With plant-based products becoming more accessible, less expensive, and more diverse, it’s no surprise that consumers are buying in. Studies show that 30% of Americans are already following a flexitarian diet, a number I expect to increase over the coming years. I already think this number could be even higher than 30% right now, especially with those who don’t necessarily label themselves as flexitarian but are making the conscious decision to purchase less meat.
The increasing number of flexitarians has certainly caught the attention of entrepreneurs, food producers, and investors alike. Taking into account industry innovations and changing consumer habits, the plant-based protein market is expected to increase to $15.6 billion by 2026.
What is a flexitarian?
“Flexitarian” is a combination of “flexible” and “vegetarian.” Even if you’re not familiar with the term, I bet you already have a sense of what the diet consists of. Flexitarians eat a semi-vegetarian diet, focusing on plant-based foods. Unlike vegans and vegetarians, flexitarians don’t abstain from meat entirely. Rather, they supplement their meals with occasional meat products.
Accessibility, convenience, and the flexitarian diet
I’ve mentioned in previous articles that the average customer today does a lot more research than consumers a decade ago. After all, there are a lot of different products filling up grocery store shelves, and consumers are more aware of the social and environmental issues that make headlines on the news. The devastating effects the meat industry has on the environment and excess meat consumption potentially leading to poor health are just some reasons why more people are switching to different diets.
In the study I linked above, researchers also found that flexitarian consumers aren’t just shopping at health-centric stores, like Whole Foods Market. When many plant-based foods are launched, they often partner with these specific stores first—it’s just easier to enter the market that way. However, the tides are shifting and more plant-based products are being found in conventional grocery stores.
Online platforms like Veji, the world’s largest digital vegan marketplace, are also an important stepping stone for consumers looking to switch to a flexitarian diet. What these platforms provide is convenience and access to top plant-based brands. Veji also provides access to the niche, hard-to-find brands that you’ll never locate in a traditional grocery store. Another benefit of using online platforms that shouldn’t be ignored is access to smaller or more niche brands that aren’t available through grocery stores.
I’ve spoken with many vegan/plant-based founders who said getting picked up by a grocery store was a huge challenge, especially if they’re a start-up and not a nationally recognized brand with tens of millions of dollars backing them. With products just as high-quality as the ones who do make it into big grocery chains, online marketplaces help connect plant-based brands to a wider audience.
Why more consumers are becoming flexitarians
Health—it’s as simple as that! Research into heart health and excess red meat consumption is nothing new, but recent events have caused more consumers to do additional research into what they’re putting in their bodies. With the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are worried about food safety and handling.
We can’t talk about the increasing number of flexitarians without talking about sustainability. Younger demographics—Millennials and Gen Z—are more open to switching up their diets and buying from companies with similar values, such as those that take a stand against climate change. That’s why in this survey, over half of young Americans identified as flexitarians, while 63% said they would switch to plant-based alternatives if it met their criteria.
Diverse products and consumer-centric marketing are also key factors. Many successful plant-based products often don’t market themselves to vegans or vegetarians, but rather to meat-eaters. Product messaging is around how plant-based meat tastes just like real meat, so why not give it a try? While cutting all meat out of their diets might be too big a bridge for some consumers to cross, a flexitarian diet allows for more flexible meal planning.
The road to less expensive flexitarian diets
We can’t talk about buying plant-based foods without discussing costs. This has been one of the biggest deal-breakers for consumers. As with innovation in any other industry, new products come at a premium price. Think about how expensive foldable smartphones are now compared to similar products produced five years from now. The same goes for plant-based foods. Innovations in food production will continue to improve and refine the manufacturing process, leading to less expensive products down the road.
Just a few months ago, Impossible Foods said its retail prices have been lowered twice so far over the past year and a half by as much as 20% each time. One report suggests that price parity between plant-based meat with animal-derived meat could be a reality by 2023. Once price parity is reached (and this is a question of “when,” not “if”), I expect to see a spike not just in consumer spending, but also in new brands and products entering the plant-based industry.
Plant-based is more than just about food
While this article focuses on plant-based foods, I believe the growth of this sector in the coming years will trickle across to other plant-based areas, such as vegan clothing and accessories and sustainable cosmetics. Food has been the primary playing ground for plant-based products, but consumers and investors will cast a wider net—whether looking to make more environmentally-friendly purchases or building an ESG-centric investment portfolio.