Do the 2021 Plant-Based Trends Match Up with Reality?

Brands have the opportunity to fix the disconnect between purchasing habits and consumer education 🌱

Just about everyone has released their list of plant-based trends and predictions to kick off 2021. Across the web, media outlets and influencers alike are putting in their two cents about what’s going to get consumers excited this year:

And it’s getting the plant-based space pretty fired up about the future, too. 🔥

Some predictions look at data; others extrapolate based on rising and emerging trends from 2020. That’s not a bad thing, but does it go deep enough? Is the plant-based food movement looking beyond the numbers to understand why consumers are reaching for alternatives to animal products?

Instead of adding to the already expensive list of projected superstars for 2021, I want to take a look at how plant-based brands can conquer some of the challenges these trends present.

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Everybody Loves Mushrooms, Right? 🍄

For a growing number of plant-based brands, mushrooms are where it’s at to get that ever-elusive “meaty“ texture in alt proteins. 🥩 Mycelium cultivated in giant fermentation tanks is particularly popular due to the rapid growth rate and low resource requirements.

But most people have never seen a fermentation tank. And most wouldn’t know mycelium if they fell face down in it.

For the average person, mushrooms are something that appears on pizza (or should never appear on pizza, depending). Some consumers continue to equate these versatile fungi with decomposition, dirt, an unpleasant texture and/or an overpowering earthy taste. 🤮 They’re familiar with white button mushrooms and maybe baby bellas, but unless they’re really into mycology, it’s unlikely they’re aware of the vast variety within the fungal kingdom.

While this core group of consumers is busy picking overcooked mushrooms out of their latest takeout orders, brands in food, health and materials are contributing to immense growth in the global mushroom market. It’s expected to hit $86.6 billion by 2025! 📈

Despite the upward trend, getting people on board with mushrooms as an occasional or permanent meat replacement might be a little tricky. Plant-based brands are tasked with communicating the stark (and delicious) difference between the soggy mushrooms people remember from school cafeteria pizza and a full-fledged alternative meat product. 🥩🍄

One interesting upside: Mushrooms and fermentation are trending on Reddit. Plant-based brands looking to make mushrooms mainstream in 2021 may be able to leverage this growing subculture to extend product reach into larger markets.

Image by Jeremy Smith from Pixabay

About That Obsession With Immunity…🤧

Continued concern surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling an even greater explosion in the normal heightened focus on health and wellness that’s almost synonymous with the start of the year. Half of consumers report that they want foods with naturally occurring health benefits, and brands are launching new functional foods and dietary supplements in response. 💊

At the same time, the plant-based movement is promoting a range of alternatives that simply replace the mounds of junk already found in standard Western diets. This signals a profound disconnect both in the consumer base and the plant-based movement itself, which was originally founded on the idea of improving health.

Which begs the question: Do people actually understand how to use food to support health, particularly a stronger immune system?

Unfortunately, the functional and holistic space is notorious for spreading either misinformation or cherry-picked facts about using food as medicine. 🥗 Consumers have a tendency to add foods or supplements to their diets without making any other changes, believing one magic bullet will be able to solve all of their ailments.

However, unless people fully understand what they’re taking or eating, there’s a very real risk of unintended side effects, interactions with prescription medications or serious conditions going undiagnosed as a result of well-intentioned but erroneous self-medicating.

In dealing with this, the plant-based movement can benefit from getting back to basics. There’s plenty of solid science showing people who eat more vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds are healthier overall. They get sick less, suffer fewer chronic diseases and often live longer. 👴🏻👵🏻

It’s not as easy as taking that “magic bullet.” But bridging the gap between consumer’s desire for healthier lifestyles and actual adoption of healthy habits could be as simple as presenting the truth in a way that’s easy to understand—and act on.

Sustainability is Still Mostly a Guilt Trip ♻

People think they understand recycling. And plant-based brands assume they also understand the impact factory farming and plastic packaging have on the environment.

A survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change and the Earth Day Network begs to differ (as does the Red to Green Podcast). Only a quarter of respondents thought that meat contributes to climate change “a lot;” another quarter didn’t think it had any impact whatsoever. About one in four had absolutely no idea how food production impacts climate change, and a pretty good chunk were either clueless about the topic or hadn’t heard enough about it to understand it. 🤷🏻‍♂️

That means a rather significant portion of the population are happy enough with the packaging status quo either because they have no grasp of what the current throw-away culture is doing to the environment or because they just don’t care.

Meanwhile, proponents of the sustainability movement are putting a significant amount of time and energy into replacing plastic with recyclable, compostable or even edible alternatives. 🗑 But because people don’t really know the benefits of these products, about the only result is either a momentary feeling of virtue when properly disposing of packaging or a guilt trip every time standard plastic is the only viable option.

Of course, this doesn’t make the sustainability movement bad. Far from it. Solving the plastic problem is essential, but for it to catch on in the mainstream and be worth the resources involved to make it a success, consumers need to both understand and desire the benefits. ♻

Facing the Plant-Based Food Challenges of 2020: A Solution

It all sounds like a whole lot of doom and gloom and uphill battles, doesn’t it? 😔 Fortunately, it’s not. Plant-based brands have the opportunity to seize 2021 by taking a few simple steps to show consumers the benefit of getting involved in the movement:

  • Lead with education to build a bond of trust instead of simply releasing products that capitalize on trends 🤝🏻

  • Continue working on price parity to make it possible for consumers who understand the benefits to be to afford alternatives 💲💲

  • Enlist the existing subset of educated consumers to help spread the word and influence change at a local level 💡

  • Offer accessible alternatives that can help consumers make better choices, even if those alternatives come from another brand or company ✔

So by all means, keep innovating! But keep the consumer in mind. The plant-based movement will only grow insofar as it’s able to make headway in the culture at large.

What other challenges do you see in the plant-based space for 2021? How can we address them to make things easier for consumers? 👇🏻👇🏻

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