Plant-based proteins aren’t just for vegans and vegetarians anymore as US consumers seek more protein in their diets and plant-based foods become more available and tastier.

Higher demand for plant-based proteins is evidenced by the 19% growth in cases shipped of these proteins from broadline foodservice distributors to  independent (one to two units) and micro-chain (three to 19 units) restaurant operators in the year ending March 2018 compared to same period year ago, according to The NPD Group, a leading global information company. In-home consumption trends also are showing an increase in consumer demand with a 24% increase since 2015.

With 60% of US consumers telling NPD they want to get more protein in their diets, consumers are mixing both meat and plant-based proteins into their diets.

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In a recent NPD survey, 14% of U.S. consumers, which translates to more than 43 million consumers, regularly use plant-based alternatives such as almond milk, tofu, and veggie burgers, and 86% of these consumers do not consider themselves vegan or vegetarian. The heaviest users of plant-based foods are those who are more likely to be on a diet or to have a medical condition, and consumers who tend to think of food as fuel, are more convenience-oriented than others and less confident in their cooking skills. One of the fastest growing consumer segments who eat plant-based foods are those who are all about the taste of foods.    

Beef alternatives make up 44% of the plant-based categories being shipped to independent and micro-chain restaurant operators and are the primary contributor to the total category’s growth. Burgers are the largest beef alternative category but ball products—such as meatless meatballs, often used as ingredients—have outpaced burgers and all other plant-based protein formats in terms of growth. 

The Census Divisions that have realized the strongest growth in case shipments of plant-based proteins to foodservice operators are the Mountain/Pacific Census Division (Arizona, California, etc.) and the South Atlantic (Florida, North and South Carolina, etc.).

“It’s clear by the growth in plant-based protein case shipments to foodservice and restaurant operators that this category has mainstreamed beyond those who choose a meatless diet,” says David Portalatin, industry advisor for NPD’s Food Sector. “Food manufacturers and operators have really improved the quality and taste of plant-based foods over the past several years and these foods are appealing to a variety of consumer segments for a variety of reasons.”

Originally appeared in the August, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Protein on the Menu.