Plant protein products need to target flexitarians, not just vegans or vegetarians, new Cargill market research finds

April 30, 2019

If you’re selling a plant-protein product, you might want to make sure that your marketing isn’t so narrow that it leaves out what ultimately is turning out to be the driving force of the plant-based protein market: flexitarians.

Flexitarians are consumers who alternate between consuming animal and non-animal products, with no exclusivity. Increasingly, it’s flexitarians who are seeking out plant-based products. The numbers support this. New data is being shared by plant protein supplier Cargill (Minneapolis) from a market survey commissioned by the company and conducted by Nielsen on nearly 2000 consumers during the second half of 2018.

The survey found that nearly 39% of respondents were actively trying to eat more plant-based foods. Cargill is hoping the survey’s insights will help its customers and the nutrition market at large better understand the behaviors of plant-based product consumers—and how they should position their products accordingly.


Flexitarian Takeover

The number of flexitarians is undeniably growing. “People are really looking to balance the use of both kinds of proteins and, even increasingly, [looking for] consumer products that are actually combining both sources,” says Matthew Jacobs, product line leader for plant proteins, Cargill.

Plant protein’s health halo shines with consumers. According to Cargill’s report, 46% of those surveyed said that plant proteins are healthier than animal protein, with respondents indicating they believe plant proteins are lower in calories and fat, promote satiety and weight management, help reduce sugar intake, and reduce environmental impact.

There also may be more flexitarians out there than market data suggests. For instance, consumers seeking more plant protein may not even originally identify themselves as flexitarians, says Jacobs. “The definition of flexitarian is not really consistently defined,” Jacobs points out. Some consumers, for instance, might think they are primarily meat eaters—but if you examine their actual eating behaviors, Jacobs says you’ll actually find that some have been actively incorporating more plant foods in their diets and perhaps not even realizing it.

The bottom line is that the significance of the flexitarian consumer cannot be ignored today. It’s why classic burger chains are adding plant-based options to their menus—and, most recently, Burger King, who just this April introduced its 0%-meat Impossible Burger.


Where Are the Opportunities?

With flexitarian dominance in mind, says Jacobs, marketing a plant product narrowly to cater only to vegetarians or vegans may be excluding a valuable segment of your market and “alienating a broader consumer base.” Instead of labeling a product as vegan or vegetarian, he says, an alternative is to “try to talk about the fact that the product, for instance, has the same quality and sensory experiences of a meat product and then see how a typical meat eater responds.”

In order to help its clients identify where the greatest opportunity areas are in the plant-based market, Cargill’s new data analyzes, by product type, where interest in plant-based foods might be highest. Jacobs says that Cargill’s data is unique in that it provides “a deeper dive into understanding differences by category—so, in other words, what are the expectations that a consumer would have if they were looking for a plant-based source for a dairy alternative or for a frozen meal or for a meat analog? As expected, there are some key differences, whether that’s sensory expectations because the reference product is now different, or things around the origin of the material and whether that matters more or less depending on the category.”

Survey respondents were asked to indicate which types of plant-protein products they are open to buying, with the following results: nutritional beverages (70%), snacks (62%), frozen breakfast (61%), frozen meals (60%), and dairy (60%).