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Can Flexitarians Save the World?

Good Monday, fellow nerds! Call me crazy but I’ve recently joined the weird and wonderful world of Clubhouse. 🏚 Worth it? I haven’t quite figured that out yet. But I have been listening in on some interesting conversations.

One thing that continues to come up over and over is messaging. How are we to talk about plant-based food? 🌿 How can brands best position their companies to reach the widest market? Where do we have to focus most right now to drive widespread change in the long term?

The new duo of deals between Beyond meat and several major fast food chains offer some insight into potential answers, but it’s become clear to me that we need to dig deeper.

I will always prioritize health, having been a health coach and seen the detrimental effect of poor food choices on family and friends. But I’m open to hearing other approaches and opinions, which is why this week, we’re taking a deeper dive into the flexitarian trend and how it might just be the thing that pushes plant-based fully into the mainstream. 🚀

Say Hello to the Happy Flexitarians

The plant-based food market expected to grow 11.9% by 2027 to reach a value of $74.2 billion, and plant-based meat alone could account for $35.4 billion of that total.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been widely cited as a big driver of sales, it isn’t the only factor. Flexitarianism was already impacting the market in 2019, when 33% of U.S. households included a vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or flexitarian. But only 5% of households with children identified as 100% plant-based. 🥗

Numbers trend higher in millennial and Gen Z households and among these generations in general. A Produce Blue Book survey showed 65% of Gen Z consumers want to adopt a more “plant-forward” diet; 79% opt to go meatless one to two days a week. This shows young people are interested in eating more plants and plant-based products but not necessarily saying goodbye to animal products for good.

Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that younger generations don’t see plant-based, vegan or vegetarian options as separate. Meatless dishes are simply additional options to include in a varied diet. 🥣 🥛🍔🌱 This could signal that, rather than being considered a diet unto itself, plant-based eating may be making its way into the mainstream as a normal—and even expected—part of our food landscape.

Does Being a “Meat Reducer” Have an Impact?

The question then becomes one of whether or not switching to partially plant-based on a broad scale could have enough positive impact to change the course of the damage the current food system has inflicted on health and the environment. 🏭

Consumers certainly seem to think it will. Among flexitarians, 66% choose to lean more plant-based for health, while 48% reduce meat intake due to environmental or animal welfare concerns.

But survey data reveals something rather bizarre: Forty-seven percent of consumers believe plant-based alternatives 🌿 are better for the environment, but only 24% think the same products are better for health. It’s a classic disconnect between what people say they want and what they actually want, between their desires and what they believe the market offers.

According to a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, such a disconnect need not exist. If nine countries with the most significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions were to meet the nationally determined contributions of the Paris Agreement, the study claims, it could lead people to increase fruit and vegetable intake with a concurrent reduction in red and processed meat consumption. 🥓🍖

Such a “change toward calorie-balanced flexitarian diets that contain moderate amounts of animal source foods and high amounts of nutrition-sensitive plant-based foods” could eliminate 5.86 million diet-related deaths by 2040. Additional evidence published in Nature indicates flexitarianism could reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 52% by 2050.

Even just replacing beef—the meat with the largest carbon footprint—with plant-based protein could have a huge impact on the environment. 🐮

The combined data suggests that, since more people are likely to stick with eating less meat than going meatless, the flexitarian movement has significant potential to improve the health of both people and the planet.

The Search for Repeat Buyers

The trick here, of course, is to make plant-based food appealing enough for people to buy more than once.

That initial purchase isn’t nearly as hard to snag as it was in the past. Curiosity is the number one reason why consumers try plant-based options, and there’s no shortage of places for consumers to satisfy that curiosity. In fact, Food Dive’s coverage of the Beyond partnerships notes that the fast food industry’s increasing adoption of plant-based menu items could soon create an expectation of ubiquity. 🍔🌱

But do these new options match up to consumers’ expectations? An International Food Information Council Foundation survey showed 31% of people who haven’t yet tried plant-based options won’t spend the money because they think the taste will be lacking.

This is part of what’s spurring more innovation in the plant-based space. 💭 The drive to create something that changes perceptions and creates a new generation of repeat buyers is sparking creativity and leading brands to seek novel proteins. Many have begun scouring the globe for underutilized foods and unknown or untapped protein sources, which can further reduce environmental strain by diversifying the basic ingredients in plant-based foods.

At the same time, convenience remains key. Forty percent of Gen Z consumers say convenient food is important, 🍟 and they (along with millennials) are the generation most likely to replace animal proteins with new plant-based options.

Hitting the right combination of taste that matches the experience of eating animal foods and convenience that fits into busy lifestyles continues to be the holy grail when it comes to getting more satisfied repeat customers for plant-based brands.

Tasty Food, Healthy Food or Both?

Still, the goals of wider adoption and healthier food don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The search for innovative protein sources could easily lead to the discovery of healthier ingredients that also taste good. 😋 Companies like Nature’s Fynd, Leaf Protein, Supplant Foods and Plantible are all contributing to diversity in the market; and it’s hard to ignore the truly unusual ingredients being sourced by Solar Foods and Air Protein.

It all comes down, once again, to the goals of the plant-based movement. Improving the environment as quickly as possible requires a vast reduction in factory farming—which means brands need to prioritize products that offer flexitarians and omnivores the flavors they love and don’t want to part with. Improving human health, on the other hand, requires a commitment to creating healthier product formulas overall. 🧪

The true holy grail would be to merge the two into something that will make people want to buy again after curiosity drives them to try plant-based foods for the first time.

Is it possible? I think so. And, in the long run, it’s essential. Consumers want taste, convenience and products that reflect their personal values. For plant-based messaging to match up, products will eventually have to deliver exceptional experiences in every area.

Where do you think the plant-based movement needs to focus most to have the greatest impact? Taste, convenience, environmental health, human health—or all four? 👇🏻👇🏻

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