• by Cara Rasch
  • July 29 2022
  • food

Pandemic Leads to Expanding Interest in Plant-Forward Diets

Pandemic Leads to Expanding Interest in Plant-Forward Diets

For many years, increasing concerns about health, animal welfare, and the environment have caused more consumers to question their diet and make changes to what they eat that reflect their values.

As with the clean label movement, distrust of “industrial food” has led some consumers to seek out new avenues. Some have come to believe that animal agriculture altogether is harmful to the environment and/or that using animals for food is unethical, leading to adoption of vegetarian and vegan diets.

Health concerns are also among the biggest factors in convincing consumers to switch their diets. While some cease eating meats, dairy, or eggs, few consumers are willing to be so strict. Instead, a large and growing group identify as flexitarian, meaning that they are reducing – but not eliminating – their consumption of meat or other animal products in favor of plant-based foods.

More consumers than ever also want to eat more plant-based foods because:

  • they think that products made from plants are healthier
  • ongoing publication of news stories about animal abuse and poor conditions at industrial farms is causing people to think more about where their food comes from and what impact it has on the world
  • concerns about climate change are leading consumers to question whether meat can be part of a sustainable diet

Thus, more consumers are turning to plant-forward and plant-centric meals – including plant-based substitutes for animal products such as dairy products and meat – even though they are not cutting out consumption of animal products entirely. Many plant-based foods that are intended to imitate or compete directly with conventional meat or dairy products have been highly processed, but more new product launches are jumping into the clean label space with simpler ingredient lists and healthier images that appeal more to consumers who are changing their diets for health reasons.

Plant-Based Eating Increases with Renewed Focus on Health

The COVID-19 pandemic changed daily life for most U.S. consumers when it struck in March 2020; more people took serious interest in healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, likely to avoid or mitigate the effects of illness. Interest in plant-based foods like meat and dairy alternatives, as well as produce (fresh, canned, frozen, and dried forms), grew due to their healthier perceptions compared to animal-based products.

Many studies indicate that plant-forward diets may increase lifespans or otherwise reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease, and more consumers are taking notice. Increasing consumption of legumes, nuts, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while reducing consumption of red and/or processed meats – even independently of adopting vegan or vegetarian diets – can positively impact life expectancy and health.

In fact, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine was reported to have petitioned the Biden administration to focus the upcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health on the benefits of plant-based nutrition.

As consumers spent more time at home and increased their cooking activities, more thought seems to have been given to plant-based eating. Packaged Facts’ May 2022 National Online Consumer Survey indicated that 30% of consumers were still eating more fresh produce than they did pre-pandemic.

Boredom with current eating habits also motivates consumers to change their diets, and some become open to trying new foods as their cooking sinks into ruts. Adding more plant-based ingredients can help consumers bring both variety and potential health benefits to their meals in one fell swoop.

Consumers React to Rising Prices of Animal Products

During the pandemic, supply issues have, at different times, led to price swings for animal products (including meat, eggs, and milk). 2022 has seen especially widespread inflation, leading many consumers to change the food products that they buy.

When prices for animal products rise more than their plant-based counterparts (e.g., plant-based burgers, plant-based milk), more people may opt to purchase the latter instead of the former. For instance, there were periods during the pandemic when plant-based milks were less expensive than dairy milks, and plant-based meat alternatives were less expensive than beef because of low supply and high demand for the latter. Even when animal products remained less expensive than their plant-based substitutes, they still often became relatively less expensive as the prices of animal products rose.

As plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are increasingly being sold in the same spaces as conventional meat and dairy products, omnivores and flexitarians are especially likely to make the switch when the plant-based products are priced lower than or comparably lower to their animal complements.

The high cost of meat is also driving some consumers to buy more plant ingredients as less expensive substitutes. For example, beans and lentils are inexpensive and provide high levels of protein, and people trying to save money because of rising prices are more likely to change their diets to incorporate these sorts of substitutes.

Key Plant-Based Consumer Trends

The key target markets for plant-based foods that are substitutes for animal products are flexitarians and omnivores since they make up much larger portions of the population. Additionally, such consumers are more likely to use these substitutes to transition away from eating animal products so frequently. Nonetheless, a larger percentage of vegans and vegetarians purchase plant-based meat, egg, and dairy substitutes than flexitarians and omnivores, especially those who have newly adopted these eating philosophies.

Vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians are more likely to have higher incomes, be younger, and be parents of young children.

Higher income consumers can afford the best quality products, and they tend to be willing and able to pay more for premium foods. This willingness to pay more for better products is especially prevalent among vegans, who are most likely to “put their money where their mouth is.” They tend to buy more expensive products that better reflect their values, such as sustainable, organic, and clean label foods.

Younger consumers value healthy, fresh foods; are interested in trying new products; and are more likely to identify as vegan or vegetarian. However, younger consumers also tend to have lower incomes, meaning that some eating philosophies have seen spikes in both higher- and lower-income adherents.

Non-white consumers tend to skew younger and toward urban habitation, and those two groups tend to favor veganism and vegetarianism. In fact, most non-white racial and ethnic groups show higher incidences of veganism, vegetarianism, or semi-vegetarianism. Moreover, non-white consumers are more likely to avoid meats or other animal products for religious reasons since such prohibitions are predominantly associated with Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism (religions which have disproportionately large non-white followings in the US).

Additional analysis of plant-forward trends can be found in the July 2022 Packaged Facts report Vegan, Vegetarian, and Flexitarian Consumers, 2nd Edition.

About the blogger:

Cara Rasch is a food and beverage analyst for Packaged Facts. She studies consumer and industry trends in this space and has a B.A. in economics from Allegheny College.