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Plant-based materials — soy, wheat, peas, etc. — and plant-based alternatives to animal products — ‘milks’ and meat — have a long history in many cultures. In recent years, their popularity has expanded as consumers begin to adopt them through personal choice — for example, vegetarians and vegans. Advances in science and technology mean these plant-based foods are now more closely able to mimic animal products, but what are the challenges the industry faces as it grows?


There are currently several plant-based alternative products on the market, some of which have evolved into high-profile brands. These target flexitarians (casual vegetarians) in addition to the traditional vegetarian/vegan market, and have gained widespread adoption in retail and hospitality, including the fast food industry. The primary challenge for the industry remains how to meet consumer demands for minimal processing, flavour and texture, while creating meat alternatives that fit within strict dietary guidelines.


The market for plant-based meat substitutes is projected to show annual growth of 7%, reaching nearly $6.5 billion in 2023, while the global dairy alternatives market will reach $37.5 billion by 2025. It is predicted that once these products can fully compete in regards to taste, price and convenience, while also matching animal products in terms of nutrition, safety, agricultural metrics and regulatory compliance, they will supplant traditional animal food production. This could take place by the end of the 21st century.


One of the biggest questions being currently asked by the industry is, what drives consumers to eat plant-based foods? Consumer market reports suggest there are three main reasons:

  • Health
  • Ethical considerations
  • Environmental damage


Health remains the primary driver, with consumers looking to reduce their intake of animal products to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. However, ethical concerns and the impact of industrial animal production are now growing factors when it comes to people’s willingness to adopt animal-free products.

While purchasing decisions in regards to plant-based proteins are largely based on health attributes (mainly the ‘free-from’ label), consumers are ultimately influenced by taste. According to recent Mintel research looking at what drives US adult consumers to purchase and eat plant-based proteins, taste was the primary reason with 52%. This outranked health (39%), dietary concerns (10%), animal protection (11%) and the environment (13%) (1). It is interesting to note that different consumers had different motivations. For flexitarians the primarily reason was health and for vegans/vegetarians it was ethical or environmental considerations.


Despite taste being identified as the primary driver, the Mintel research also found that the majority of participating Americans believed plant-based foods are healthy (76%), with 46% believing they are better for you. The difficulty for the industry is that less than half of the research subjects (46%) felt they could trust functional claims made for plant-based foods, with 71% expressing the need for products to display greater detail in regards to ingredients, origin of packaging, etc. A recently published article by Nielsen concluded that consumers will require a great deal more convincing before they adopt plant-based alternatives as part of a long-term dietary plan, as opposed to a short-term, trendy alternative diet (2).


At the end of the day, consumers will buy what they trust. Currently, there are an abundance of alternative proteins available on the market, but consumers will need a lot more than just awareness to be convinced to maintain a plant-based diet. To appeal to consumers, brands need to clearly demonstrate their product’s benefits and show how they meet lifestyle and health requirements. This information then needs to be displayed in a clear and transparent way on the packaging. The Nielsen research, however, found that at the moment 39% of plant-based products do not specify even the simplest ideas, like being clean, sustainable and free from artificial ingredients.


Join us at our GFSI Special Session on Thursday, February 27, 2020 (8:00-9:00 am)

Understanding the marketplace and seeing how drivers are interrelated is key to determining whether alternative foods are a short-lived fad or a continuing trend that will change the future landscape of food production.


Our session will provide an overview of current market conditions for alternative foods. It will include a discussion on present and future sustainability, food safety and regulatory challenges, and will look at opportunities for plant-powered food innovation. For further information email food@sgs.com.


  1. https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/taste-is-the-top-reason-us-consumers-eat-plant-based-proteins
  2. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2019/meet-the-new-meat-eater/




This blog was written and contributed by:

Dr. Evangelia Komitopoulou

Global 2nd Party and Customised Solutions Manager



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