The future flexitarian: The rise of the plant-based consumer

Ringing in the new decade, four industry experts forecast the future of the plant-based movement, from its early inception to the latest trends unwrapped at Natural Products Expo East 2019.

Rachel Hommel

January 21, 2020

3 Min Read
Beyond Burger at Whole Foods Market

What does the future of plant-based eating have in store? Each year, consumers are adapting their diets to include more whole food ingredients. A new wave of consumers is upon us—the rise of the ethical omnivore.

Gone are the days of limiting options for vegetarian or vegans. Plant-based diets have become a macro trend, adapted by households nationwide. Concerns about climate change, environmental stress and animal welfare have changed the narrative and brands have answered their calls, from large scale retail to venture capital firms, looking to invest alongside passionate founders.

Changing the narrative

Moving from the term vegan/vegetarian to plant-based was a huge marketing play, suggests Tyler Morgan, vice president of Boulder Food Group. In this decade, it is a lot easier to have a plant-based meal taste as good as its meat counterpart. The new decade ushers in consumers eager to benefit their own health and the health of the planet, looking for a diverse range of planet-friendly choices.And luckily, plant-based products finally taste great.

“It’s a matter of taste, marketing and becoming part of the public lexicon,” says Morgan.

Companies like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger have disrupted the narrative in popular culture, providing an arena for companies to market to a new wave of consumers, who are eager to incorporate meatless options into their diet. Continued segmentation within the plant-based industry is center stage, from tech-enabled solutions to whole food solutions.

Taste wins. Always.

The bar is being raised on plant-based options, with a focus on whole food protein. Items must look great, taste great and perform like their meat alternative. It all starts with great design. Taste is and will continue to be up front and center, as seen in Freshly’s focus on effortless, flavorful, good-for-you food, with an emphasis on nutrient-dense ingredients.

“Flavor is king. You aren’t going to buy something again if it doesn’t taste good," says executive chef Karl Marsh of Freshly.

With a higher demand for plant-based proteins, brands are reaping the benefits with regards to increased recognition of ingredients. As plant-based products become commonplace in the normal American diet, brands can build a story around the ingredients and sell their story.

Hungry for knowledge

Education is the foundation of product awareness, highlights Parker Brody, senior global category manager at Whole Foods Market. Now more than ever, customers are curious, hungry for products that are unique, innovative and tell a story. Sleepy categories are awakening, with frozen growing for the first time in 15 years as well the value of whole fiber plant-based ingredients as an important part of the future public vocabulary.  

“Education is the cornerstone of launching any product, if they don’t understand it, they won’t buy it,” stresses Brody.

For the customer coming into the plant-based category for the first time, the proliferation and willingness to try new products revolves around a demand for the same nutritionals that they expect to get from an animal protein: protein, fat, sodium, etc. As we go into 2020 and beyond, the industry is posed to see more like-item attributes.

Transforming the shelf

Plant-based has rapidly transformed the retail aisle. Consumers want to feel good about buying a brand. Trust is everything, echoed each panelist. For retailers and brands hoping to scale up, the future lies in your people, your product, your brand and your strategy. Plant-based consumers are no longer two distinct customers. They are the customer.

“If you don’t believe, we will come back when you do,” says Dan Mader, senior vice president of sales of Califia Farms.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, if you had a brand in the plant-based market you catered to a very specific population. In this next decade, it becomes critical that the design and feel of the products offer choices that are both nutritionally and ethically sound for the mainstream. The plant-based brands of the future will be omni-channel—and ever omnipresent.

About the Author(s)

Rachel Hommel

Passionate about the nexus of food science and technology, Rachel Hommel freelances in San Diego as a marketing strategist and innovation specialist, currently based at UC San Diego. She is also on the executive board for Slow Food Urban San Diego, promoting good, clean, fair food for all. 

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