Analyzing Consumer Plant-Based Food Shifts
Research suggests that plant-based foods have become more popular in recent years. For example, one report found that total plant-based sales went up from $4.8 billion in 2018 to $7.4 billion in 2021. However, it’s still unclear whether consumers who purchase plant-based products are simultaneously reducing their animal product purchases. This information would be helpful for retailers, plant-based food producers, and animal advocates.
This study examines the purchasing behavior and motivations of plant-based consumers and their engagement with plant-based and animal-based foods over time. Part one of the study analyzed purchases by eight million U.S. households between 2019 and 2020, and again between 2020 and 2021. Households were grouped into five segments—new, increaser, maintainer, decreaser, and leaver—based on changes in their spending on plant-based foods before and after the study period. Part two of the study was a survey that attempted to better understand the purchasing decisions of “increaser” and “decreaser” households, using a sample of 150 households who shopped at a Kroger grocery store.
A key takeaway from the research was that almost all plant-based consumers increased spending on plant-based foods and either maintained or decreased spending on animal-based foods in the second year of the study, with the exception of households new to plant-based foods (20% of plant-based shoppers). The authors believe that this demonstrates growing engagement with plant-based products.
In the first year, the researchers noted the effects of COVID-19 on purchasing behavior. Not only did consumers increase their spending on plant-based foods (by 24% in 2020), but they also bought more animal-based foods (which the authors refer to as the “pantry loading” effect). What’s more, households categorized as “new” to the plant-based sector made up 63% of plant-based meat purchases and 40% of plant-based cheese purchases between 2019-2020. In general, the authors believe that COVID-19 encouraged households to step out of their comfort zone and give plant-based products a try.
In the second year of the study, there was a smaller increase in plant-based spending (1.5% in 2021) and a slight decrease in animal-based spending overall. For households that maintained their spending on plant-based foods, the average decrease in animal-based food spending was $28.21. Plant-based consumers lowered their spending most in the animal-based meat category. The authors note that even among households who reduced their plant-based spend, they tended to reduce their spend on animal products even more (an average of $60.48 less spent on animal products compared to $41.71 less spent on plant-based products).
Growth in plant-based food sales differed by category. Plant-based yogurt had the largest increase in sales (13.5% growth) among plant-based food categories in 2021. An interesting finding from the research was that if a household bought plant-based cheese, they were more likely to buy other plant-based products and be less engaged with animal-based foods. This suggests that plant-based cheese can be a good entry point to trying more plant-based foods in general, motivating and sustaining further behavior change among that group.
In the consumer survey, the authors uncovered helpful insights about plant-based “increasers” and “decreasers.” The top motivation for increasing purchases of plant-based foods was for health reasons (54%). Of the households increasing their purchases of plant-based foods, 43% purchased plant-based milk instead of animal-based milk. Of the households who decreased their spending on plant-based foods, they listed several factors that might lead them to increase their purchases in the future—lower pricing (64%) and better taste and/or texture (58%) were top reasons cited.
The findings of this study suggest that retailers and plant-based food companies have an opportunity to promote convenience to both gain new customers and increase loyalty. The findings also pinpoint which product types are seeing growth, which can help retailers, producers, and advocates frame their promotional strategies to engage as many consumers as possible. This study will be repeated over time to monitor consumer trends and shifting engagement between plant-based and animal-based foods.