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

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 22 No. 4
Volume 22
Issue 4

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.

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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%).

We asked Jacobs for his impression about these findings. He surmises that the reason why plant-based beverages rank so high is because “plant proteins tend to perform quite well in that kind of application, whether it’s an alternative to a dairy-based beverage or a dry-blended beverage. The real early successes with the better-tasting plant proteins has been in those kinds of applications, so I think people just have a predisposition to being open to plant proteins in those kinds of applications.”

He also says that the high reception of plant-based frozen meals was surprising. Overall, he says, these scores across the board are “really high.” “We could have had results that were coming back more in the 20% range, so the fact that this is showing a huge openness to a real broad swath of product categories-I think that just paints a fantastic picture for the future of plant proteins.”


Challenges, Opportunities

Effectively capturing the loyalty of the new flexitarians will of course require that those working in plant protein continually improve the consumer experience with these ingredients-especially, Jacobs says, “the consumer base out there who just is still skeptical, largely for sensory reasons because they may have had some previous experience where a [plant-based product] just did not live up to the expectation.” This means working to exceed taste and texture expectations, something that Jacobs says suppliers are getting better at.

These days, he says, “there is also a lot more emphasis on understanding now what are the other components of that matrix that deliver a really good eating, good smelling, good textured product.”

Cargill, for instance, has done a lot of work with ensuring the sensory attributes of its plant-protein ingredients-including pea protein (and, thanks to work with its pea protein partner Puris, new formats of textured pea protein that better mimic the texture of meat) and soy-meet and exceed consumer expectations. Also, he says, how an ingredient is handled and processed impacts these sensory attributes, positively or negatively.

The company continues to innovate. One of the plant proteins it is exploring is corn protein, Jacobs says. The company is working to develop corn protein with  70%-90% protein content. It is still a few years out from commercialization, he says, but it’s promising. “That one is coming from a very familiar source, so there’s no real question about consumer understanding…Corn, for us, is a natural [source] because we’re already using the majority of the carbohydrate part of corn for our sweeteners business, and the majority of corn protein for now is being used for feed, and we’re seeing an opportunity to further [expand] that.”

In addition, he says, Cargill is exploring the plant protein potential of “some new botanicals”-but declines to divulge more for now. And proteins from flax, quinoa, and other specialty grains are also of growing interest, he says, though these don’t have the larger scale that proteins like pea and soy currently command.

When formulating for the plant-based market, Jacobs says, the key is remembering that “it’s not necessarily [about] abandoning or replacing; it’s more about adding to and providing more options.”

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