Full-fledged vegetarians may be the most loyal consumers of meat-replacement products, but part-time vegetarians, or flexitarians, offer huge opportunities for market growth. Can today's meat substitutes win them over?
Many of us have at least one vegetarian friend or family member, but what about the flexitarians, or part-time vegetarians, in our lives? While this class of consumers may not always be as easy to identify, it is quickly becoming a top-priority group for firms specializing in meat-replacer ingredients.
According to recent data shared by Innova Market Insights, 38% of Americans report eating meatless meals once a week or more, which amounts to more than 120 million U.S. consumers who can be considered flexitarians. That’s a huge market for plant-based foods, and it may even present a more promising segment for meat-alternative growth than the fully committed vegetarians.
“While the number of people committing to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle increases every day, it’s still a small percentage of the population overall,” says Tara Rhein, marketing manager for plant-based foods manufacturer Atlantic Natural Foods. “The bigger opportunity is the flexitarian group.”
The challenge with reaching flexitarians, though, is that expectations for meat-like non-meat products can be especially high. Replicating the texture and overall appearance of meat are among the toughest obstacles in many meat-replacer applications, Rhein explains, but they aren’t the only considerations. Some consumers may prioritize high protein content in their plant-based meat products, while others most want that convincing meat-like taste.
“Many vegetarian consumers, and in particular flexitarians, want the ‘total package’-products that look like, eat like, and taste like meat,” says Arno Sandoval, principal applications scientist for meat at DuPont Nutrition & Health (St. Louis). Meeting those expectations is absolutely a challenge, but meat-substitute formulators have a few tricks up their sleeves.
All About Imitating Meat, or Offering Something New?
As far as the most popular applications for meat replacers, the majority of the market remains centered around traditional meat forms, including patties, nuggets, and sausages, Sandoval says. He adds that meals where plant-based meat pieces are used in combination with other food types, such as rice or pasta, are especially “ideal targets” for meat substitutes.
But aside from veggie burgers and other conventional American food types, there may also be advantages to incorporating meat replacers in dishes consumers are less familiar with, especially when it comes to flexitarians. Plant-based foods brand Sweet Earth Natural Foods, for instance, offers several lines of “culturally diverse” packaged meals, including its Chipotle Seitan, Moroccan Tagine, Spanish Paella, and Peruvian Burrito. Rather than just positioning its products as imitations of popular meat products, Sweet Earth focuses on offering exotic dishes that consumers will find “interesting,” says Kelly Swette, owner and CEO of Sweet Earth. And in many cases, these kinds of recipes also happen to be easy applications for meat substitutes.
“The globally inspired recipes we feature represent cultures that traditionally use very little meat, which is perfect for us,” Swette explains.
Unfortunately, despite how “clean” plant-based ingredients might seem compared to many animal-based ingredients, it can be challenging to create clean-label products with meat replacers. Meat products usually require just a few meat particulates, fibers, and proteins to create texture and bind the food together, DuPont’s Sandoval says. Vegetarian foods, on the other hand, often need additional particulates, binders, gums, or flavors that may work against a product’s clean-label image.
That may be starting to change, though. While various soy ingredients were long the bedrock of the meat-replacer industry, meat-substitute formulators are learning how to use the wider variety of the plant-based ingredients that are now readily available to them, including lentils, beans, legumes, quinoa, jackfruit, nuts, seitan, and more.
“There are many non-meat alternatives out there, and they’re all great substitutes for meat,” says Atlantic Natural Foods’ Rhein. “It’s quite shocking how far we have come!”