Plant-based: Why some consumers make the switch and others steer clear

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

Plant-based: Why some consumers make the switch and others steer clear. GettyImages/Marko Jan
Plant-based: Why some consumers make the switch and others steer clear. GettyImages/Marko Jan

Related tags vegan plant-based Dairy alternatives plant-based meat Meat alternatives Sustainability

Plant-based diets have grown in popularity in recent years, so what’s encouraging the increased interest in plant-based alternatives and why might others avoid them?

Once considered the lifestyle choice of the few, plant-based diets have grown significantly in popularity over the past two decades, taking them firmly into the mainstream.

Global data and business intelligence platform, Statista, looked at 18 of the 27 EU member states, finding that there was an estimated 6.62 million vegans, as of 2023, with the number forecast to rise to about 8.25 million by 2033. The numbers appear to be comparatively higher in the UK, with an estimated 2.5 million Brits embracing the plant-based way of life.

What is fuelling the consumers trend towards a plant-based diet?

There are a variety of reasons cited by consumers for making the switch away from animal-based proteins, with avoiding animal cruelty​ still the strongest contender.

“Preventing the exploitation of animals is not the only reason for becoming vegan, but for many it remains the key factor in their decision to go vegan and stay vegan,” said a spokesperson for the Vegan Society.

Another major influence in people’s decision to become vegan or choose a plant-based diet is to help protect the environment​.

“The production of meat and other animal derived products places a heavy burden on the environment. The vast amount of grain feed required for meat production is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction. In Brazil alone, the equivalent of 5.6 million acres of land is used to grow soya beans for animals in Europe,” added the Vegan Society’s spokesperson.

“People just need to be very much aware of the impact of the western diet on the environment,” explains Labour MP, Kerry McCarthy. “Some people will become vegans because of health reasons, some for concerns about animal welfare, but increasingly people are beginning to look at the impact of industrialised farming and the fact that we just cannot sustain a western-style diet. The world’s population is predicted to grow from 6.7 billion at the moment to 9 billion by 2050 and even is we don’t have those levels of population growth, even if growth remained at current levels, it’s estimated that if everyone adopted the western style diet, we’d need three planets the size of earth in order to sustain ourselves.”

The other foremost reason for consumers to switch to a plant-based diet is health​. Plant-based proteins have been linked to a multitude of health benefits, including weight loss​ and the prevention of chronic diseases in women​.

Many plant-based ingredients such as nuts, seeds and pulses are naturally healthy, however some food manufacturers are now working to ensure that their plant-based animal alternative proteins are the healthy option too. 

"We have set the ambition that we’re always going to be better than the equivalent dairy product in things like saturated and trans fats."

“We’ve set a nutrition benchmarking model, based on the best available science and official dietary recommendations,” Paul Whitehouse, director of scientific affairs at plant-based brand Upfield told FoodNavigator at the recent Positive Nutrition Summit. “Focussing on our core category of plant butters and plant spreads, we have set the ambition that we’re always going to be better than the equivalent dairy product in things like saturated and trans fats.”

Plant-based 3 - GettyImages-Anna Kucher
Plant-based: Why some consumers make the switch and others steer clear. GettyImages/Anna Kucher

What might be holding some consumers back from switching to plant-based alternatives?

Though the plant-based trend has grown over the last decade, the majority of people still embrace animal-based foods. Some, if not most, do this because they prefer the flavour and texture of these products. However some consumers are reluctant to make the switch for other reasons.

The first of these being cost​. Plant-based products have a reputation for being higher in price than the animal-based alternatives and, in many cases, that reputation is justified. So why is this and what are brands doing to change it?

“Right now the food system is really incentivising conventional animal and diary production through a range of subsidies, tax measures like VAT, public procurement policies and even the denominations and naming rules that apply to products in this category can be very restrictive,” said Upfield’s Whitehouse. “If you think about subsidies, the European Union is spending about 28 billion Euros a year which goes mostly towards the livestock industry. Plant-based producers get a very small share. It’s anti-competitive.”

Additionally many plant-based companies are start-ups, as it's still a new and emerging market, and with that comes all of the costs and challenges associated with being a start-up company. Where larger companies already have established infrastructure, new companies must invest in infrastructure. That cost is then inevitably passed onto the consumer. However this will likely change in time as the industry matures.

Taste and texture​ of plant-based proteins have also proven to be challenging and have deterred some consumers, as Julia Besselink, a nutritionist for meat and dairy alternatives at DSM-Firmenich told FoodNavigator.

“The addition of the vitamin and minerals causes very minimal to no sensory impact on the dairy alternative products. Yet omega 3s can be a bit more challenging as these have fatty acids prone to oxidation which can bring and off flavours.”

When it comes to taste and texture, “everything matters” says Camilla Barnard, co-founder and brand director of plant-based dairy brand Rude Health. “You could have the most nutritious food or drink in the world but if it tastes horrible? Really what’s the point? Nutrition is absolutely crucial but there is so much more to eating.”

"You could have the most nutritious food or drink in the world but if it tastes horrible? Really what’s the point?"

Many consumers associate plant-based proteins with ultra processing​, which can be viewed negatively, however it appears that despite that association, consumers do not prioritise this factor over taste and texture.

“When people are asked what they value most highly for plant-based products, normally things like taste, texture and other sensory properties rank the highest,” added Robin Simsa, CEO and co-founder of Revo Foods.

Plant-based 2 - GettyImages-10'000 Hours
Plant-based: Why some consumers make the switch and others steer clear. GettyImages/10'000 Hours

What’s next for plant-based foods?

When it comes to the plant-based industry, it’s all about “reinvention”, says Emmy Nitert van Schijndel, business development manager at DSM-Firmenich. “I think we’ve really come a long way in terms of taste and texture which needs to be good because then you’ll have people coming back. But we are increasingly seeing consumers actively searching for products which have good nutrition, whether that’s being high in protein, low in fat, low salt or including micronutrients.”

From a cost perspective, price parity is beginning to be achieved in some regions. The Netherlands is one such country to have shrunk the price gap in meat and alt meat in recent years​. Technological innovations are also advancing to help improve taste and texture in the meat-free aisle. Revo Foods has been working on 3D printing technology to help recreate the mouthfeel of salmon​, but with plants and fungi.

The industry is “maturing much more now,” says Revo Foods’ Simsa, but it has an ongoing “communication issue” which needs to be addressed. “There are a lot of pessimistic voices but actually it’s amazing what has been achieved across the plant-based field.”

Missed any of FoodNavigator’s Positive Nutrition Digital Summit 2024? Don’t worry, you can still access all of our sessions and handouts, which will be available on-demand for the next 90 days. Click here to register for free​.

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