With non-dairy milks taking up more space on supermarket shelves and the Impossible Burger making headlines, it’s no surprise that plant-based foods are big business.
According to Mintel’s “U.S. Non-Dairy Milk Market Report,” non-dairy milk sales were an estimated $2.11 billion in 2017, a 61% increase since 2012. A report commissioned from Nielsen by the Plant Based Foods Association notes that retail sales of plant-based foods are up 20% in 2018, outpacing growth in the sales of all foods by a whopping 10x.
But how widespread is this trend and what are consumers really interested in? We analyzed a year of Instagram posts to find out. We looked at conversations about food, focusing specifically on those that included plant-based terms for an overall sample of more than 6.5 million posts.
We found that conversations about plant-based foods are seeing strong growth, with sustained interest from users nationwide. Further, we discovered that while plant-based staples like tofu and tempeh still dominate, mentions of traditional meat and dairy are on the rise.
plant-based consumers want...meat?
Traditional plant-based foods are still popular with consumers, with options like tofu and tempeh being joined by nut milks:
Tofu, nut butters, and nut milks factor highly in conversations about plant-based foods.
Tofu comes up 11x more often than the average topic in conversations about plant-based foods, while tempeh and seitan come in at 8x and 9x, respectively.
Plant-Based Consumers Want More Than Just Veggies
Mentions of "sausage" in plant-based food conversations are on the rise.
We’ve also seen an increase in mentions of traditional meat and dairy products. Sausage (31% growth), cheese (10%), and hamburgers (9%) have all appeared in plant-based conversations at a higher rate in the last year. Meat (15%) and chicken (19%), specifically, have seen large year-over-year increases.
Meat Alternatives Are Gaining Ground
The rise of meat substitutes is likely helping to drive those numbers. Although plant-based meat brands don’t yet get a ton of posts per day, they’re regularly topics of conversation when discussing plant-based foods:
Beyond Meat is popular (or at least well-known) among consumers, garnering 10x the mentions of the average topic in plant-based food conversations.
Beyond Meat (preparing for an IPO) is leading the charge in plant-based food conversations with 10x the mentions compared to the average food topic. Even smaller players like Field Roast are mentioned 6x more, indicating a strong consumer presence. We anticipate continued growth in brand-name associations with plant-based foods as major companies including Danone, Kraft Heinz, Tyson, Conagra, and Hormel have picked up on this trend, promising innovative new products designed to meet consumer demand.
Plant-based food conversations are growing
Plant-Based Social Share (blue) of U.S. Food Conversations (gray).
In the U.S., plant-based conversations increased 4.7% in the past year and plant-based mentions have been present in 3.4-3.9% of conversations about food throughout 2018. That sustained interest points to plant-based foods as more than a fad—they’ve hit the mainstream.
Monthly Instagram Volume (blue) and One-Month User Retention (black) for Plant-Based Food Conversations.
It’s not just one-off posts that are driving these numbers. The one-month user retention rate—consumers posting about plant-based foods in one month and posting about them again in the following month—has been extremely strong, reaching 43.3% in September. That’s an 18% increase from just six months ago, indicating that the already highly loyal plant-based consumer is becoming even more devoted, a good sign for companies investing in the space.
A Nationwide Trend
Percent Contribution of Plant-Based Conversations in the U.S. Relative to All Topics in Food, September 2018.
Plant-based foods aren’t just popular on the coasts. They’ve become mainstream throughout the United States, with percent contribution of plant-based conversations coming in about average for all U.S. regions relative to all topics in food conversations.
Digging into the numbers further, we found that plant-based conversations were in the 61st percentile relative to other topics within food for the Western U.S. That means only 39% of topics occurred more often in that region's conversations about food.
Taken alone, that could easily be dismissed as some kind of hippie-esque west coast fascination with health food or cruelty-free eating. But with the Northeast landing in the 49th percentile (around half of topics in food were more popular in their conversations), the Midwest in the 46th, and the South in the 48th, there's compelling evidence that plant-based foods are in demand nationwide.