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Keeping plant-based protein products relevant to consumers

Article-Keeping plant-based protein products relevant to consumers

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Market data on consumer purchasing behaviors and new production introductions can help food brands stand out in the competitive plant-based category.

First off, let’s be clear: Plant-based foods are popular and do not seem to be going away. In 2022, about 14% of new product introductions in the U.S. market carried some sort of “no animal products” on-pack claims, and that percentage has been increasing, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD). But it is essential for any company to better understand what it is about plant-based foods that consumers like, so brands can continue to deliver on those benefits.

What’s also important is to understand exactly which claim to put on a product. That aggregate of “no animal products” claims actually comprises four distinct and different claims: plant based, vegetarian, vegan and dairy free. Many products bear more than one of these claims, with plant based being the most likely to be combined with one of the others.

Patterns emerge when looking at the four claims over time. Dairy free and vegetarian have had some ups and downs in the last five years but have remained fairly steady from year to year, regarding new product introductions that bear one of these claims. Dairy free accounts for around 5% of total product introductions, with vegetarian at about 2%, according to Mintel’s GNPD. The numbers heighten in the vegan and plant-based categories. Vegan is most common but has dropped every year on the number of new product introductions; its peak, in 2019, was at 11%, while in mid-2022, it stood at 9%. Plant based, on the other hand, took the opposite trajectory. In 2017, for example, the claim appeared on just 1% of product introductions, but had grown to over 4% in mid-2022.

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Clues to these numbers may be found in the ways consumers view themselves. In Mintel’s June 2022 “Plant Based Proteins” report, 44% of consumers identified themselves as omnivores, and 10% as flexitarians; each sector increased by one percentage point since 2021’s report. The percent that identified as vegetarian and vegan remained steady at 5% and 3%, respectively. Most consumers are likely to take a flexible approach to what they eat, incorporating at least some plant-based foods into their diets. For many of these consumers, the more proscriptive labels of “vegan” and “vegetarian” may serve as disincentives to purchase, while the more open and inclusive term of “plant based” may be more attractive.

Brands must navigate a challenge here, though. Some brands have opted to label their products “plant based” when they have never been anything else—and no additional product benefit is offered other than the trendy name. For example, fruit or vegetable juices, mixed nuts and even frozen vegetables have used plant-based positioning. This practice can cause significant consumer confusion as to what plant based actually means.

Mintel’s GNPD tracks plant-based claims in product introductions across categories. For example, the term appears in crackers (introductions that do not contain butter), hot cereals (referencing the grams of plant-based protein coming from the grain components), and in virtually every type of salty snack (especially vegetable or bean-based ones).

Quite a few protein-rich products that are not trying to position themselves as analogues to meat or dairy are touting plant-based protein content, such as a rice alternative side dish called Right Rice, which is made from lentil flour, chickpea flour and pea fiber.

When ‘plant based’ means an alternative to animal products

The bulk of the introductions on the market that talk about being vegan, vegetarian or plant based are intended to substitute for animal-based products, such as meat, poultry and dairy. This clearly has been a growing and vibrant group of products in the last several years, with a wide range of new products.

According to Mintel’s Global Consumer Research, while most U.S. consumers acknowledge they eat animal-based dairy and protein products, they are interested in trying alternatives. About 20% of consumers said they currently don’t eat any type of meat substitute, but want to in the future. Depending on the type of substitute, between 22% and 25% said they currently eat them. When it comes to dairy substitutes, a somewhat greater percentage (28%) already eats them, and 16% said they would like to in the future. Clearly, consumers continue to be interested in all types of substitutes. Product introductions are counting on it.

Meat substitutes account for about 5% of new product introductions in the entire processed meat/poultry/seafood category, with more than one-third of introductions coming from red meat, according to GNPD. Red meat substitutes make up the bulk of the meat substitutes, with a lower number of chicken-substitute introductions and a few other types. A few examples include:

• Sweet Earth, known for its vegan meals, introduced Mindful Chik'n Strips Plant-Based Protein—a pack of chicken-like strips that can be used in cooking preparations or on salads. It is made with soy protein, which aligns with the brand’s meals that are often made with tofu.

• Amazon, in its Fresh stores, offers several varieties of plant-based meat alternatives, including ground, patties, “chicken” nuggets and “meatballs.” All are sold frozen and made with soy protein.

• Far less common than beef or poultry alternatives are pork alternatives. A smaller company called OmniPork offers Plant-Based Pork-Style Strips as a stand-in for shredded pork. Many shredded products are made from jackfruit; this is made from soy protein.

Dairy substitutes are more varied, with fluid products comprising the majority of introductions—dairy alternative beverages, drinkable yogurts and spoonable yogurts. When looking solely at fluid dairy alternatives, new product introductions make up about 20% of all (animal- and plant-based fluid dairy), according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database. A small but growing portion of introductions are alternatives to frozen desserts (about 11% of all introductions) and cheese (less than 2% of all cheese introductions). While the very different types of products often require different base ingredients (this is especially true of cheese), a good bit of commonality exists, with almond and oat being most visible, followed by coconut and soy, and a wide range of other base ingredients appearing more recently. Quite a few significant products have appeared on the market, for instance:

• Danone took a unique approach with Next Milk as part of its Silk line. Called, an “oatmilk & plant-based blend,” only the ingredient statement specifies that the blend is oat milk and coconut milk. This potentially provides the company with flexibility to modify formulation (based on supply and prices) without creating a new brand name.

• A product that is definitely niche—in formulation and in price—comes from a company called Tache, with its Original Unsweetened Pistachio Milk. Pistachio as a base ingredient is quite rare. The product also is specifically positioned as being ideally suited to espresso drinks.

• As mentioned earlier, base ingredients for cheese are often different, as the functional properties are different (meltability and stretchability being key). For example, cassava starch or broad beans are being used in conjunction with other ingredients. Wegman’s offers a provolone-style sliced cheese alternative made with coconut oil and broad beans.

What’s ahead for plant-based protein

Some slowdowns in new product introductions of protein alternatives are likely ahead, as shelf space tightens and consumers continue to be choosy on where they spend their money, but the desire for plant-based products will not go away. Younger consumers especially will continue to ask for plant-based alternatives; technologies will continue to improve to provide more products that closely mimic their animal-based counterparts; and companies will continue to experiment with unique flavors and base ingredients.

Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight, brings more than 30 years of product trend knowledge to her work at Mintel, which she joined in 1998. She applies her unique perspective on the market and new product development to tailored client research and extensive public speaking. Previously, Dornblaser covered new product trends at several trade magazine publishing companies, as editor and editorial director of publication New Product News. She has been quoted by major U.S. news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times and CNN. Dornblaser holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and also contributed to a textbook on new product development. She can usually be found in the aisles of a supermarket somewhere in the world.

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