2019 was a great year for plant-based meats. The enthusiastic reception that Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and the new wave of meat substitutes has received in restaurants and stores suggests there’s a lot of consumers who love the products. But since convincingly meatlike plant-based meat is so new, we still have an incomplete picture of how many Americans are on board.
A new set of Gallup polls, released Monday and Tuesday, seeks to fill in some of that picture. The polls ask Americans about their meat consumption and, for the first time ever for Gallup, their consumption of plant-based meats. The overall takeaway? Plant-based meats are in fact getting pretty big — though there’s still a cohort of Americans who are unpersuaded.
According to the survey, forty-one percent of Americans have tried a plant-based meat product at some point, including half of Americans under age 50. The people who’ve tried plant-based meat come from every demographic category and background: 39 percent of men and 43 percent of women have eaten them (almost statistically indistinguishable numbers); 42 percent of white Americans and 38 percent of nonwhite Americans (also almost statistically indistinguishable). Wealthier Americans are more likely to have given plant-based meat a shot (not surprising, as it’s still more expensive than meat from animals), with 54 percent of people making above $100,000 a year saying so, compared to 31 percent of people making less than $40,000 a year.
What stands out in the polling is the broad range of demographics. Instead of just white women, or millennials, expressing their interest in meatless meat, it’s almost everyone. It suggests the industry has succeeded at making the products interesting and compelling to people across the country.
There’s still a lot of room for growth for the plant-based meat industry: while 41 percent of Americans have tried their products, 30 percent still say they’re “not familiar at all” with the products.
Encouragingly for companies that are hoping to be not just a novelty but an eventual staple purchase, a majority of those who have tried plant-based meat say they’re very likely or somewhat likely to eat plant-based meat products again. (Those numbers look even better for younger respondents, who were generally more positive on plant-based products than older respondents were.)
Polling generally shows that about 5 percent of Americans are vegan or vegetarian, a number that has been relatively constant over the last thirty years. There’s no previous polling to look to on plant-based meat eating: this is the first time Gallup has asked Americans these questions. The fact they polled on these topics at all itself reflects the extraordinarily fast rise of plant-based meat in 2019.
Why people eat plant-based meat
What’s driving the interest in plant-based meat? The other slate of Gallup polls, released Monday, might provide some insight. That set of polls asks Americans about their meat consumption, and finds that 23 percent report cutting back on their meat consumption in the past year. Health, the environment, and animal welfare are all cited as major reasons why.
Advocates for plant-based meat argue that they can solve the environmental, and animal welfare issues associated with factory farming (as well as some of the health issues, like antibiotic resistance). Plant-based meat products don’t involve animal cruelty, obviously, and their greenhouse gas footprint is far lower than the greenhouse gas footprint from animal farming.
So many of the motivations that drive consumers to attempt to reduce their meat consumption also might be driving the rise of plant based meat (though Gallup didn’t poll the same people about meat consumption as they polled about plant-based meat; the two surveys were conducted separately).
It’s worth noting that self-reports are not a very good way of estimating actual meat consumption. While very few Americans claimed to increase their meat consumption last year and nearly one in four claims that they cut back, overall meat consumption in the U.S. increased. While not all statistics are available yet, it looks like a little less than 10 billion land animals will be killed for consumption, more than in 2018 — which was itself more than in 2017.
And other surveys have found that questions about our food habits in particular are intensely subject to desirability biases, where people claim they’re cutting back on unhealthy foods and eating more of healthy ones...regardless of whether the facts match.
So the Gallup poll should not be taken as telling us too much about consumer eating habits, — but they might say something about consumer aspirational eating habits. It’s probably not true that one in four Americans actually meaningfully cut down on their meat consumption last year, but it’s certainly true that one in four Americans wanted to do so and tried to. That’s certainly a group of people who are very likely to try plant-based meat alternatives.
But those Americans make up only 23 percent of the population, while more than that have tried plant-based meat and say they’ll try it again. That suggests plant-based meat doesn’t just appeal to the (sizable) share of Americans who say they are trying to cut down on their meat consumption, but also to many of those who are not.
That broad base of interested customers might be the difference between being a niche product and a mainstream one.
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