Increasing Demand: Plant-Based Foods and Menu Items Are on the Rise

by | Nov 9, 2021 | plant-based foods

Over the last few years, plant-based foods and alternative meat substitutes have seen a massive uptick in popularity.

U.S. menus have increased plant-based items by 1,320% since the pandemic. In 2020, plant-based food sales were up 27%, surpassing $7 billion.

Compared to total food sales from 2018 to 2020, plant-based foods have grown almost 2.5 times faster. Dollar to dollar, plant-based foods are outpacing overall food sales in growth.

Bar graph showing plant-based food sales by category in 2020

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What factors are driving this trend toward plant-based diets? Why are more consumers now opting to replace or supplement their meat and dairy intake with plant substitutions?

We take a close look at what is influencing consumers and why plant-based foods are predicted to become a $74.2 billion industry by 2027.

Key Takeaways:

  • Plant-based foods have seen massive growth over the last few years, even among non-vegan and non-vegetarian consumers.
  • Ethical, environmental, and health concerns are three of the biggest factors contributing to the trend.
  • Plant-based sausage, chicken, bacon, and beef are the biggest trends to watch in the near future.

5 Factors Driving the Trend for Plant-Based Foods and Meat Alternatives

Although only about 5% of Americans categorize themselves as vegan or vegetarian, 54% reportedly want to reduce their meat intake. Consumers in the United States and around the globe are replacing meat and dairy products with plant-based substitutes for a variety of reasons, including:

1: Environmental Impact

Environmentalists have sounded the alarm on animal agriculture for years now.

Some environmentalists claim that ruminant animals such as cows, goats, and sheep produce methane in large quantities as they digest their food, which can impact the environment since methane is up to 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In addition to greenhouse gases, deforestation is also tied to the animal production industry to make room for pastures.

Recent climate alarms and pushes for sustainability are pressuring more people to switch from a meat-based diet to a plant-based one.

2. Animal Welfare

Many vegans and vegetarians cite animal cruelty as a primary reason for their lifestyle choice not to eat meat. 

Now that plant-based foods have come a long way in taste and texture to serve as a viable meat substitute, other consumers find it easier to make dietary changes and put their ethical dilemmas to rest.

3: No Growth Hormones or Antibiotics

The use of synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics in animals has also raised health concerns for consumers.

Experts are still unsure exactly how or if the small amounts of extra hormones affect people long-term. There has been speculation that these hormones can cause early puberty in children, although no direct link has been established to prove this is the case.

Despite the lack of definitive evidence, the European Union has proactively banned the use of hormones in all beef. Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the EU have also banned recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).

While science continues to study the links between our health and what we eat, consumers frequently choose the “better safe than sorry” route and opt for plant-based alternatives that don’t have the risk of any added growth hormones or antibiotics.

4: No Cholesterol

High cholesterol can drastically increase the risk of heart disease. While cholesterol is in animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, poultry, and eggs, there is no cholesterol in plant-based foods. This is a major factor in the widespread belief that plant-based meat substitutes are healthier than their meat counterparts.

However, these alternatives aren’t a perfect health solution, as many plant-based meat substitutes have increased sodium levels to add flavor. Plant-based foods are also highly processed, which means a plant-based hamburger won’t offer nearly the same healthy nutrients and minerals found in eating real fruits or vegetables.

5: Availability in Fast-Food Chains and Restaurants

Plant-based foods are now in most restaurants, including the fast-food industry. Burger King and Starbucks are two industry leaders in the United States with plant-based foods, but meat substitutes are readily available in most establishments. McDonald’s recently launched their McPlant burger in the U.K. and Ireland.

How is this driving the plant-based food trend? It allows customers to purchase single-serving meals and give the meat substitute a try before committing to buying a whole pack of plant-based sausages or burger patties at the store for at-home cooking.

Bar graph showing global plant-based meat market forecast to 2030

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The Biggest Plant-Based Food Trends to Watch

The meat-and-dairy substitution market has a promising forecast as the industry continues to grow at a rapid pace.

We were already seeing this trend in motion before the pandemic, but COVID-19 accelerated the impact. As consumers reevaluated their priorities, environmental impact, and health, they also became more conscientious about their diet. People ate out less and experimented with new foods and recipes. 

Considering the lifestyle changes during quarantines, lockdowns, and working from home, it’s no surprise that the end of 2020 saw major year-over-year growth in plant-based food categories:

Chart showing year-over-year growth of plant-based foods by category in 2020

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What will the industry look like in a post-pandemic market? The trend is likely to continue, and as more big-name food companies enter the ring to compete in the plant-based industry, prices for meat substitutes are predicted to decrease while consumer options increase.

The Food Institute has identified the biggest trends to watch for plant-based products based on current growth:

  • Sausage (34%)
  • Chicken (23%)
  • Bacon (10%)
  • Beef (8%)

Plant-Based Foods and Menu Options for Everyone

Early meat substitutes were widely considered sub-par alternatives that lacked the look, taste, and texture of real meat. Marketing campaigns specifically targeted a small niche of consumers.

But plant-based foods have come a long way. Manufacturers have broadened their marketing efforts to include a diverse audience beyond vegans and vegetarians, even directly targeting meat-lovers and challenging them to give plant-based foods a try and make the switch for the sake of their health and the environment.

Partnerships with the fast-food industry have proven to be a profitable union that makes plant-based foods accessible while also normalizing their role on a restaurant menu so they can become a standard addition rather than a novelty.

It’s clear that plant-based menu options aren’t going anywhere, and we’re likely to see more of them in the near future.

Interested in keeping up with the latest trends in the food industry? Register to attend SIAL America’s annual convention or sign up to be an exhibitor.