There’s a name for a growing segment of consumers who choose to eat vegan or vegetarian meals one day and the next, return to meat, poultry and dairy.
That category of consumers is called “flexitarian,” and food companies that create plant-based products have them firmly in their marketing sights.
A national online consumer survey, conducted by the market research firm Packaged Facts in August 2020, found that 36% of the respondents identified themselves as flexitarian. Most respondents — 53% — said they were omnivorous, and 8% identified as following vegan and vegetarian diets.
At a recent Women in Agriculture meeting in Minneapolis, Michele Fite, chief commercial officer of Motif FoodWorks Inc., a Boston-based food technology company, shared research her company has conducted to learn more about flexitarians and their buying habits.
She explained how flexitarians believe that plant-based products are healthier choices for themselves and more sustainable for the environment and the agricultural food value chain. In general, flexitarians are young women — 55% millennial and 24% Gen X — educated, well-read, politically liberal and big social media users. They also want more variety and unique flavors in their foods, and they want to share them with others.
“The plant-based industry is growing four times faster than animal-based markets, and its potential is big,” Fite said, noting that there is room to join the $270 billion meat market and $140 billion dairy and cheese market.
Taste paramount in plant-based foods
However, this consumer isn’t consistently happy with plant-based foods due to taste issues.
“Plant-based milk [consumption] is on the rise, but plant-based meat has a way to go,” Fite said. That will take innovation on the part of food companies. Plant proteins can be a challenge to work with in new foods, impacting taste and mouthfeel. Companies will have to figure out new approaches to mask or hide unwanted characteristics.
Most of the plant-based food research is looking at replacing current meat and dairy products on the market today, rather than inventing a totally new plant-based food, she said.
“We believe that the next opportunity is now to create new way to incorporate plant foods and vegetables in diets in new forms and new styles,” Fite added. “It doesn’t have to copy the hamburger world.” The key is making sure new plant-based products taste good to the consumer.
Yet, with new plant-based foods, marketing still links them to the original, such as an oat beverage being called “milk.” The labeling issue for milk continues to be a sore spot for the national dairy industry. The FDA has yet to offer guidance on the labeling of plant-based milk alternatives.
Fite explained she respects the industry’s position on the issue. However, using words such as milk and “meat” help people understand what the product is.
“Our position on labeling is that we want to use descriptors such as soy milk and oat milk, and the same with meat to say ‘plant-based burger,’” she said. “This helps consumers understand what they have in their hands.”