The slowdown in plant-based meat sales has people asking what do consumers want from the products they buy? Consumer insights presented by Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill., during Natural Products Expo West underscore the challenges meat alternative manufacturers face trying to create mass market appeal around their products.

A recent category review by Maple Leaf Foods, Toronto, showed that the plant-based meat category had “stalled.” 

“The refrigerated category grew at 59% in 2019, 75% in 2020, but in 2021, the category was essentially flat, growing at only 1%,” said Curtis Eugene, president and chief operating officer, during a Feb. 24 conference call to discuss fiscal 2021 results. “We believe the hyper exposure of the category early on drove a significant number of consumers to trial plant-based protein products.

“In fact, trial rates were super high, penetrating 60% of US households, but consumers’ needs simply were not met, and they did not repeat purchases. As a result, the category did not reach expected levels of habituation, had very high lapse rates and very low buy rates.”

The research by Ingredion looked at how consumers perceive all proteins and then focused on perceptions around plant-based meat alternatives.

“For the qualitative work that we did we focused on US consumers, and these consumers were broken up into either vegetarian, flexitarian or omnivore,” said Karen Costanza, marketing manager of meat and meat alternatives at Ingredion. “And just on the difference between omnivores and flexitarians, because they sound kind of similar, an omnivore eats everything and a flexitarian eats everything, but they seek out more plant-based products for their diet.”

Ms. Costanza said health and nutrition is a driver of protein intake, but some consumers expressed skepticism and confusion about plant-based meat alternatives.

“A couple of things that we noticed is around these products being regarded as highly processed,” she said. “That is what they associated with plant-based meat. There also was some concern about the ingredients and not understanding what they are or if they are artificial.

“And then, lastly, for health and nutrition, especially with the omnivore group, there was concern about the long-term safety of plant-based meat. So, while we in the industry don’t find these to be true, general consumers are a bit concerned. It's our job to make sure we are educating consumers on things like safety.”

Ingredion’s research also showed that the consumer groups have different expectations about how plant-based meat products should taste.

“The main thing on this taste bubble is we asked consumers what they wanted, and they all told us different things,” Ms. Costanza said. “It gives us a lot to think about.”

Omnivores, for example, don’t see the value in trying to replicate meat, according to the research. Vegetarians and flexitarians want plant-based meat products to mimic conventional meat. Ingredion also looked at a sub-category of vegetarians it called “lifelong vegetarians,” those consumers who actively choose to never eat meat, and found they don’t want plant-based meat alternatives that mimic conventional meat.

“The consumer attitudes for (plant-based meat products) are so different,” said Jonas Feliciano, global marketing communications manager for plant-based proteins at Ingredion. “So, for those of you who are in here who manage brands, gosh, this is hard. This is difficult. But it's important. We have a responsibility to find a way, and there is not one path.”