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Report highlights shopper confusion about ‘plant-based’

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Nearly half of shoppers said it’s somewhat or very difficult to determine whether a food or beverage is plant-based—but that isn’t slowing their interest in the category.

Shoppers are confused about plant-based foods and beverages, but they want to purchase more of them, according to a new report from the Food Industry Association (FMI).  

Nearly half (42%) of shoppers said they put a lot or some effort into selecting plant-based foods or beverages, according to FMI’s Power of Plant-based Foods and Beverages report. The report, sponsored by NielsenIQ, is based on a survey of 2,009 U.S. shoppers about plant-based foods and beverages across 10 segments, and other data such as sales data and retailer insights.  

A plant-based diet is also one of the most common diet approaches, the report found, with 12% of shoppers reporting they follow a plant-based diet—surpassed only by heart-healthy diets, which are followed by 14% of respondents.  

What’s more, a whopping 82% of shoppers said they regularly or occasionally eat at least one animal alternative product. 

Naturally plant-based foods are the most popular plant-based items consumers reach for; three-fourths (75%) of shoppers regularly eat fruits and vegetables and nearly half (47%) regularly eat beans, nuts or grains.  

Despite a small percentage of shoppers reporting they avoid meat by following vegan (2%), vegetarian (6%), pescatarian (2%) or flexitarian diets (9%), more than 40% of shoppers reported they at least occasionally eat a meat, dairy or seafood alternative. 

The main driver behind plant-based purchases is health. When asked to give one word or phrase that comes to mind when they think of plant-based foods, shoppers most frequently said “healthy.” Across categories, health/nutrition drives nearly half (45%) of shoppers to purchase veggie-based meat/poultry products, while health drives about a third of meat/poultry alternatives purchases (38%) and dairy milk alternatives (36%). 

Despite widespread interest in plant-based food and beverages, the report found significant confusion among consumers about plant-based.  

According to the report, 49% of shoppers said it’s somewhat or very difficult to determine whether a food or beverage is plant-based. Despite this, only 11% of shoppers look for a plant-based designation on packaging. 

Consumers may also be divided about which products are plant-based. The majority consider both meat/poultry alternatives (58% and 57%, respectively) and starch/carb alternatives (57%) to definitely be plant-based foods. Less than half are convinced that dairy milk (49%) and dairy product (43%) alternatives are plant-based.  

Consumers care most that their plant-based milk alternatives (62%) and plant-based meat/seafood alternatives (60%) look, taste and feel like the real thing, but the majority of shoppers also care that the products have only a few ingredients (59%), contain minimal artificial ingredients (59%), are close to whole foods (57%) and are minimally processed (56%).  

That could be because some shoppers, per the report, consider characteristics such as “natural,” “organic” and “free-from” to fall under the plant-based umbrella. Similarly, when asked to provide one word that comes to mind when they think of plant-based, terms like “organic” or “natural” were popular picks. 

When describing the characteristics of plant-based, however, shoppers most often described such items as being products that don’t include meat or ingredients from animals, or that are plant- or vegetable-based.  

Most shoppers get information about plant-based foods from friends and family (36%), but a only a slightly smaller number rely on their grocery store (34%) for information, which could present an opportunity for retailers to better connect with customers who are hungry for information about plant-based.  

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