CHICAGO — Nearly half (45%) of U.S. consumers have eaten less meat within the past year, and 83% of these consumers agree that plant-based meats are healthier than traditional meat, according to a new study from food and beverage research firm Kerry.
The study, Meat, The Challenge, explores how consumer perceptions of plant-based meats can help manufacturers, retailers and other foodservice operators understand the future of food and beverages. Kerry surveyed nearly 550 U.S. consumers across all genders, age groups and ethnicities, all of whom are consumers of plant-based meat who typically dine away from home at least once a week.
“The study provided us a unique deep dive into consumers’ attitudes toward plant-based meats and their future expectations from plant-based meats,” the Tralee, Ireland-based company said. “It uncovered a unique and insightful perspective on the barriers, challenges and opportunities in plant-based meat adoption.”
Here are five ways retailers can capture plant-based meat consumers, according to Kerry …
Focus on taste
Consumers of plant-based meat crave the taste and flavor of traditional meat. In fact, 73% of consumers said that alternative meats should mimic the taste of regular meat, according to the study. This is something plant-based products have struggled with over the years. Ways to improve the taste of these items include incorporating various rubs and marinades, cooking via smokers or grills and using yeast-based solutions in the cooking process, said Kerry.
“As plant-based meats have evolved, the taste experience has improved but still lack in flavor compared to the traditional meat experience,” the company said. “As plant-based innovation gets closer and closer to replicating meat, consumers will expect a superior taste, delivering succulence, juiciness, umami and richness for a more authentic meatlike experience.”
Target meat eaters
The biggest consumers of plant-based meats are those who don’t identify with any specialty diet: Nearly half (44%) of plant-based meat eaters said they have no diet restrictions, according to the study. This outpaced vegetarians (22%), flexitarians (18%), vegans (7%), pescatarians (7%) and those who have meat-related allergies (2%). Beyond that, more than half (62%) of consumers of plant-based meat said they currently eat meat.
“The growth of plant-based meat options on menus has given mainstream consumers an easy, accessible and low-risk way of trying foods made with plant-based protein sources,” Kerry said. “As product and menu innovations continue, more mainstream consumers will adopt flexitarian eating habits.”
Play the health card
Forty-six percent of consumers said they eat plant-based meats to have better nutrition, while 44% said they do so for overall health benefits, according to the study. Additionally, 41% of consumers said high-protein content is the top attribute they seek in meat alternatives. Others include it being natural (30%), organic (25%), antibiotic-free (22%) and non-GMO (21%).
“With the rise of medical concerns such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity in America, health is at the forefront of consumers’ minds when it comes to food choices,” Kerry said. “Leading the conversation on nutrition for plant-based ensures future acceptance of these products instead of running the risk of reformulating to eliminate consumer pain points.”
Change the label perception
Nearly all (90%) of plant-based consumers said they read ingredient labels, according to the study. Furthermore, 48% of consumers perceive plant-based meat products to be more processed vs. traditional meat. This problem has lingered for plant-based companies because the items are often made with heavy amounts of sodium. Ways to address this issue include experimenting with natural flavors and extracts, using natural preservatives and using clean-label seasonings, Kerry said.
“Ensuring a cleaner-label product free from artificial preservatives, artificial flavors and artificial colors is a consumer imperative,” the company said. “Creating product differentiation in an increasingly competitive category with clean label is an opportunity to stand apart.”
Go beyond the burger
Burgers make up 61% of all plant-based retail and restaurant menu offerings, according to the study. Despite this, consumers are interested in seeing a variety of plant-based options beyond burgers. When asked which options they’re most interested in tasting beside burgers, consumers opted for plant-based tacos, burritos, pizza, chicken, chicken nuggets, stir-fry, deli meats and hot dogs.
“Companies should explore offering new formats for plant-based meats beyond the burger,” Kerry said. “With expanded format variety at retail and more restaurants offering new plant-based meat options, it eliminates accessibility bias and fosters consumer adoption of plant-based meat.”