According to a survey of over 2,000 UK adults, 66% of respondents aged 45-54 said they were unlikely to embrace a plant-based diet in 2021. It added that many people are confused about its definition. Most of those surveyed believe a plant-based diet means cutting out meat ‘completely’ and dairy ‘sometimes’. Over 40% of respondents believe a plant-based diet means following a vegan diet; 20% equate it with following a vegetarian diet. Almost one in ten (8%) said they do not know what a plant-based diet is at all.
The BNF survey defined a plant-based diet as one ‘mainly made up of plant foods e.g. bread, rice, pasta, beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts, etc. that may include some foods like meat, fish and dairy in moderation'.
Sara Stanner, the BNF’s Science Director, said this is the type of diet depicted in the Government’s healthy eating model, the Eatwell Guide, in which over two-thirds of the foods illustrated are derived from plants. She added that BNF wants to make sure ‘people are not put off this style of eating by thinking they have to avoid all animal foods’. “The key to a healthy plant-based diet is eating a wide variety of plant foods, but not necessarily cutting out animal products altogether,” she said.
“We have seen significant growth of interest in plant-based diets in recent years, influenced by both health and environmental concerns. Diets rich in plant foods have many health benefits including providing micronutrients, fibre, fruits and vegetables. However, animal foods such as meat, dairy, eggs and fish are important sources of a number of minerals and vitamins, including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12, and so it’s important to balance the diet to make sure we’re getting everything we need.
“For many of us, the key may be finding ways of including more plant-based foods without drastic changes to the diet, for example, making stews with a mix of meat and beans instead of just meat, adding extra vegetables to meals and trying out a wider variety of plant foods or plant-based recipes.”
Younger and older consumers more likely to buy plant-based products
The survey further revealed that younger and older consumers are more likely to choose a plant-based diet. Nearly a quarter (22%) of respondents in the 25–35 and 55+ age group said they were likely or very likely to follow a plant-based diet. Sixteen percent of 18-25-year olds, 15% of 25-35-year olds and 12% of the 55+ age group said they already follow a plant-based diet.
The most common reasons were down to not wanting to eat meat for ethical reasons (53%); and believing it is more environmentally sustainable (52%); and healthier (42%).
Stanner added: “It’s interesting but perhaps not surprising to see that younger adults appear to be choosing more plant-based products such as milk alternatives, plant-based yogurts and plant-based ready meals than those aged 35 and over, as plant-based diets seem to particularly appeal to younger people. It’s great to see so much choice now available to consumers when it comes to plant-based products but, a note of caution, that ‘plant-based’ does not always guarantee ‘healthy’.”
The results also showed that more people in the younger age groups favour ‘processed’ alternatives, such as Quorn products (26% of 18–24-year olds) and meat-free burgers and sausages (33% of 25–34-year olds). Fewer people in the older age groups choose these products, however.
What do consumers want from plant-based products?
In light of this and the misperceptions over its definition, how can food manufacturers seeking to capitalise on the plant-based trend best act?
A BNF spokesperson told FoodNavigator that manufacturers should carefully consider the different reasons their target consumers have for wanting to eat plant-based food. For example, some, particularly younger shoppers, might crave new and exciting options for products that are not derived from animals. Other, typically older consumers might seek products perceived as healthier.
“In developing plant-based products, considerations will depend on the type of food or drink,” the spokesperson told us. “If the product is likely to be an alternative to an animal product, such as a plant-based milk alternative or a meat free burger then it's important to think about the nutrients that the animal product would provide and to find ways of including these if possible.
“While people may be looking for plant-based 'treats', it's ideal to limit saturates, salt and sugar and to offer smaller portion sizes. We see from our survey that people do not necessarily think of 'plant-based' products as healthier and so it's important that these are developed to have as healthy a nutrient profile as possible so that they make a positive contribution to consumers diets.”