Who buys most vegan and vegetarian products? Not vegans and vegetarians.

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 21 No. 9
Volume 21
Issue 9

The large percentage of consumers who don’t identify exclusively as vegan or vegetarian but who are purchasing plant-based alternatives is an important reason why plant-based food innovation continues.

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Vegans and vegetarians are not the biggest consumers of vegan and vegetarian products. According to Nielsen1, 6% of Americans follow a strictly vegetarian diet and 3% follow a strictly vegan lifestyle; yet in 2017, 19.5% of food and beverage retail dollars came from plant-based products. This is because more consumers in general are looking to reduce their meat consumption-39% in 2017, to be exact, based on a recent Nielsen Homescan survey1. Growing health and environmental consciousness among consumers has driven interest in plant-based products and encouraged innovation within the category. Innovation has, in turn, made plant-based foods and lifestyles more accessible, allowing for a smoother transition that brings even more consumers into the category.

“Innovative technologies, both internal and external, have enabled us to maintain the quality of vegetarian/vegan flavor and evolve the texture of our food to align with consumer taste preferences,” explains Melissa Cash, senior director, brand marketing, Kellogg Company, which owns MorningStar Farms, a leading vegetarian and vegan food brand. “We have really ramped up our offerings over the years to include more flavorful options like the Vegan BBQ Chik’n Nuggets or the Meat Lovers and Veggie Lovers vegan burgers that deliver delicious plant protein in every bite.”

For example, while traditional vegan and vegetarian fare such as tofu, brown rice, and granola have gone down in sales-minus 1.3% in the year ending April 7, 2018, according to Nielsen-sales in other options have seen double-digit growth1. Namely, sales of plant-based meat alternatives, cheese alternatives, and yogurt have grown 30%, 45%, and 31%, respectively1.

It’s notable that plant-based foods mimicking animal-based products are experiencing such growth. Such products allow vegans and vegetarians to enjoy some of their favorite foods ethically while also making plant-based foods accessible and palatable to non-vegans or vegetarians dipping their toes into plant-based waters. Products names like “Meat Lovers Vegan Burger” really demonstrate just how diverse the plant-based food consumer can be.

“A recent study by NPD group found that 86% of the 43 million U.S. consumers who regularly use plant-based alternatives don’t identify as vegan or vegetarian,” Cash tells Nutritional Outlook. “MorningStar Farms continues to deliver on what people want by rolling out more flavorful choices.”

In fact, the large percentage of consumers who don’t identify exclusively as vegan or vegetarian but who are purchasing plant-based alternatives is an important reason why plant-based food innovation continues. According to Innova Market Insights, the forecasted value of global meat substitutes alone is expected to reach $4.2 billion in 20222.

Plant-based milk alternatives have played an important part in normalizing alternatives to dairy and other animal products to a broader audience seeking alternatives due to intolerance to lactose or other health reasons not related to the typical ethical concerns of vegans and vegetarians. Almond milk alone has experienced a combined three-year annual growth rate of 8.2%, says Nielsen1. While plant-based milk products are growing, there are still many customers who buy both dairy and non-dairy. In a white paper titled “The Shifting Global Dairy Market: Ushering in a New Era of Dairy Products,” Cargill (Wayzata, MN) reported results from a survey on the dairy-buying habits of consumers and emphasized that while overall dairy milk consumption fell by 22% between 2000 and 2016, dairy milk sales still remain significant, with 90% of American households reporting dairy consumption.

“Dairy consumption overall remains strong in the United States, with two-thirds of respondents calling real dairy a regular part of their diet, while absolute dairy avoidance is comparatively low at just more than one in ten shoppers,” states the white paper. What is more significant, says Cargill, is that nearly half of respondents, 42%, reported consuming both dairy and dairy alternatives. Whether it’s with dairy or meat alternatives, manufacturers are no longer just targeting vegans or vegetarians.

The realization by manufacturers that they are making plant-based products for a wider audience may very well make them more gung-ho about pursuing this category, and expanding options will ultimately benefit vegans and vegetarians in the long term. According to Ingredient Communications (London), which commissioned an online survey of 1,000 consumers (half from the U.S. and half from the U.K.), nearly half of vegans (46%) and a quarter of vegetarians (23%) are dissatisfied with the choice of food products available to them. This same survey found that 42% of meat eaters intended to reduce their meat consumption or stop eating it altogether. Of all the respondents, vegans and vegetarians combined made up only 8% of the 1,000 respondents. There is a greater incentive for manufacturers to capture that 42% than that 8%. This will eventually result in more plant-based food choices, which will be important as more of those consumers ultimately remove animals from their diet entirely.


  1. Nielsen. “Plant-based food options are sprouting growth for retailers.” www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/plant-based-food-options-are-sprouting-growth-for-retailers.print.html. Accessed October 17, 2018.
  2. PR Newswire. “62% increase in plant-based product claims, says Innova Market Insights.” https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/62-increase-in-plant-based-product-claims-says-innova-market-insights-300677563.html. Accessed October 17, 2018.
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