Chances are you’ve either tried—or know someone that’s tried—a plant-based meat alternative. And perhaps because of COVID-19, most Americans report consuming them at home.
A survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) is adding a new perspective to the plant-based boom—including how often we’re consuming these foods and why, and what shapes our knowledge and perceptions of them.
Among those who have at least some role in food shopping and food decision-making, plant-based meat alternatives are already proving remarkably popular. According to findings from the “Consumption Trends, Preferred Names and Perceptions of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives” survey, about two-thirds (65%) of Americans reported eating “products that attempt to mimic the flavor and texture of animal protein but are made with only plant products” in the past year—with 20% consuming them at least weekly and another 22% consuming them daily. Another 12% said they had not consumed plant-based meat alternatives over the past year but would like to try them in the future.
The results suggest growing momentum from findings in previous IFIC surveys—including the 2021 Food and Health Survey, which found that 24% of adults were consuming more protein from plant sources in the past year and 19% were eating more plant-based meat alternatives. Similarly, a January 2021 survey found that 28% had tried plant alternatives to animal meat for the first time in the past year.
Hunger for healthfulness
In this new research, survey respondents were given a list of reasons they might choose to consume plant-based meat alternatives. Healthfulness led the pack, with 39% ranking it among their top-three reasons, followed by being a source of high-quality protein (34%), liking the taste (33%), environmental/sustainability benefits (23%) and health claims/certifications (23%). Roughly half of consumers cited the Nutrition Facts label (52%) and the ingredients list (49%) as one of their top two ways to confirm their reason(s) for consuming these foods.
Of those who choose plant-based meat alternatives because of perceived product healthfulness, the top three most sought-after benefits were high quality/complete protein (43%), heart health (41%) and protein content (40%). The importance of protein among consumers is evident, but not entirely surprising – IFIC’s 2021 Food and Health Survey found that nearly two-thirds (62%) say they generally try to consume protein.
Respondents were asked about their interest in certain alternative protein sources. Among broad categories of sources, over half (56%) were interested in vegetables, followed by grains (53%), nuts and seeds (52%) and beans and/or lentils (51%). When looking at specific sources, 42% were interested in soy and 41% in peas.
Consumers were also asked which sources of information they would consult if they wanted to know more about plant-based meat alternatives. Health websites were the most popular (with 36% of respondents ranking them among their top three choices), followed by food packages (29%), food company websites (21%), government websites (20%) and dietitians (19%). Fewer than 1 in 10 (9%) said they didn’t want, or haven’t heard, information about plant-based meat alternatives.
What’s in a name?
Along with these novel plant-based foods come a host of clever product names, as well as new descriptors and nomenclature. How, exactly, do Americans perceive and describe them? To answer this question, survey respondents were shown an image of a plant-based product that resembled a burger and were told it was made without animal meat. Then, they were given a list of possible descriptions and asked to select their preferred options.
The most popular name was “plant-based burger,” which was among the top three choices of 39% of survey-takers, followed by “veggie burger” and “meatless burger” (35% each), “plant-based meat” (29%), “vegetarian burger” (25%) and “meat alternative” (24%). Other terms ranked much lower, such as “soy patty” (8%) as well as “meat analogue” and “soy meat analogue,” each at 5%.
But when told that the burger was made primarily from soy protein, the value of transparency in the primary ingredients became clear: respondents’ top-ranked descriptors, in turn, became soy-specific—with “soy burger” now leading the list (42% ranking it in their top three terms), followed by “soy-based burger” (39%) and “soy patty” (34%). In that context, “veggie burger” (23%), “plant-based burger” (22%) and “meatless burger” (22%) were cited far less frequently among the top-three descriptors.
Respondents were also shown an image of a strip-shaped product that resembled a chicken tender. Even though they were told the product contained no animal meat, descriptors including the word “chicken” ruled the roost: 45% ranked “plant-based chicken” in their top-three terms, followed by “meatless chicken” (42%), “vegan chicken” (32%), “plant-based strips” (29%) and “vegetarian chicken” (29%). Unlike when shown the “burger” image, consumers seem to lack an alternative word to “chicken” when describing this product.
Once again, when respondents were informed that the food in the image was primarily made from soy protein, their top-ranked descriptions changed to “soy strips” (43%) and “soy-based strips” (40%).
Taken together, this study sheds light on what consumers know, understand and perceive about plant-based meat alternatives. The implications are wide-ranging, from approaches to food labeling and nomenclature to nutrition education and information dissemination.
Results were derived from an online survey of 1,001 U.S. adults between the ages of 18-80 that have at least some role in food decision-making and/or food shopping in their household. The survey was conducted from Aug. 26 to Aug. 30, 2021, and results were weighted to ensure proportional representation of the population.