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Plant-Based Consumers – Who Are They and What Do They Really Want?

With the explosion of plant-based alternatives, we spend a lot of time discussing the “how” & “what” of the development process. How can we make this taste and function more like real cheese? What flavors are best for masking the off-notes from this protein? But I’d like to take a moment to talk about the “who” of plant-based. More specifically, who are the plant-based consumers turning this trend into a permanent fixture not just in the plant-based market but the dairy market as a whole?

Though there is a tremendous amount of diversity among plant-based consumers, I find they can usually fall into one of two buckets: the flexitarian and the truly vegan.

Flexitarian vs. Truly Vegan Consumers 

Who are they? 

The flexitarian, in other words, those simply looking to reduce their consumption of animal products, are the largest and fastest-growing segment of plant-based consumers.  This, also, makes the most significant for their potential to drive growth and innovation in this category.

But knowing what they are is not enough. We have to ask ourselves why they are choosing to walk away from traditional meat and dairy and towards animal-free alternatives in the first place.

The data says there are two main reasons for this choice.

The first are those who went from drinking gallons and gallons of milk and eating mac and cheese by the bowlful as kids (this was definitely me) to questioning whether they can even tolerate a first scoop, let alone a second of their favorite mint chocolate chip ice cream as adults. Not wanting to lose all the rich and creamy goodness that dairy offers, dairy-free alternatives can fill that void without the regret.

The second, and most common, reason people are adopting a flexitarian lifestyle is a sense of social and environmental responsibility. They are keenly aware that meat and dairy production uses more resources and has a much larger carbon footprint than animal-free alternatives, and are willing to make sacrifices to their diet if they feel it is for the greater good. 

To be clear, they aren’t choosing to give them up completely, but if participating in a Meatless Monday or Tofu Tuesday paired with a no-whip oat milk mocha can help them make a difference, sign them up.

Vegans, the more well-known but much smaller group of the two (as you know), choose to go beyond the flexitarians by removing animal products from their diets entirely. Although some are vegans for a health-related reasons, most are by choice. Like the flexitarians, they too know that your beef quarter-pounder uses 58.9x the land, 14.0x the water, and releases 24.5x the carbon that a soy-based burger [1] does, and are more than eager to adjust their lifestyle accordingly. 

On top of their environmental concerns, consideration for the animals involved makes this more than just a dietary choice. It often represents their identity as someone who wants their choices to make a difference for all parties involved while simultaneously lowering their impact.

Once we know who they are, the next question becomes…

wine and dairy-free cheese flavor pairing flavor innovation

What do They Really Want?

Food that tastes great and easily fits into their daily lives.

It really is that simple.

As a plant-based consumer myself, it’s the products that taste amazing that always keep me coming back for more.

That said, there are some differences when comparing vegan and flexitarian consumers.

Naturally, due to the sacrifices they’ve already made, vegans tend to alter their taste expectations offering more leeway to alternative products. They have a higher tolerance for vegetative notes or imperfect textures and, sometimes, even opt out of trying to replace animal products altogether. This provides immense opportunities and challenges for developers and manufacturers trying to keep or bring them back into the fold of dairy-alternative customers. 

But the best way to unlock these potential opportunities is by creating innovative and fantastic products that appeal to the increasing number of flexitarians. 

They, on the other hand, are not as willing to forgive products that lack taste and function. As much as they care about the environment, they need their food to taste great and work in their recipes as expected. Unlike the vegan consumer, that may understand the nuance of how melting non-dairy gouda shreds bring more flavor to their pizza than mozzarella or that coconut milk makes a better birthday cake for their daughter than almond milk, the flexitarian is frequently looking for simple one-to-one replacements that just work.

They want their alternative cream cheese to schmear and melt on their morning bagel, they need their dairy-free mozzarella to melt and stretch when they slice their pizza, and they expect their cashew queso to taste like…well, queso.

Honestly, there is usually only one chance (maybe two) to turn a potential flexitarian into an ongoing alternative dairy customer. If they have a terrible experience, you may never get them back.

That’s why experienced partners like Edlong make all the difference when trying to satisfy plant-based consumers. Leaning on decades of dairy-free expertise and innovation, you can create exceptional products that taste just as good as, if not better than, everything dairy can be. 

About the Author: Lauren Hopkins, Business Development Director, US & Canada

Lauren Hopkins, Edlong Business Development Director, US & Canada

I’m a Business Development Director at Edlong with a passion for helping product designers and executives launch the next innovative food products. I have an unwavering belief in my team, their ability, and our products that is backed by a track record of customers who have saved time and resources by working with us. Your next great product is on the horizon, and I’ll help you bring it to as many shelves, tables, and hearts as possible.


[1] https://consumerecology.com/beef-carbon-footprint-environmental-impact/


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