Plant-Based Products Continue to Garner Consumer Interest

Roughly 25 million consumers eat plant-based beverages and foods regularly or occasionally, according to Circana.
plant-based burger

CHICAGO — Plant-based is a small but expanding category, and as more innovations and products become available and accessible, consumer interest broadens.

Roughly 25 million consumers eat plant-based beverages and foods occasionally or regularly, consuming these foods as part of a meal or as an ingredient. About one in five consumers say that they want more plant-based foods in their diet, according to Circana.

When it comes to eating plant-based foods, consumers are definite in which types of plant-based beverages and food they want to eat at home and which they eat from a restaurant or foodservice outlet. Although drinking dairy milk at home is still a more prominent behavior, about 93 percent of meals or snacks that include milk alternatives are consumed at home and 7 percent are consumed at/from a restaurant or foodservice outlet.

Consumers eat more plant-based meat, poultry and seafood analogues from restaurants because these foods are prepared in the same way animal protein menu items are, which means the consumer isn’t sacrificing taste for what they believe to be a healthier option, Circana reported.

At retail, the total volume sales of milk alternatives were down 3 percent in the 52 weeks ending Jan. 1, 2023 vs. one year ago. Almond and coconut milk alternatives were among the top declining products. Oat milk alternatives offset steeper declines for the total category, with volume sales up 22 percent vs. one year ago.

Volume sales of meat alternatives in the frozen aisle were down 3 percent from a year ago, with lunchmeat, meatball and breakfast sausage alternatives the top decliners. Frozen meat alternative formats growing were wings, ingredient cuts and nuggets.

Fresh meat alternatives were down 15 percent vs. the prior year, with breakfast sausage, meatball and patty alternatives as the top declining categories. The growth formats in the fresh retail case during the period were wings, ingredient cuts and nugget alternatives. 

"Retail is likely in a transition period, following fast expansion before and during the pandemic. As consumers are returning to their pre-pandemic habits and living with high inflationary prices, we are seeing slower velocity rates and a higher number of lost buyers than new buyers," Chris Dubois, executive vice president, Americas Protein Practice Leader, Circana. "As long as the big plant-based companies continue to deliver taste, texture, and innovations while working toward price parity with other protein options, the category can thrive, especially in the frozen case where the strength and base are consistent."

In foodservice, plant-based foods represent less than 1 percent of all foods shipped through broadline foodservice distribution to commercial and non-commercial foodservice outlets, with many categories growing. Plant-based meat analogues have expanded from primarily beef alternatives to poultry, seafood and pork. Pound sales of chicken and fish analogues shipped from broadline foodservice distributors increased by 38 percent and 5 percent, respectively, in the 12 months ending December vs. a year ago. Grain alternative pizza crusts, like cauliflower crust, grew broadline foodservice pound sales by 35 percent in 2022 when compared to a year ago. 

"Chefs and foodservice operators see the plant-based protein category as a versatile option to serve a greater diversity of guests," said Darren Seifer, Circana food and beverage industry analyst. "Plant-based provides the options to create center-of-plate recipes that delight guests and bring them back for more."

Circana forecasts dairy and meat alternatives to grow through 2024, driven almost entirely by millennials and Generation Z, who choose these products because of their interest in sustainability, animal welfare and better health. The deep-rooted values of Gen Zs and millennials behind their choice of plant-based foods enabled the category to continue to grow throughout the pandemic. These plant-based consumers look for various meat, poultry or seafood analogues, flavor profiles and formats, according to Circana.

"Plant-based beverages and foods are growing and gaining loyalty," Seifer commented. "These products still represent a small share in the categories in which they compete but give consumers and foodservice operators more options to consider."

Chicago-based Circana, previously The NPD Group and IRI, serves as an advisor on the complexity of consumer behavior. Through advanced analytics, cross-industry data and subject matter expertise, Circana provides insights and research that helps clients unlock business growth.