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Plant-based vs. just plants: decoding this exploding trend

Consumer Insights, CPG & Retail, Food Trends, Foodservice

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It’s hard to believe that “plant-based” was a term largely unfamiliar to American consumers just a decade ago. While there have long been a number of vegetarian and vegan foods available on supermarket shelves, it wasn’t until the advent of dairy- and meat-replacement products like almond milk and Impossible Burgers, brought about by technological advancements, that a new era of “plant-based” alternatives was born.

In just the last four years, plant-based menu items have increased by more than 60%, and that growth is only expected to continue. Datassential predicts that plant-based items will be found on over 40% of restaurant menus by 2025. With this trend growing so fast and furious, it’s been tough to make an exact delineation between plant-based alternatives and well…just plants. Until now.

Datassential recently unveiled a new algorithm to help both manufacturers and operators cut through the weeds and understand the constantly evolving composition of plant-based alternatives on menus. It’s a game-changing, first-in-the-industry algorithm that provides an intuitive way to understand plant-based menu trends for both dairy and meat replacements with ease and confidence.

A ‘steak’ in the ground for the future of plant-based

Throughout the last several years, a range of definitions and vocabulary have been developed to define new plant-based dishes for consumers, but the range of new words to describe dishes with this particular theme has also led to challenges for those that are tracking trends and insights in the category. Now, the question becomes, how do you quickly search a database of menu items to glean insights for your business if you can’t easily tell the difference between a side of cauliflower and a meat-replacing cauliflower steak? To solve this, Datassential’s team of trend experts and data scientists curated a new universal language for plant-based descriptions and built the algorithm to capture everything that encompasses the spirit of the plant-based alternative trend — so a customer searching for plant-based alternative dishes will see, for instance, a tofu scramble and not a side of broccoli. The result is an innovative way to think about plant-based alternatives now and for many years to come.

The evolution of plant-based alternatives

To say plant-based alternatives have evolved quickly is an understatement: Just a few years ago, these products were a novelty. Today, nearly three-quarters (71%) of Americans have tried a plant-based burger or other meat alternative. According to Datassential’s MenuTrends database, while “vegan” menu items have been around for decades the term “plant-based” didn’t appear on menus until 2016, the same year that David Chang launched the Impossible Burger at Momofuku in NYC (to diners skeptical of this “bleeding” plant burger.)

Today, Impossible Brand patties alone are found on 6.4% of burger menus, predicted to reach 13.1% of burger menus by 2026. And riding the waves of success of these branded plant-based burgers as well as non-dairy alternatives (e.g. oat milk skyrocketing 1020% in the past four years), a broad variety of plant-based foods are showing up on restaurant menus and grocery aisles.

At the same time, veggies and fruits are the new hero ingredient at restaurants with cauliflower wings (up 432%), cauliflower tacos (up 171%) and jackfruit (up 83%) all taking center stage. And the expansion of plant-based foods is happening right alongside consumers’ desire to eat more of them: more than half (57%) of consumers are trying to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables (more than any other food category), a third (32%) aim to increase consumption of plant-based meat substitutes, and a quarter (24%) are trying to consume more non-dairy substitutes.

Insight in action

Datassential believes that a standard, uniform vision of the “plant-based alternative universe” will benefit the entire industry and give everyone a common base to work from and a common language to speak with. The algorithm is currently available for MenuTrends subscribers. For those who don’t yet subscribe to MenuTrends and would like a demonstration of this innovative tool, you can access that here.


Alison Watson is the Associate Director of MenuTrends at Datassential.

You can find the latest data and insights on plant-based alternatives in ReportPro, Datassential’s vast food and beverage report library. If you’re not a subscriber and would like access, reach out to us here.