Stephanie Mattucci
Stephanie Mattucci is the Associate Director, Food Science at Mintel. Prior to Mintel, Stephanie worked as a food scientist in R&D for an ingredients company.

Given the current growth and ambiguous nature of plant-based claims, plant-based foods are poised to follow a path paved by all-natural claims. Consumers associate both all-natural and plant-based with being healthy. Yet, these claims can be problematic as they are notoriously difficult to define. A combination of ambiguity, oversaturation and lawsuits contributed to a shift away from all-natural claims, and plant-based must be careful to avoid the same. However, brands can learn from the evolution of all-natural claims to keep plant-based claims relevant to US consumers.

US consumers perceive plant-based products as natural and healthy

According to Mintel Purchase Intelligence, more US respondents perceived food and drink products with plant-based claims as healthy and natural, compared to a benchmark of all food and drink products. This is especially notable as only 9% of these plant-based products also have an all-natural claim. Even compared to a benchmark of food and drink products with an all-natural claim, more respondents perceived plant-based products as natural and healthy.

Is plant-based at risk of losing its healthy image?

Like all-natural claims before them, plant-based claims have proliferated into a range of categories, which could threaten their credibility. Additionally, reports in the media have questioned the healthfulness of plant-based meat alternatives, such as the Impossible Burger compared with ground beef. This backlash could negatively impact consumers’ perception of plant-based claims, leaving them to question their value.

While many US consumers perceive products with a plant-based claim as healthy, they do not always make it a priority to seek out plant-based products. According to Mintel research on better for you eating trends, only one in five US consumers who put some effort into healthy eating agree plant-based is a priority for them when shopping for healthy food and drink.

Make nutrition a priority in plant-based products to protect its healthy image. Brands can do this by aligning plant-based products with specific attributes consumers seek when choosing healthy foods (eg low in fat, salt and sugar). For example, a quarter of US plant-based protein consumers don’t think processed meat alternatives are healthier than real meat; however, more than half would eat more meat alternatives if they had the same nutritional profile as meat.

Brands can learn from the past mistakes of all-natural claims

If plant-based claims follow the same path as all-natural, simply being labeled “plant-based” will not be enough in the long term. Brands will need to prove how their plant-based products and ingredients are better for people. Although natural continues to be a desirable attribute for US consumers – with half of consumers agreeing they typically purchase natural foods – many consumers think natural claims are too vague, according to Mintel research on natural and organic food shoppers. Back in 2015, the FDA sought comments on how to define the term “natural” but a decision has yet to be reached.

Litigation, rather than regulation, helped shape the use of natural claims in the US, as lawsuits related to natural claims have inundated the courts. Lawsuits for natural claims continue to be filed and are also now being filed for plant-based claims as well, according to a report by Perkins Coie LLP, a US-based law firm that specializes in food litigation.

Stand out in an increasingly crowded plant-based market by focusing on the top consumer benefits

Focus on promoting desirable qualities, such as fruit/veg content and high protein. Protein is a key opportunity as nearly three in five plant-based consumers would like to see more high-protein plant-based dairy alternatives, according to Mintel research on plant-based proteins. Food and drink companies have a robust opportunity to appeal to the large percentage of consumers who are adding fruits, vegetables and grains into their diets. Support consumers who are looking for pro-plant diets, not necessarily vegan.

What we think

Keep plant-based claims relevant by offering tangible benefits related to health and nutrition. Be specific with the benefits of plant-based products, especially as it is related to specific nutrients and the specific plant ingredients used. Consumers already perceive food and drink products with plant-based claims to be healthy and natural, and brands that are able to deliver on those perceived benefits will have more credibility in the future.