Plant-based foods and beverages, in literally every category, are now in the forefront of American food culture. With the introduction of plant-based “burgers” and plant-based “dairy” to fast-food restaurant menus, vegetarian and vegan foods/beverages—traditionally the purview of natural product retailers and the rare selection in mass-market retailers—are now an arm’s length choice for even mainstream shoppers.
Plant-based beverages have been made by many cultures around the globe for a millennium: nut milks in the Americas, coconut and soybean milks in Asia and the Caribbean, and grain milks in Europe.
While vegetarian and vegan diets have been historically attributed to a “fringe” population, awareness is growing of the potential health and environmental benefits of plant-based foods and beverages, and the plant-based diet as a whole. Consumers are also becoming more engaged with healthy habits as they emerge from the pandemic. Natural Marketing Institute’s (NMI’s) March 2021 Consumer COVID-19 Survey indicated since COVID-19, 48% of consumers reported they were eating healthier and 60% expressed more concern about their personal health and wellness.
Beginning with soy milk beverages, plant-based dairy alternatives first gained exposure in the U.S. in the 1970s. Nondairy milk alternatives are now almost as prevalent in grocery stores as dairy milk. Not only do these plant-based beverages provide consumers with a dairy-free alternative, many are fortified with nutrients similar to dairy milk and claim reduced greenhouse gas emissions vs. dairy cows.
Some options for plant-based milk alternatives include nut milks (almond, cashew), those made from grains (rice, oats, quinoa), legumes (soy, pea protein) and other plants (hemp, coconut). While plant-based foods and beverages are hailed as healthier alternatives to their animal-based counterparts, consumers should read the labels and use these products wisely; some contain added sugar, saturated fats, are higher in calories, and contain less protein compared to dairy milk.
Plant-based dairy alternative foods, such as yogurt, butter and cheese, are also touted as dairy-free and often a vegan alternative. Tofu—made from soybeans in China and Japan since around the eighth century—has been on supermarket shelves for years; yet, like other diary alternative foods and beverages, it remained overlooked by mainstream consumers. Today, consumer demand has encouraged plant-based choices in almost every category. NMI data from the past year shows purchase is high (around 50% to 80%) across a number of plant-based categories (protein, dairy, meat) among the general population, and even higher among NMI’s “well beings” segment—numbering one-fourth of the general population and the most comprehensive health-minded consumer.
To read this article in its entirety, check out the May 2021 “Power to the plants” digital magazine.
Diane Ray is vice president of strategic innovation at Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), a strategic consulting, market research and business development firm specializing in the health, wellness and sustainability marketplace. For more information on NMI’s services or proprietary research tools, contact [email protected].