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Demand for plant-based is hot, but what’s behind the term?

Demand for plant-based is hot, but what’s behind the term?
(Image credit: (Unsplash))

There’s no denying demand for plant-based products is red hot, and yet while the plant-based revolution is widely credited with disrupting both dairy and animal-protein categories, rarely do we see discussion of why consumers have such an affinity for all things marketed as “plant-based” today.

Certainly health, sustainability, and desires for culinary variety are big drivers. The Hartman Group’s Food & Technology 2019: From Plant-based to Lab-grown report finds that food culture is becoming increasingly focused on incorporating culinary diversity and many consumers are trying ways of eating that move beyond the standard icons of the American diet (e.g., animal protein, starch and a vegetable). This is driving them to seek out new ways to eat, including looking beyond traditional meat and dairy categories.

From a more historic perspective, consumer curiosity about plant-based ingredients lies in the connection they make intrinsically between plants and health, a connection as old as humanity itself, since (until recently) most of our medicines came directly from plants.

Beliefs linking to plants extend back into ancient history, including evidence that Neanderthals used medicinal plants to alleviate pain, ease fevers, and heal wounds. Euro-American culture has long associated plants with femininity and meat with masculinity. This springs from women’s traditional status as gatherers, herbalists, healers, and caretakers and extends to a connection between plants and traditional feminine virtues (including purity and nurturance).  Men — and meat — are the opposite of all that. Meat has long been associated with strength, power, virility, and action — and therefore masculinity.

What plants do consumers recall when they talk about “plant-based”? On one hand, it’s vegetables, beans, and seaweed (if we’re talking about “whole plant” foods), and on the other, it’s protein sources like soy, tofu, and nuts if we’re talking about meat and dairy alternatives.

There’s a conspicuous absence of grains, and that’s because when consumers hear the word “plant-based” they often think of vegetables first. They know that plant-based foods include corn and wheat, but the first association is with vegetables.

It goes without saying that the actual lived experience of consumers does not perfectly reflect these notions, nor does the variety of cultural expressions about plant-based beliefs necessarily extend beyond Europe and North America. But the cultural symbolism is important for us to understand. In more recent North American history, a plant-based diet has also had different connotations, including:

Healthy Body and Soul: In the early 20th century, vegetarianism was promoted by Seventh Day Adventist influencers for a healthy body and soul because they believed such a diet helped suppress immoral desires and enhance purity and healthfulness.

Patriotic Abstinence: As WWI and WWII put the food system under strain, civilian avoidance of meat was framed as a patriotic duty supporting the war effort.

Counterculture and Earth Focus: After a widespread growth in meat production and consumption, vegetarianism grew in the 1970s, justified by environmental and health concerns but fueled by its symbolic association with the counterculture. We still hear people talk about veganism and vegetarianism as “eating on a higher plane of being” — drawing on connections between plants and purity and basic desires associated with meat.

Modernity and Mindfulness: Today, as mindfulness becomes a wellness trend, we see plants taking on a new kind of symbolism that draws on old connections to purity and spirituality, but also moves beyond that into a spirit of being intentional about one’s choices, in terms of how they affect your physical and mental health, how they affect others, and how they affect the environment.

As industrially farmed and processed meat and dairy products have become cheaper and easier to access, new concerns about quality and sustainability have emerged. At the same time, the rise in obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other metabolic issues cause consumers to question the primacy of meat and dairy in our diets from a health perspective. And so, the balance has shifted in terms of what consumers consider “healthy,” with meat now occupying skeptical ground as consumers pursue — at least in aspiration — a varied diet richer in plants.

Plant-based is thus a term with a strong positive halo, but its flexibility also reveals its vulnerability. There is no set definition. Consumers know that “plant-based” can mean anything from plain rice to a salad to a chickpea curry to an Impossible Burger. It can mean highly processed foods or something straight out of the ground. It can mean fields of GMO corn or an organic backyard tomato. Wherever their perceptions lie, we know that consumers are increasingly turning to plants for the diversity they seek in their diet as well as to attain health and wellness goals. Even those who aren’t interested in plant-based foods at all believe (or implicitly accept) that those foods are better for them, or no different, than meat and dairy. This represents a major challenge to meat and dairy categories, and opportunities ahead for diverse plant-based products.

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 As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company’s associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.


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