Put a spring in your step with plant power
Jaclyn Marks
April 23, 2018

Americans are changing the way they eat, with plant-based foods taking center stage (or plate, rather). Eating more plant-based foods is currently the dietary shift most appealing to consumers, regardless of whether or not they’re limiting meat consumption. Over half of consumers are increasing their fruit and vegetable purchases and intake compared to last year, with taste and health identified as motivators, according to Datassential’s "SNAP! Keynote Report: Plant-Based Eating."

Nuts, seeds, legumes and whole and ancient grains are also major components of plant-based eating and, like fruits and vegetables, appeal to consumers’ interest in eating healthy. In fact, legumes are a weekly food choice for over half of consumers, while a third eat seeds at least once a week (often as part of a snack). And when it comes to whole and ancient grains, 40% of operators who have menued them say they did so because of increased customer interest.

Reasons for electing to eat plant-based foods varies across demographics – 44% of Gen Z consumers say they truly enjoy the taste of plant-based foods, while 21% of millennials specifically are increasing their consumption of plant-based products to support local farmers. Reducing meat portion sizes in favor of larger portions of fruits and vegetables, though, is of interest across all age groups (to learn more about specific demographic preferences when it comes to foodservice, ask about our Generations of Change Keynote Series).

Plant-based alternatives are on the rise

With nearly a third of consumers either limiting their meat consumption (such as pescatarians or flexitarians) or avoiding meat altogether (vegetarians or vegans), plant-based alternatives to animal products have been appearing increasingly at retail and on menus. Chains like Starbucks have released nut milk-based beverages in their cafes and in a bottled format at grocers. According to Delish, almond milk was a top ingredient suggested by customers to add to the menu on the My Starbucks Idea website.

Next-level plant-based “meats” have also been appearing at both restaurants and retail. TGI Fridays, although known for meaty dishes like bacon-topped potato skins and wings, stepped out into plant-based territory last year when it tested Beyond Meat’s meatless Beyond Burger (topped with white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, and Fridays’ sauce) at select locations. The dish went on to be so successful (in Datassential SCORES, it scored high on both Unbranded Purchase Intent and Uniqueness, a combination that measures a dish’s potential success) that the casual dining chain made it a permanent menu item at the beginning of this year, becoming the fastest test-to-table menu offering in the chain’s history. However, the Beyond Burger can be found outside of TGI Fridays as well. Mainstream retailers like Whole Foods, Mariano’s and Wegmans sell it in a “raw” format alongside animal meats, a first for a plant-based meat alternative.

Regardless of the format, though, consumers have high expectations when it comes to plant-based alternatives. The challenges both operators and manufacturers face with plant-based alternatives range from making sure they’re flavorful (the most important attribute) to achieving a pleasing texture – for instance, when it comes to a plant-based burger, consumers want one that closely mimics the beef version, featuring charred edges and juicy, pink centers. They don’t want to feel like they’re making a sacrifice when choosing plant-based alternatives

How can you leverage the plant-based eating trend?

Operators can leverage the plant-based eating trend and increase the likelihood of attracting consumers’ interest by incorporating on-trend global flavors, avoiding alienating descriptors like vegetarian or vegan (even if the product is), and positioning plant-based dishes as hearty and filling. The report notes that 85% of consumers believe plant-based foods can be just as satisfying as animal proteins. Naturally colorful fruits and vegetables also can garner consumers’ attention as they lend well to social media – think of all the breakfast bowls and smoothies whose deep hues, stemming from superfoods like kale or blueberries, stand out on Instagram. Some of the fastest growing fruits and vegetables on menus include items like pink dragon fruit and golden beets.

When asked what their operation did to create successful plant-forward promotions, one operator said they featured “ethnic recipes” and “bold flavors,” while another operator said they made “the protein a secondary part of the dish,” so “local, seasonal produce” could be “the star.”

It’s worth noting, too, that while many plant-based products boast functional benefits that correspond with the movement towards Healthy 3.0 (covered in our "SNAP! Keynote Report: The New Healthy"), consumers are largely uncertain when it comes to the nature and role of functional foods – fewer than half identified attributes that would qualify a food as functional. Providing call-outs of functional benefits along with what they mean in relation to health may help increase consumers’ awareness and interest in plant-based eating and serve as a differentiator from competitors, as only a minority of operators currently call out qualitative benefits like sustainable energy on menus.

No matter which strategy fits your objectives, look long-term. The majority of consumers agree at least somewhat that plant-based eating is only going to increase in popularity.

Jaclyn Marks is the publications specialist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry. To purchase the SNAP! Keynote Report: Plant-Based Eating, contact Datassential managing director Brian Darr at brian.darr@datassential.com.

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