability messaging. This, however, may take a toll on your dairy product lines if you cannot provide some quantifiable sustainability story here, too. Hmmm…this is a tough one.

Clean eating should also be part of your messaging, if applicable.

The 2019 Food & Health Survey added “clean eating” as an option to a question about whether consumers have followed any specific diet or eating pattern in the past year. This year, 38% answered “yes,” up slightly from 36% in 2018. “Clean eating” was the most widely cited diet at 10%, followed by intermittent fasting at 9%, then gluten-free and low-carb, both at 6%. The percentage of people that tried ketogenic or high-fat diets doubled (6% in 2019 vs. 3% in 2018), while there were marked declines for people taking up paleo (down to 3% in 2019 from 7% in 2018) and Whole30 (down to 2% from 5%) diets.

One in 4 consumers actively seek health benefits from foods. Although many say they simply try to eat healthy in general, 23% of consumers say they actively seek out foods or follow a diet for health benefits. Most often the benefits they seek are weight loss, energy, digestive health and heart health.

This should provide some fodder for your kick-off-to-summer long holiday weekend. Hope it’s enjoyable.

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