Consumers are more ‘flexitarian’ than ever, but they distrust traditional dairy

By Beth Newhart contact

- Last updated on GMT

Plant-based foods are “no longer a niche lifestyle choice but a prominent feature of mainstream food culture.” Pic: Getty/Sakkawokkie
Plant-based foods are “no longer a niche lifestyle choice but a prominent feature of mainstream food culture.” Pic: Getty/Sakkawokkie

Related tags: Non-Dairy, plant-based, plant-based milk, Mintel, Milk, creamer

A majority of US consumers have some level of distrust in dairy and meat companies even if they don’t purchase meat and dairy, according to new research from the Hartman Group, and non-dairy alternatives continue to grow among young shoppers.

Plant-based dairy alternatives have dominated product innovation and grown exponentially in the last few years, with many considering their popularity a significant threat to traditional dairy sales.

But in a survey of US adults, it was found that most see plant-based alternatives as ‘no different or better’ than conventional dairy and meat, in terms of being all natural, minimally processed, healthy and good for the environment and animals.

Laurie Demeritt, CEO of the Hartman Group, said, “Factory farming and its abuses have made consumers question the ethics of eating animal products; popular documentaries have eroded trust in the meat/dairy industries.

“The upside for the industries is that for the vast majority of consumers, meat and dairy still represent highly symbolic, routine, and pleasurable categories.”

About half of participants said they have purchased plant-based alternatives to dairy or meat in the last three months (51%), and less than half of plant-based purchasers today think of themselves as “people who are limiting meat.”

The Hartman Group concluded that these product categories are flexible, overlapping and “no longer a niche lifestyle choice but a prominent feature of mainstream food culture.”

Room for different usage occasions

The phenomenon has proved global, as new research from Mintel reveals that UK consumers are also branching out in their tastes. About one-quarter (23%) surveyed used plant-based milk alternatives between December 2018 and February 2019, up from 19% in the previous year.

Overall, 33% of British shoppers aged 16-24 have used a non-dairy milk alternative in 2019, dropping cow’s milk users to less than 75%. Mintel attributes the plant-based success to new varieties like oat, and sustained popularity from coconut and almond.

Emma Clifford, associate director of UK Food and Drink, said “Growth in this segment forms part of a much wider plant-based movement, driven by concerns around health, ethics and the environment, as well as by consumers’ love of variety in their diets.”

Mintel found that 33% of dairy milk, non-dairy alternatives and cream users are interested in products in packaging made from recycled plastics, and 27% of users want products with a guarantee of sustainable farming.

“Media coverage of the ethical and environmental issues around animal farming have helped raise consumer awareness of these factors. Ethical interest is of significant importance to the dairy drinks, milk and cream sector, particularly as in this market differentiation is challenging,”​ Clifford said.

Women are driving the plant-based trend, Mintel says, but it does have its limitations. It’s not used as much in cooking and in hot drinks as cow’s milk, even though Mintel found that 21% of UK consumers believe nut-based alternatives add more flavor to beverages than cow’s milk.

And consumers are interested in integrating the alternatives furthers, as 65% of plant-based beverage users and 24% of non-users "would welcome advice on how to use plant-based milk/cream alternatives in cooking/baking."

“The shift towards the higher-priced plant-based alternatives will carry on, helping to add value to the market overall. Consumer interest in advice on how these alternatives suit different usage occasions signals marked potential to boost usage among current users and non-users alike,”​ Clifford said.

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