Food Market Trends: Flexitarian Diet and Sustainable Plant-Based Foods banner image
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Flexitarian consumers are changing the way we formulate sustainable foods

Univar Solutions Food Ingredients

Health-conscious consumers are choosing plant-based foods more often. Read how this semi-vegetarian diet is changing the way we eat and formulate sustainable food products.

What is a flexitarian?

As sustaining our planet for the future fuels new trends and motivations, a new lifestyle is fast emerging to describe how we should consider eating for the future: flexitarian. What is a flexitarian and how can this way of preparing meals impact consumers’ desires for a healthier, more sustainable diet? Let’s dig in to understand what food ingredients are key to formulating around plant-forward recipes and plant-based foods.

Catering to consumer trends toward healthier, sustainable foods and ingredients

Dietary restrictions are not the top reason why shoppers try plant-based meat alternatives. According to Mintel, there are multiple factors driving the growth of plant-based eating in recent years1. Health and wellness are the primary drivers of alternative or substitute meat purchase increases in recent years, followed by environmental concerns.

Plant-forward. The rising interest in plant-based eating is expanding globally in 2021, driving demand for new food formats, plant proteins and more sophisticated alternatives that respond to consumers’ concerns about health, diet variety, sustainability and taste.

Better for me, better for the planet. How we produce, transport and consume food plays a significant role in addressing the climate crisis. Worries over health crises, climate change and the ability of food production systems to keep pace with a population projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, bring the need for alternative proteins into focus.

Food production contributes 21% to 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a considerable factor in declining water tables, deforestation and biodiversity loss2. Additionally, livestock uses an estimated one-third of global cropland, while contributing 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In tune with my immune. As a result of the pandemic, consumers continue to prioritize immune health, with immunity-boosting ingredients playing a significant role. Research and interest in the microbiome for digestive health and personalized nutrition will also accelerate.

The United Nations is another key motivator of the flexitarian initiative, viewing changes in our diets as a necessary step to achieve its Sustainable Development Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Flexitarian lifestyle photo showing family preparing plant-based meal

What is a flexitarian lifestyle?

A semi-vegetarian diet, also called a flexitarian or plant-forward diet, is one that centers on plant foods with the occasional inclusion of meat.

Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health recommend that those who consume high amounts of meat consider a flexitarian diet to support a more sustainable food system. This diet is largely composed of vegetables and fruits, substrates and unsaturated oils. It includes high-quality meat, dairy and sugar, but in quantities far lower than are currently consumed in wealthier societies.

How are consumers making the shift? Many flexitarians consider practicing a vegetarian lifestyle by day and allowing themselves small servings of animal-sourced foods in the evening. Going meatless on Mondays, embracing tasty international cuisines like the Mediterranean diet that tend to be more plant-powered, or trying alternative plant protein options such as plant-based milk or plant-based meat are rising trends in the shift to a semi-vegetarian diet.

How are flexitarians shaping the market?

Plant-based foods are fast-growing in popularity around the world, propelled primarily by the rise of flexitarians. One in five people fit the definition of a flexitarian based on studies showing that people who purchased plant-based meat also bought regular meat. Interestingly, nearly half of meat alternative buyers have no meat-avoidant members in their households while only 30% have a vegetarian or vegan in their homes3.

By encouraging curious consumers to try meat-alternatives without having to drastically change their eating habits or completely eliminate meat from their diets, multiple markets are increasing the demand for meat-substitutes. While the number of vegans and vegetarians is increasing, they pale in comparison to the large group of flexitarian consumers who now make up 42% of the market. By comparison, vegans and vegetarians respectively account for 4% and 6% of consumers globally.

In addition, through their quest for foods and ingredients that support personal health, consumers are increasingly interested in supply chain transparency.

"Transparency throughout the supply chain will dominate in 2021, with consumers searching for brands that can build trust, provide authentic and credible products and create shopper confidence in the current and post-COVID climate," says Lu Ann Williams, director of insights and innovation at Innova Market Insights, in a press release outlining Top 10 Food and Beverage Trends to Accelerate Innovation in 2021.

Growth and value of plant-based foods market

Plant-forward recipes are increasingly showing up in kitchens across the country and are powering our food economy. The plant-based food market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.9% from 2020 to 2027 to reach USD $74.2 billion by 20274.

The growth rate for the U.S. plant-based food market more than doubled in 2020, as sales surged 27% to $7 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and The Good Food Institute (GFI). Of the billion-dollar categories, plant-based meat saw the largest growth in 2020, with sales up 45% from $962 million in 2019. PBFA and GFI noted that plant-based meat sales growth doubled that of conventional meat and now represents 2.7% of all retail packaged meat sales.

The abundance of meat-alternative products such as those offered by top brands in the food market is fueling the move to semi-vegetarian lifestyles. With these products closely resembling meat in appearance and texture, the success these meat-alternative products are having is no surprise. By targeting flexitarians as opposed to vegans or vegetarians, the market reach is doubled.

Two food/beverage categories now account for over $1 billion in sales:


1- Plant-based meat

Eighteen percent of U.S. households purchased plant-based meat last year, up from 14% in 2019. Frequent purchasers accounted for much of the growth, as 63% of shoppers were high-repeat customers. Refrigerated plant-based meat sales rose 75% in 2020, with in-store placement of the products near conventional meat providing a sales catalyst, PBFA and GFI said. In addition, refrigerated plant-based meat sales grew more than twice as fast as frozen plant-based meat sales, which gained 30% in 2020, 10 times faster than in 2019.

2- Plant-based milk

Plant-based milk, the largest plant-based food category, posted a 20% sales gain in 2020, up from 5% in 2019, and doubled the growth rate of cow’s milk, PBFA and GFI reported. Thirty-nine percent of U.S. households now buy plant-based milk.

Almond milk represents about two-thirds of plant-based milk dollar sales, followed by oat milk, which saw sales more than triple in 2020 and surge 25-fold since 2018. In terms of total share among dairy categories, including conventional offerings, plant-based milk now makes up 15% of the milk segment, plant-based butter 7% of the butter segment, and plant-based creamer 6% of the creamer segment. In natural food stores, plant-based milk holds a 45% share of overall milk sales.

Innovating for a plant-based world

On the whole, plant-based proteins are better for us and better for the planet. Many are richer in fiber, vitamins and minerals that help our overall health and wellbeing. An unvaried diet restricts us of all the nutrients we need to thrive. We also know that many plant-based proteins use less water, less land and produce far fewer carbon emissions than protein from animal agriculture. Innovating in the plant-based space is key for a more sustainable, nutritious and efficient food system and is now essential to staying competitive in the market.

With one-third of consumers choosing to actively reduce their meat consumption, the plant-based market is no longer niche; consumers are hungry for meat and dairy alternatives. Brands must now assume everyone is a potential plant powered buyer and create and market substitutes to stay relevant in this space. Univar Solutions is the ideal partner to help you bring innovative products to market that meet growing consumer demands for a better alternative. As a one-stop-shop for quality ingredients, we will support your brand across various end applications. From start-ups venturing into the plant-based foods space to big brands looking to expand their current line, we can deliver technical and ingredient solutions with sourcing diversity tailored to your business.

Start innovating with us today and begin your brand's journey to flex toward a better lifestyle and planet.


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  1. Mintel Report: Plant-Based Proteins, US May 2021 
  2. Our world in Data, Oxford Global Change Data Lab: Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions: https://ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions 
  3. Numerator study, The real deal with fake meat: http://1.https//www.numerator.com/resources/blog/real-deal-fake-meat-part-1 
  4. Mintel Report: Plant-Based Proteins, US May 2021 

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