The plant-based food industry has exploded in the past decade, but COVID caused or, at the least, revealed some challenges to the category’s future growth.

To help shed some light on where it’s headed, Arlington, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association has extended its highly successful “Power of” series of studies to include plant-based.

The first-ever Power of Plant-based Foods and Beverages report is the first comprehensive review of the plant-based topic, addressing naturally plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and alternatives to traditional animal-derived items. 

One of FMI’s top findings: 42% of shoppers put either a lot or some effort into selecting plant-based foods or beverages. 

“More than 40% of shoppers at least occasionally eat a meat, dairy or seafood alternative, but dairy alternative sales are more than twice those of meat alternatives,” said Steve Markenson, director of research and insights for FMI. “The plant-based foods most likely to be regularly consumed by shoppers are naturally plant-based — fruits and vegetables (75%) and beans, nuts, or grains (47%).”

The majority of shoppers surveyed responded that the word “healthy” came to mind when thinking of plant-based foods and beverages. Others associated plant-based foods with words such as “vegan,” “vegetarian,” "organic” or “natural.” 

“Our ethnographic research suggests consumers are seeking out plant-based foods and beverages primarily for both taste and nutrition,” said Krystal Register, FMI’s senior director for health and well-being. “The food industry has an opportunity to provide guidance and educate consumers on overall healthy eating approaches that include plant-based options in alignment with the Dietary Guidelines.”  

Grocery retailer call to action 

One way retailers can help their customers navigate their plant-based options is by making it crystal clear where they can find them in the store, said Rick Stein, FMI’s vice president, fresh.

“There’s no consensus among shoppers about where to find plant-based alternatives, which demonstrates the opportunity for both cross-merchandising in addition to creative in-store messaging,” Stein said. “For example, for meat alternatives, the top choice is not the meat department – it’s a designated plant-based foods section and the frozen foods section, followed by the meat department.” 

The research found that curiosity is a major characteristic for shopper experimentation. Millennials are more likely than Gen X and Boomers to put effort into selecting plant-based foods, and nearly half of shoppers buying plant-based foods and beverages live in households making over $100,000 and have children. 

Shoppers interested in these foods and beverages tend to have bigger basket sizes, but they also shop online.

NielsenIQ, a sponsor of the report, provided valuable sales data and analysis for it, according to FMI. A comprehensive methodology was undertaken for the report, including a consumer survey, digital consumer ethnography, consumer interviews, retail and manufacturer interviews and sales-data review.   

“As the lens of plant-based expands beyond meat and dairy alternatives and we see ‘plant-based’ marketing claims on food and beverage products, the segment is now worth nearly $10 billion,” said Sherry Frey, vice president, total wellness, NielsenIQ. “This research comes at a critical inflection point that will help the industry understand consumers and their drivers around plant-based decisions.”