There was a time when talk of “plant-based protein” pretty much meant beans and peanut butter — maybe tofu for adventurous eaters.

Those days are long gone, and there is an ever-expanding lineup of new plant-based meat alternatives vying for consumers’ attention.

The 2022 Datassential Plant-Forward Opportunity report identifies trends shaping the plant-based protein market, taking a look at consumer sentiments and behaviors concerning plant-based foods, plant-forward menus, sustainability and health. The research was conducted in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America, Food for Climate League and the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative.

The report comes at a time when the plant-based protein category — like the larger protein category — is contending with price inflation and consumers looking to save money where they can, often out of necessity.

According to IRI retail sales data compiled by 210 Analytics, combined refrigerated and frozen plant-based meat alternatives generated $118 million in May 2022, with sales falling slightly (-0.9%) from May 2021 levels. Inflation largely in frozen meat alternatives boosted dollar gains, with meat alternative unit and volume sales down year-on-year by -10% and -7.3%, respectively.

Here are some key takeaways from the 2022 Plant-Forward Opportunity report:

  • Meat remains the leading frequently consumed protein, although Gen Z suggests a potential shift away from meat.
  • College students eat all protein types with greater frequency and have aspirations of eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Overall, fewer consumers indicate that they want to increase their meat and poultry consumption.
  • More than half of consumers say they are concerned about the climate, with a similar proportion saying their individual food choices can impact the environment.
  • Related to the prior point, half of consumers say they believe plant-based foods are more environmentally friendly.
  • Taste and affordability rank as consumer top concerns for regarding their purchase decisions for plant-based foods.
  • Mixing plant-based proteins and meat could help sway consumers to trying plant-based proteins.
  • Students and people who limit their meat consumption are more likely to view plant-based protein as healthy and nutritionally complete.
  • Respondents make a connection between packaging and plant-based protein’s environmental impact.